Sunday, May 27, 2007
John Ray - The Rosetta Stone and the rebirth of Ancient Egypt
There is no doubt that the Rosetta Stone has captured the imagination of many thousands of people. It’s intriguing combination of scripts, unreadable except to the expert seem to conceal all the excitement of ancient Egypt. John Ray makes the point at the start of this little history of the Stone, that it is probably the British Museum’s most popular object. Certainly sales of Rosetta Stone postcards, mouse mats and t-shirts must bring in tremendous funds for the museum.
This is one of the excellent series of books on the “Wonders of the World”. However, I am not sure that it works in this context, as well as some of the others – however important the Rosetta Stone is to archaeology, it is not the Roman Colosseum or The Parthenon.
That said, the story of the stone (and the “rebirth of Ancient Egypt” that took place as a result of its study) is fascinating. While the inscription on the stone isn’t as exciting as perhaps we’d hope, the combination of three written languages allowed the unlocking of the language of the Ancient Egyptians. This in turn allowed scholars to read the words of the Egyptians for the first time since antiquity and in turn, re-opened their world to study.
John Ray does a superb job of bring the story of the translation into the open. Two main characters dominate, the Englishman Thomas Young, described accurately as a “polymath”, who started the process of unlocking the mysteries of Hieroglyphics and the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, who perhaps single handed created the arena of history now known as Egyptology.
John Ray takes us through how they worked out the meaning of the words – first translating the ancient Greek, then gradually associating the different Hieroglyphics with the intermediary demotic script. We also read a potted history of other attempts to translate ancient writings and get a short breakdown of the step-by-step processes that are used. We also get a fleeting history of Egypt. The Egypt of the Pharaohs (and the sort of things they wrote about, including an amusing account of Egyptian erotica) and the Egypt that was fought over by French and British colonialism. A conflict that eventually lead to the Rosetta Stone spending the last two centuries in the British Museum.
John Ray also briefly examines the thorny question of who should own the Stone, or similar artefacts. Should they be returned to their country of origin? Can anyone really “own” such items? John ducks the issue slightly I feel .Certainly I think that Egypt has a greater claim on the Rosetta Stone than some of the more complex examples he raises. The Stone was imperial plunder from the region, and certainly Egypt’s museums are more than capable of looking after it and similar items.
But this is really a digression from what is an entertaining, informative and well-written account of one of the most important archaeological pieces in museums anywhere. Uniquely, its importance, as John Ray points out, isn’t simply about the information contained within its inscriptions, but it’s also about the history that has developed around the Stone and what it enabled historians to understand about the past.
Keith Hopkins & Mary Beard - The Colosseum