British Museum exhibition celebrates 200 years since discovery of Egyptian hieroglyph code

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

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt, which opens 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 for a long time that we were going to celebrate 200 years of decipherment, because we have the Rosetta stone, which was the key to decipherment,” said Ilona Regulski, curator of Egyptian written culture at the British Museum. The National.

With its decree inscribed in three writing systems – hieroglyphics, the Demotic Egyptian script and Ancient Greek – the Rosetta Stone has helped researchers decipher the pictorial symbols that adorn countless ancient Egyptian artifacts.

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

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

After 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 the same year.

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

But it was the philologist Jean-François Champollion who, based on careful analysis of the Rosetta Stone and other texts, finally compiled a complete list of hieroglyphic signs with their Greek equivalents in 1822.

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

The inscription is a decree issued in 196 BC. AD 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 achievements and also specifies that the text should be placed in temples throughout Egypt.

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

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

However, the ownership of the Rosetta Stone itself has been highly controversial, with Egyptologist and former head of antiquities Zahi Hawass calling it stolen colonial-era property and demanding its return to Egypt since 2003.

“The Rosetta Stone is very important because it is a symbol of Egyptian identity…and because of this stone, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics began to be resolved,” Hawass said. The National.

“I’m not after every artifact in a museum. I’m after stolen stuff and unique artifacts that should be in the homeland.

But Regulski said there had been no official request from the Egyptian government for the stone to be returned.

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

At the entrance to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum is a “much better preserved copy of the text written on the Rosetta Stone” which is 100 years older, she said.

Regulski began intensive research for the hieroglyphics exhibit in 2019, when she was in Cairo for a two-year European Union-funded project to transform the Egyptian Museum.

This stay gave him the opportunity to do research in the libraries of Cairo and to collaborate with Egyptian colleagues, such as the Egyptologist Fayza Haikal. Regulski said she thought it was important to bring the “Egyptian voice” into the exhibit.

“The Decryption story could be perceived as a bit European-centric, 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 exhibit to celebrate Egypt and civilization,” Regulski said.

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

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

About a quarter of the objects to be displayed in the exhibition are on loan, while three quarters come from the huge collection of the British Museum, totaling at least eight million objects. Only about 80,000 objects are on public display in the museum at any one time.

On loan from the Louvre, the dressing for the mummy of Aberuait, which has never been exhibited in the United Kingdom.

Champollion’s personal notes are from the National Library of France and Young from the British Library.

The exhibition will also feature “The Enchanted Basin”, a large black granite sarcophagus covered in hieroglyphs dating from around 600 BC. The repurposed ritual bath, believed to have magical powers, has since been identified as the sarcophagus of the noble Hapmen of the 26th Dynasty.

Other exhibits include Queen Nedjmet’s Book of the Dead papyrus, over 3,000 years old and over four meters long.

“I see it as a culmination to show what you are otherwise presenting to a very scholarly audience and to colleagues in the field. And now you have the ability to reach a much larger audience,” Regulski said. “Hieroglyphics always speak to the imagination in one way or another.”

The British Museum is not the only place commemorating the 200th anniversary. The Champollion Aventure exhibition at the National Library of France is on until July 24. Champollion’s home town of Figeac is hosting a six-month cultural festival called Eureka! until October which includes concerts, museum exhibitions and seminars with Egyptologists. And at the Louvre outpost in Lens, the exhibition Champollion: the path of hieroglyphs will take place from September.

Meanwhile, Egypt has hinted that it may open its much-anticipated Grand Egyptian Museum in November to coincide with another significant 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 British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery.

Tickets can be reserved on

Updated: July 09, 2022, 07:22

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