BMCR 2009.02.12

The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt. Wonders of the World

, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt. Wonders of the World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. 199. ISBN 978-0-674-02493-9 $19.95.

The Rosetta Stone, a stele with an inscription recording “the text of an agreement issued jointly by a king and a synod of ancient Egyptian clergy” (2), written in three different scripts (hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, the scripts used for religion, daily purposes, and administration, respectively), was discovered by a French soldier in el-Rashid (also known as Rosetta) in the summer of 1799. After the British defeated the French in Egypt, the Stone was brought to the British Museum in 1802, where it has remained ever since. The Stone is perhaps the most famous object to be found in the British Museum, and is, according to the British Museum itself, the most popular item displayed there (2). One sign of its popularity is the wide range of Rosetta Stone paraphernalia available at the British Museum and elsewhere; a postcard of the Stone has been the best-selling item available in the museum shop for “as long as museum staff can remember” (2). While the contents of the Stone are perhaps not as exciting as one might wish from a literary point of view, it led to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, and as such, its importance to Egyptology (as well as to fields like historical linguistics) cannot be underestimated.

The book under consideration here, written by John Ray, currently the Sir Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology at the University of Cambridge, pursues two different, albeit related, scholarly issues. On the one hand, it tells the story of the Rosetta Stone; on the other hand, it traces the growth and development of Egyptology as a scholarly pursuit, with a special emphasis on the decipherment of the hieroglyphs. The book contains nine thematic chapters, an introduction, and a translation of the text of the Stone, in addition to the usual extras (lists of suggested further readings and illustrations, and a detailed index, among others). After the introduction, which briefly describes the Stone and its history, the discussion gets underway with a chapter entitled “The Fading of the Light” (pp. 9-24), which chronicles the growth of Christianity in Egypt and the consequent abandonment of earlier forms of Egyptian religion, and traces attitudes exhibited by various groups (e.g., the Copts and Western Europeans of the Renaissance) towards Egypt. The next chapter, “The Pot and the Kettle” (pp. 25-37), examines the historical context of the discovery of the Stone and sets the stage for the following chapters on the development of the field of Egyptology, casting it in terms of a race between the British and the French.

The two following chapters, “The Man of Science” (pp. 38-55) and “The Man of Art” (pp. 56-79), develop this earlier discussion. “The Man of Science” looks at the career of Thomas Young, who was well-known for his contributions to physics, navigation, and anatomy. On the face of it, Young seems like an unlikely candidate for the decipherment of hieroglyphs; Ray, however, suggests that it was “natural that [Young] should turn to the question of ancient Egypt and its mysterious writing,” for Young “was interested in anything at the frontier of knowledge” (44). And, while Young did not completely crack the hieroglyphic code (and seems to have abandoned his research without a compelling reason to do so), he did advance knowledge of the system considerably; he was able to identify various signs (in an 1818 letter to William Banks, Young identified 36 signs, for instance), and also seems to be one of the first to have exploited the Greek names on the Stone for the interpretation of the hieroglyphs, although he was never able to “overcome his suspicion that the alphabetic elements that he had discovered were used only for foreign names and that the rest of the hieroglyphs could not be explained along those lines” (49). “The Man of Art” focuses on Young’s French counterpart, Jean-François Champollion, who eventually deciphered the Stone, and his contributions to the development of Egyptology. Unlike Young, Champollion was not a scientist, but he was an outstanding linguist (he learned Hebrew and Arabic, among other languages, as a teenager), and he used this talent for the decipherment task. There were false starts along the way, as when Champollion was convinced that the hieroglyphs were “purely symbolic” (65), but in general progress continued to be made. Champollion was also able to use Young’s earlier work as a springboard for his own, picking up on Young’s identification of various signs, for instance, and by 1822, Champollion had developed an interpretation of the hieroglyphs, based largely on his work on the Stone.

The next two chapters, “‘To Make them Live Again'” (pp. 80-95) and “The Return of the Light” (pp. 96-109), present some more general commentary on deciphering unknown scripts and languages. “‘To Make them Live Again'” discusses the evolution of writing and then outlines some principles for deciphering unknown texts, including “Look for combinations of signs which repeat themselves and which may correspond to names of people, gods, rivers or places” (90); steps to be taken if there is a bilingual text, including “Starting with the known language of the bilingual, list proper names and significant phrases which repeat themselves or are important in other ways” (91); and steps to be taken if there is not a bilingual text, including the humorous suggestion “Ask to be reborn as Michael Ventris,” the architect who deciphered Linear B, a script used to write Mycenaean Greek, in the 1950s (92); and concludes with some general points about decipherment, e.g. “If a decipherment is going nowhere, this is probably because it is wrong” (93). “The Return of the Light” discusses some of the advantages Champollion had in his decipherment and then examines two case studies of successful decipherments, namely Linear B and the Mayan script of South America, focusing on the contributions of the Russian Yuri Knorosov to its decipherment.1

The next chapter, “The Heirs of Jean-François” (pp. 110-131), sketches the evolution of Egyptology, highlighting the careers of scholars like Adolf Erman, Flinders Petrie, and Hans Jacob Polotsky; and then briefly reviews some of the main texts of Egyptian literature, including “The Voyage of Wenamun” and “The Man who was Tired of Life.” Chapter 8, “The Words of the Stone” (pp. 132-144), is historically oriented, focusing on the events described on the Stone and their historical background. The final thematic chapter, “Whose Loot is it Anyway?” (pp. 145-163), addresses the repatriation of antiquities: if an artifact from one country is taken to another, where does the artifact truly belong? Case studies from the Elgin Marbles to Kennewick Man (found in the Pacific Northwest in 1996), and cities ranging from Istanbul to Rome are discussed. With regards to the Stone, Ray concludes that its true home is “universal” and that “That homeland is the wonder which is the beginning of knowledge, and which speaks to the mind” (162). The book concludes with a translation of the text of the Stone prepared by Ray.

One can legitimately ask whether another book on the Rosetta Stone is really necessary, given the enormous body of literature on the Stone, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the story of their decipherment, that is already available.2 Happily, the answer to this question is ‘yes’; the book is both informative and engaging. Ray lets his obvious enthusiasm for, and extensive knowledge of, the subject matter shine through—he writes warmly of some of his personal experiences in Egyptology, including an April 1958 visit to the British Museum that set him on the path to Egyptology, for instance. The book does contain a few remarks that perhaps should have been removed during the editorial process (e.g., it might have been better to omit the comment made on p. 49 that a letter written by Amedeo Peyron, an Italian scholar of Coptic, to Thomas Young “cleverly combines Italian flattery with Latin incisiveness”), and at times the discussion gets a trifle vague and the writing style a bit over the top and discursive, but such issues do not detract greatly from the generally high value of the work. It is to be hoped that the book finds a wide circulation, especially in light of its relatively low price.


1. There is a sizeable body of literature on Linear B, the Mayan script, and decipherment in general. Relevant references include: John Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958; 2d edition 1967; reprinted with a new postscript 1992); Michael D. Coe, Breaking the Maya Code (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992; 2d edition 1999); Maurice Pope, The Story of Decipherment From Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975; revised edition 1999) and Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs, and Pictograms (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995; 2d edition 2007).

2. Recent books in English on these topics include the following, among many others: Richard Parkinson, The Rosetta Stone (London: British Museum Press, 2005); Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999); Mark Collier and Bill Manley, How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998; revised edition 2003); and Lesley Adkins and Roy Adkins, The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code (New York: Harper Collins, 2000).