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15 January 2023

How the hieroglyphic code was cracked

A new exhibition at the British Museum tells the remarkable story of the deciphering of the Ancient Egyptian script.

By Pippa Bailey

“Je tiens l’affaire, vois!” Jean-François Champollion cried in 1822 when he cracked the Ancient Egyptian script hieroglyphs, before collapsing from exertion. “Look, I’ve got it!”

The story of how the French scholar arrived at this seminal moment in Egyptology is told in Hieroglyphs, which is at the British Museum until 19 February. For centuries, much of life in the land of the pharaohs was a mystery; the colourful birds and grains of corn that were daubed on papyrus or carved in slabs of stone were beautiful but unreadable. Deciphering this ancient language revealed much about how the Egyptians lived and died: their religion, food, trade, units of measurement and time, even make-up. The second part of the exhibition is given over to these discoveries, which were enabled by philologists such as Champollion and Thomas Young, the French man’s British rival, whose contributions to the field have often been overlooked.

The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 proved the key. Its inscription was copied in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic (a later Ancient Egyptian language) and hieroglyphs. Cartouches were known to enclose proper names, and by focusing on those of the Rosetta Stone, the Philae obelisk and Abu Simbel, Champollion identified hieroglyphs relating to sounds in the names Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Thutmose and Ramesses, which were already known from sources such as the Bible. There was disagreement about whether hieroglyphs were pictographic, ideographic or phonetic; it turned out to be a mix. Some hieroglyphs represent single letters (such as the vulture for “a”), others syllabic sounds (the sun disc for “ra”), and others entire words (the ankh for “eternal life”).

Hieroglyphs translates this dense and difficult task into an illuminating, immersive exhibition. Just remember to lift your eyes from the labels to study the artefacts themselves – which are extraordinary whether or not you can read them.

[See also: Stop dithering, British Museum – give the Elgin Marbles back]

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This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis