Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.13

Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.  Pp. 208 + 31 color plates.  ISBN 0-520-22306-3.  $50.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-520-22248-2.  $27.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joshua T. Katz, Princeton University (
Word count: 2076 words


W. Diffie, M. Fischer and R. S. Simpson

In mid-July 1799, a Napoleonic officer, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, came across and excavated at el-Rashid, on the west bank of the Nile, what has been described as "the most famous piece of rock in the world" (Michael Coe, quoted by P[arkinson], 19). This large but fragmentary slab with (as Bouchard immediately recognized) writing in three different scripts is, of course, the Rosetta Stone, inscribed in 196 B.C., the ninth year of the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, and recording the so-called "Memphis Decree," a priestly edict concerning the bestowal of numerous honors on the young king. The Stone is "perhaps ... the most popular single object in the British Museum" (12), where it has been housed since 1802, and the Museum's press (in America in cooperation with the University of California) published this excellent book to coincide with an exhibition to celebrate the bicentenary of the stele's discovery. The principal author, Richard Parkinson, Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, is to be congratulated for having written a work that will appeal in both content and form to scholars and laymen alike, including, I believe, many readers of BMCR who are not in the first place specialists in the Ptolemaic period, much less seasoned Egyptologists.

What does P. mean by his title, Cracking Codes? As he states at the outset, and as is in any case apparent from the relegation of the magically marketable words "Rosetta Stone" to the subtitle, his book is not so much a treatise on the Stone itself -- about which dozens of books and pamphlets of various levels of sophistication are available -- as an "accessible account of various questions aroused by the Stone" (10). P. weaves a highly articulate, elegantly organized, and beautifully illustrated story that gives clear explanations of linguistic matters and the process of decipherment, specifically for Egypt as well as more generally, while also providing a cultural context for the hieroglyphic "code," thereby allowing the reader to see that it is not, as even highly educated people often think, a deeply strange, if wonderful, product of an incomprehensible civilization. The third chapter, with the somewhat trendy title "Towards Reading a Cultural Code: The Uses of Writing in Ancient Egypt," is the centerpiece of the book, containing a catalogue of nearly 100 objects on display at the exhibition (most from the collections of the British Museum itself); it is also what makes the book special, for it provides a remarkably seamless combination of narrative text and individual catalogue entries for objects with or pertaining to writing.

But it is with the Rosetta Stone itself that P. begins, and with its exalted place in the checkered study of hieroglyphs from Horapollo through Kircher to the flowering of the scientific investigation of language in late 18th- and early 19th-century Europe. In Chapter 1, "Deciphering the Rosetta Stone," he tells the well-known story of the Stone's discovery and its role in the decipherment of Egyptian, both demotic and especially hieroglyphic, giving a particularly fine account of the rivalry and interaction between the two men (and some others) who vied for the prize, the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion and the Englishman Thomas 'Phenomenon' Young. Given that these historiographical circumstances are familiar but that the contents of the Rosetta Stone itself are not -- as P. writes, it is "among the best-known inscriptions in the world, although ... it is also one of the least generally read" (43) -- it is unfortunate, in my view, that P. does not supply a complete transcription, transliteration, and translation of the 14 preserved lines of hieroglyphic text, provides only a translation (by R. S. Simpson) of the demotic (in the Appendix, 198-200), and ignores the Greek completely. I grant that not everyone who reads the book will mind this, but it does seem to me that P. has missed an opportunity to proselytize for Egyptology. In particular, however few people know some form of Ancient Greek, serious scholars of hieroglyphs and demotic are far rarer still, and I can imagine myself attempting to excite students in some future intermediate or advanced Greek class by showing them the Greek text of the Rosetta Stone, which (aside from many small errors on the part of the stonecutter) is not linguistically difficult, and then pointing out that they might wish to investigate the other two scripts and languages. It is an incurious person who would not be tempted to follow up on the statement in the final line of the Stone that the decree is to be inscribed on a stele of Σ]ΤΕΡΕΟΥ ΛΙΘΟΥ ΤΟΙΣ ΤΕ ΙΕΡΟΙΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΓΧΩΡΙΟΙΣ ΚΑΙ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΟΙΣ ΓΡΑΜΜΑΣΙΝ (spaces added) 'hard stone in sacred (i.e., hieroglyphic) and native (i.e., demotic) and Greek letters.' And indeed, the equivalent of this in hieroglyphic and demotic Egyptian is the one phrase on the Rosetta Stone to which P. does devotes a small amount of attention, in Chapter 2 (54); note that the demotic word for 'Greeks' is Wynn, the equivalent of Ἴωνες 'Ionians' (see also 30).

The second chapter, "Reading a Text: The Egyptian Scripts of the Rosetta Stone," gives a brief, but extremely clear description of the development of the Egyptian language (fig. 18 on p. 49, adapted from F. Junge, is an excellent, nuanced tabular depiction of the evolution from our earliest record of Egyptian, ca. 3300 B.C., to Coptic, still used today as a liturgical language) and of the principles of hieroglyphic writing. There are, to be sure, more complete accounts in other books,1 but that is hardly the point. The nicest part of the chapter comes toward the end, in P.'s commentary on two Egyptian words, mjw 'cat' and sd_m 'hear' (64-67). The evidence from comparative linguistics for the word for 'cat' (which is probably onomatopoetic; cf. meow in English) and the interesting development of verbal constructions from Early Egyptian to Coptic, illustrated by 'hear' (Egyptologists' equivalent of Classicists' amo, amas, amat), were brought up already some pages earlier (55) -- one of many signs that P. has put a great deal of thought into the design of his work -- and when he returns to them, P. does a wonderful job of explaining, with reference to a variety of artifacts, the importance in Egypt of felines and of ears and listening.

From such a combination of language and culture it is but a small step to Chapter 3, already mentioned. Treating writing in its cultural context, P brilliantly uses examples of script-cum-art(ifacts) to give the reader a window on the world of Egyptians from cats to kings, with an understandable emphasis on people who were at least partly literate.2 First and foremost among such folk were, of course, scribes, and P. pays exemplary attention to the equipment of writing and to what we know about the lives of a few scribes whose names we actually possess. Of the "over two hundred" (8) objects in the exhibition at the British Museum, 86 items (statuettes, wall-paintings, papyri, and much more) receive individual catalogue entries in the chapter, from the astonishingly complex, visually and verbally witty limestone hieroglyphic "'Crossword' stela of Paser" from ca. 1150 B.C. (84f., #10) to a seventh-century A.D. ostracon with the text of an ecclesiastical letter in Coptic (105, #27); nearly 20 of these are here published for the first time. It is rare that one can commend a publisher for selling any book at an affordable price, much less a well-produced and lavishly illustrated one, but thanks are certainly in order in this case: there is at least one high-quality photograph of each of the items in the catalogue, and an additional 75 figures (mostly photographs of other artifacts) are spread throughout the book; there are also 31 color plates in the center.

The short fourth and final chapter, "The Future: Further Codes to Crack," opens by reminding readers that there is still much work to be done in understanding the language and culture of ancient Egypt. There is not even a full dictionary! But for those who wish to explore wider rather than deeper, P. turns to two other topics: on the one hand, the matter of descendants of the Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic scripts (Coptic orthography is, of course, largely based on Greek), and on the other, a brief overview of some completely different languages and scripts that have only recently, or not yet, been deciphered. Even once the Egyptian scripts as such have died out -- an "event" that is quasi-datable in the sense that the very last piece of evidence for hieroglyphs, and one of the last for demotic, is a monumental inscription on the island of Philae from A.D. 394 -- they live on in Meroitic, whose secrets wait to be unlocked: while it is clear that the so-called "hieroglyphic" and "cursive" forms of this script, used in the Sudan for a few hundred years from the third century A.D., derive from Egyptian hieroglyphs and demotic, respectively, the language itself is largely opaque. Probably of greater interest to the readers of BMCR, though, is the relationship between Egyptian hieroglyphs and what is usually known as "Proto-Sinaitic" script, an especially hot topic since the announcement, which made the front page of the New York Times (November 14, 1999), that Semitic alphabetic inscriptions from ca. 1900-1800 B.C. had been discovered in Egypt itself. As for other, non-Egyptian, scripts, P. briefly mentions the exciting ongoing, but largely successful, decipherments of Hieroglyphic Luvian, Mycenaean Greek (Linear B), Mayan hieroglyphs, and Carian (the study of which, I might add, has recently been energized by the discovery of the bilingual Carian-Greek "Kaunos Inscription"), as well as a number of writing systems that continue to elude proper analysis (e.g., the Indus script and Linear A). The chapter closes with a short essay by Whitfield Diffie and Mary Fischer on "Decipherment versus Cryptanalysis" (190-93; Diffie is a cryptographer, Fischer an Egyptologist, and the two are married) and, finally, a few last words from P. about how cracking codes is "a continuous process that is repeated at every reading of a text or artefact" (195).

To judge from the extraordinary quantity of Rosetta-Stone kitsch that one can buy at museum stores the world over (not just in London), the proliferation of Egyptological kits ("educational toys") for children, and my own experience teaching hieroglyphs and the basics of Classical Egyptian grammar to college freshmen (see fn. 1), the language and culture of ancient Egypt (and first and foremost the Rosetta Stone) have a remarkably broad appeal. It is to P.'s credit that his book takes away none of the excitement while demonstrating the normality -- the essential humanness -- of Egyptian writing and culture. At the beginning of Chapter 4, he writes: "Ancient Egypt ... is still haunted by a reputation for exotic mystic wisdom that existed in the pre-decipherment period and has been termed 'Egyptosophia' by Erik Hornung. The public fascination and support, which is in part inspired by this tradition, has been one of Egyptology's greatest assets. The attention given to the bizarre and the spectacular, however, can distract attention from scholarly work that attempts to integrate the study of Egypt with the generality of academic disciplines, such as anthropology, archaeology and art history. Egyptology has often been regarded as a rather conservative, inward-looking discipline, but it is no longer isolated in obsessive dreams of mummies, mystery and gold; textual studies, for example, have begun to make significant progress as Egyptologists engage more fully with linguistic and literary theory" (176, footnotes omitted). What P. has to say about Egyptology holds in large part also for the study of Classics, which for better or for worse (I would say probably both for better and for worse) is certainly widely regarded as a conservative, inward-looking discipline. I do think that books such as this one -- meticulous in scholarship, but also accessible -- afford everyone an opportunity to go beyond traditional boundaries and to explore the interactions among the many ancient peoples who lived near the Mediterranean and in the Near East. I do not need to remind readers of the ongoing battles between certain scholars who look to Egypt for too much of Greek culture and certain others who may credit Egypt with too little. A bilingual artifact such as the Rosetta Stone is a treasure worthy of investigation from all sides and on many levels, and P.'s valuable contribution to the study of ancient culture deserves a wide audience.


1.   Among recent works in English, two are especially worthy of note: Antonio Loprieno, Ancient Egyptian: A Linguistic Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Mark Collier and Bill Manley, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-step Guide to Teach Yourself (London: British Museum Press/Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). In particular, the latter (which contains illustrations by P.) cannot be praised enough, and I used it with remarkable success in a "Freshman Seminar" that I gave at Princeton last year, "Writing Systems of the World." As one of the students said when she happened to stop by my office this past fall on the day Cracking Codes arrived, "If only we'd had this book, too!"
2.   This is, of course, an elitist window. In the final section of the chapter, "Unwritten Aspects of Reading a Culture," P. is careful to point out that "[t]extual information derives from only a small percentage of the population" (169), and he includes a handful of artifacts (most having to do with women, sex, or both) that "illustrate the limitations of writing and iconography in embodying a culture in its entirety" (170).

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