Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Rosetta stone brings the world of ancient Egypt to stunning, vibrant life

One of the most marvelous feats in the annals of humanity, the deciphering of the Rosetta stone unlocked the lost culture of ancient Egypt for scholars and fascinated laypeople the world over. It is called that because it was discovered in the Egyptian port of Rosetta (Rashid). Measuring ~2 by 4 feet, it bore the same message three times: in Greek, Egyptian demotic, and hieroglyphics. The latter was what brilliant French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion (left) was the first to decipher. Somehow, he had a flash of insight that the "writing" worked two ways: phonetically and as pictograms.
Some images represented actual things, whereas others worked in groups to be sounded out and combined to give the name of an idea or object.
Yesterday was the anniversary of this momentous cultural artifact being handed over to the British (following their defeat of the French in 1802), and it has remained in the British Museum as one of its prized possessions ever since. The text was of no great moment (it marked a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V), but the understanding of Egyptian civilization it led to was miraculous.
We always keep fine books on hand relating to Egyptian art, architecture, and history, but right now we seem to have masses of particularly great stuff.  So take a look! There's a group of titles from the American University in Cairo, books on Cleopatra and Tutankhamun, books on daily life in ancient Egypt, illustrated books from museum collections, a concise history by Egyptologist Barbara Mertz, and many volumes with loads of glorious artworks. Above, head of an Egyptian queen believed to be Cleopatra. Below, Figure of a Horus falcon, ~ 300–250 BC; gold with blue glass inlay. Height: 3.8 cm (1.5 in). Width: 1.5 cm (0.6 in). Depth: 3.5 cm (1.4 in). Both Walters Art Museum.


  1. Chinese uses the same idea when referring to Western names. The syllables are each rendered by a sound-alike character. Differences in dialect can result in complete misunderstandings!