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Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt at the British Museum

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Above: Figeac Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty, 1,855–08 BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gird your loins before entering. This is no lightweight show. But it is a rewarding one. Moreover, this major exhibition at the British Museum marks the 200th anniversary of an hugely significant moment in our understanding of ancient history: the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The story goes that two hundred years ago, on 14 September 1822, the gifted French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832), rushed into his brother’s study, and thrusting his notes into his hands, gasped, ‘Look, I’ve got it!’ (Je tiens mon affaire, vois!) before promptly feinting.

Above: Portrait of Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832), by Eugène Champollion, ink on paper, 19th century. Musée Champollion – les Écritures du Monde

It had been a long haul. It took almost 20 years of scholarly endeavour before the code was finally cracked - a task combining genius, inspired guesswork, and tremendous and persistent academic effort from the philologist Champollion working in France and the British polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829), besides other scholars.

The Rosetta Stone was the key. With its triple tiers of inscriptions, the top in hieroglyphs (the ancient Egyptian pictorial script that fascinated but was no longer understood), the middle in Egyptian demotic (a cursive script used in everyday writing, a relic of the ancient Egyptian language), and ancient Greek (a known language, enabling the decoding), the Rosetta Stone now forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. And placed nearby are some of the very inscriptions that Champollion and other scholars studied in their quest to make sense of the ancient texts.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 in the rubble of a fort on the Nile delta during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. It had been used as building material. The broken dark grey slab of granodiorite that was poking out of the debris caught the eye of Pierre-François Bouchard, a lieutenant in Napoleon’s army, who brought it to the attention of the ‘savants’, the band of scholars and linguists who had accompanied the invading force. When the British defeated the French they took the stone to London, to the British Museum where it has been on public display since 1802. It is one of the museum’s most popular objects.

Not that the Rosetta Stone is that exciting to look at. Nor is it that exciting to read – for it turned out that the text was a bureaucratic decree in triplicate, issued in Memphis in 196 BCE during the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was once part of a larger stela and possibly was originally displayed in a temple for all to read.

The excitement, however, lies in the thrill of the chase, the 20-year race to decipher and discover what those beautiful symbols represented – the eyes, birds such as owls, ibis, falcons, or water, boats, crocodiles and so on …. and of course, the countless revelations it led to about ancient Egyptian history. The British Museum’s exhibition handles this aspect well, and dedicates the exhibition’s central gallery to the correspondence of Champollion and Young.

Over 240 objects are on display in the exhibition, from statues and sarcophagi to a number of texts, some of which are beautiful and some prosaic, from love poetry to tax returns, international treaties, to shopping lists. Gradually, through darkened galleries visitors trace the path towards decipherment, learn of the ideas about hieroglyphs that prevailed in the centuries before Champollion and Young got to work (including initial efforts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars), and end with modern-day digital media and audio that “brings the language to life.” (Left: The Rosetta Stone. © The Trustees of the British Museum).

Highlights include the “Enchanted Basin” – a black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BCE, richly decorated with hieroglyphs and images of gods. It was in fact the coffin of Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th dynasty – and the hieroglyphs on it were believed to have magical powers, including that bathing in the basin could offer magical relief from the torments of love.

Another exhibit, which rarely goes on public display, is the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet. This is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. According to exhibition curator, Ilona Regulski, the British Museum’s Curator of Egyptian Written Culture, recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word: – for, she says, “the ritual spells on it are to be pronounced”. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased (reunited for the first time since the mid-1700s when they were dispersed over French and British collections).

Above: Mummy bandage of Aberuai, linen, Saqqara, Egypt, Ptolemaic period. Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet.

There’s also an exceptional loan of a mummy bandage from the Musée du Louvre. Never before shown in the UK, it is a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ that were held from the 1600s to 1908. Attendees received a piece of the linen, and if lucky, they got a piece inscribed with hieroglyphs. The piece of linen on show, inscribed with a Book of the Dead spell, dates to 332-30 BCE and is from Saqqara.

A striking cartonnage and mummy of the Lady Baketenhor on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. Corresponding with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion had correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased. And he did this only a few years after he first cracked the hieroglyphic code.

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

It is amazing to think that Champollion never actually saw the Rosetta Stone. He studied it from casts of inscriptions and so on, in correspondence with Young and other scholars. Theirs was an astonishing intellectual achievement. As a small example of this, he and Young observed phonetic elements in the cartouches (the oval frames around some hieroglyphs, now known to indicate a royal name), such that from the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra alone, Champollion generated consonants and vowels corresponding to letters a, ai, e, k, l, m, o, p, r, s and t, notes Regulski in her British Museum blog (see link below).

Regulski said “The decipherment of hieroglyphs marked the turning point in a study that continues today to reveal secrets of the past. The field of Egyptology is as active as ever in providing access to the ancient world. Building on 200 years of continuous work by scholars around the globe, the exhibition celebrates new research and shows how Egyptologists continue to shape our dialogue with the past.”

Hieroglyphs have always fired up the imagination – or have ever since we lost our ability to read them – and doubtless will continue to. This excellent exhibition amply repays any effort we make to get to grips with what’s on show – and perhaps that even allows us to appreciate all the more the genius and persistence that lay behind the decipherment of hieroglyphs 200 years ago. Do go along, if you can.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt

Showing until: 19 February 2023

Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.

For a closer look at the breakthrough moment when hieroglyphs were deciphered, see Ilona Regulski’s blog on the British Museum website:


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