British Museum exhibition celebrates 200 years since cracking Egyptian hieroglyphs code

The Rosetta Stone is the star of the show, which opens to the public in October and includes more than 240 artefacts

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The Rosetta Stone, one of the world’s most famous ancient artefacts and arguably the best known object at the British Museum, is the star of a new exhibition celebrating 200 years since a French scholar cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt, which opens on October 13, will feature more than 240 objects, including loans from national and international collections, many of which will be on display for the first time.

“We knew that we were going to celebrate 200 years of the decipherment a long time ago, because we have the Rosetta Stone, which was key to the decipherment,” Ilona Regulski, curator of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum, told The National.

With its decree inscribed in three writing systems — hieroglyphs, the Egyptian demotic script and ancient Greek — the Rosetta Stone helped scholars decrypt the pictorial symbols that adorn countless ancient Egyptian artefacts.

“For the first time in millennia the ancient Egyptians could speak directly to us. By breaking the code, our understanding of this incredible civilisation has given us an unprecedented window onto the people of the past and their way of life,” said British Museum director Hartwig Fischer.

The stone of black granite, part of a bigger slab broken in antiquity, had been discovered in 1799 near the town of Rosetta (modern-day Rashid) in the Nile Delta. It was reportedly found by soldiers in Napoleon’s army during the French occupation of Egypt.

Following Napoleon's defeat in 1801, the stone became the property of the British under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. It was shipped to England in February 1802 and presented to the British Museum by George III in July of that year.

British physicist Thomas Young, who had an interest in Egyptology, began studying the texts of the Rosetta Stone in 1814. He proved the oval cartouches enclosed the names of royalty by deciphering the name Ptolemy.

But it was philologist Jean-Francois Champollion who, based on painstaking analysis of the Rosetta Stone and other texts, eventually established an entire list of hieroglyphic signs with their Greek equivalents in 1822.

Champollion was the first Egyptologist to realise that some of the signs were alphabetic, some syllabic and some determinative, representing a whole idea or object. He also determined that the hieroglyphic text was a translation of the Greek, and not the other way around.

The inscription is a decree issued in 196 BC by the priests of Memphis on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes, a member of the Greek-speaking dynasty of Macedonian origin that ruled Egypt from the 4th to the 1st century BC. It lists some of the king’s good deeds and accomplishments and also specifies that the text should be placed in temples throughout Egypt.

In fact, the Rosetta Stone is a copy of canopic text that dates back to the 3rd century BC. Several replicas exist, including in Egypt and France.

“The decree that is written on the Rosetta Stone was initially composed a century before it was written on the Rosetta Stone, and was copied over and over again by each king for about 200 years,” Regulski said.

However, ownership of the Rosetta Stone itself has been highly contentious, with Egyptologist and former antiquities chief Zahi Hawass calling it stolen property from colonial times and demanding its return to Egypt since 2003.

“The Rosetta Stone is very important because it’s a symbol of Egyptian identity…and because of that stone, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs began to be solved,” Hawass told The National.

“I’m not after every artefact in a museum. I’m after what has been stolen and unique artefacts that should be in the homeland.”

But Regulski said there had been no formal request from the Egyptian government demanding the stone's return.

“Officially we have never received a request from the Egyptian government to give the Rosetta Stone back. I know there are voices that have perhaps said this in the past and will continue to do so,” Regulski said.

At the entrance of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a “much better preserved copy of the text that is written on the Rosetta Stone” and is 100 years older, she said.

A bust of French scholar and philologist Jean-Francois Champollion, and behind, a replica of the Rosetta Stone on display at the entrance of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: AFP

Regulski started intensive research for the hieroglyph exhibition in 2019, when she happened to be in Cairo for a two-year European Union-funded project to transform the Egyptian Museum.

The stint gave her the opportunity to do research in Cairo’s libraries and collaborate with Egyptian colleagues, such as Egyptologist Fayza Haikal. Regulski said she felt it was important to bring the “Egyptian voice” into the exhibition.

“The story of decipherment could be perceived as a bit focusing on Europe, because in the end the real breakthrough was a race between Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion. So I tried very hard to also use this exhibition to celebrate Egypt and civilisation,” Regulski said.

Medieval Arab scholars, such as ninth century alchemist Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah, are also highlighted as instrumental to the decipherment.

“Ibn Wahshiyah was extremely important. He was the first to identify some of the hieroglyphs correctly,” Regulski said.

About one-quarter of the objects that will be displayed in the exhibition are loans, while three-quarters are from the British Museum’s massive collection, totalling at least eight million objects. Only about 80,000 objects are on public display at the museum at any one time.

On loan from the Louvre will be the mummy bandage of Aberuait, which has never been displayed in the UK.

Personal notes by Champollion come from the French National Library and Young from the British Library.

The exhibition will also feature 'The Enchanted Basin', a large black granite sarcophagus covered with hieroglyphs from about 600 BC. The reused ritual bath, believed to have magical powers, has since been identified as the sarcophagus of 26th dynasty nobleman Hapmen.

Other pieces include the Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet, which is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long.

“I see it as a highlight to showcase what you otherwise present to a very scholarly audience and colleagues in the field. And now you have the opportunity to reach a much larger audience,” Regulski said. “Hieroglyphs always somehow speak to the imagination.”

The British Museum is not the only place commemorating the 200-year anniversary. The French National Library’s Champollion Adventure exhibition is on until July 24. Champollion’s birthplace, Figeac, is putting on a six-month cultural festival called Eureka! until October that includes concerts, museum exhibits and seminars with Egyptologists. And at the Louvre outpost in Lens, Champollion: The Path of Hieroglyphics exhibit will take place from September.

Meanwhile, Egypt has hinted that it may open its highly anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum in November to coincide with another important anniversary in its history: 100 years since the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt runs from October 13 to February 19, 2023 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.

Tickets can be booked at britishmuseum.org/hieroglyphs

Updated: July 09, 2022, 7:22 AM
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