Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(There are references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – being used in worship of Isis, book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s also referred to in the thirteenth satire of Juvenal.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


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