In the shopping precinct that now clings to the skirts of the old Reading Room, a table is laid with portable derivatives of the Rosetta Stone. The number of them hints at a BM merchandising frenzy: for sale, and I may have miscounted, are a mug, a mouse-mat, a ceramic tile, a tie, a teacloth, a scarf, a T-shirt and two sizes of replica, all of them stamped with a presumably random excerpt from the Stone’s inscriptions. It’s long been the received wisdom locally that this fractured slab of granite is the collection’s most looked-for exhibit, and it’s certainly easier to get a clear view of the trade versions than it is of the original, which is screened daylong by visitors who not only go up unduly close – and would no doubt be fingering it, braille-wise, as they used to be able to, if it weren’t cordoned off – but stay there for longer than they should, determined perhaps to make a standing start on a long since redundant decipherment. Their attention has been held, as must that of the French Army pioneers who first came across the Stone in 1799 when doing some spadework in northern Egypt, by the striking density of the signs incised on it – coarsely cut they may be, looked at one by one, but strangely elegant in the mass – and by the contrast between the three scripts that can be made out: from top to bottom, the hieroglyphic, the Egyptian cursive or ‘demotic’, and the Greek. This word-bearing object is so pleasing to the eye, indeed, that it could seem beside the point to want to know what the words have to say, when their gist may well fail to measure up to the allure of their incision. It did so fail in the case of the Rosetta Stone, whose wordings are versions in triplicate of a decree instituting a cult of the then – 196 BC – reigning Ptolemy. But because the Greek version could be read without difficulty, it served as an invaluable prompt to the decipherment of the cursive and the (damaged) hieroglyphic versions.
The decipherers of obsolete forms of writing needn’t concern themselves with whether the words they translate are of high historical significance in what they reveal about the practices of the people who put them there, or else prove merely banal; securing their legibility is an end in itself. Decipherers aren’t, that is, in the Bletchley Park business of breaking and entering forms of inscription designed to be incomprehensible to all but a few on grounds of secrecy; talk of ‘decipherment’ or ‘decoding’ in the case of ancient scripts isn’t strictly right, in fact, since even if these could be understood at the time of writing only by the small class of the literate, no one was trying to hide anything – though it could be that flagging decipherers get a lift from telling themselves that the lettering they have locked wits with was originally the work of some scheming adversary.
Had things gone to plan, the Rosetta Stone would have been on show these two hundred years past in the Louvre, not in the BM. The looters’ principle of finders keepers may go by the board in wartime, however: having first become a prize of that oddly hybrid expeditionary force, when a contingent of scholars, engineers and other experts travelled in the care of the soldiery on Napoleon’s adventure in the Middle East, it was then commandeered by the British, who laid their hands on a number of choice objets trouvés among the baggage of the Expédition de l’Egypte at the time of the final agreement between the two countries whereby the remaining French were allowed to sail back home. The Stone has been in Bloomsbury since 1802, but its original discoverers were not to be trumped for a second time: over the next twenty years it was a French decipherer, as clever as he was obsessed, who successfully determined the sense of its surviving lines of hieroglyphics, and thence of the hieroglyphic system generally. This was Jean-François Champollion, whose success was the sweeter for involving the frustration of an English competitor, the grouchy polymath Thomas Young – to whom much of the credit goes, on the other hand, for having cracked the cursive script. Young had the advantage of being able to go along to Bloomsbury should he feel the need to take another look at the Stone, whereas Champollion had to work from not always reliable drawn or engraved copies; he only got to set eyes on the real thing after he had as good as finished.
Champollion’s is the life-story told in The Keys of Egypt. It is told efficiently and in much detail, though by authors who don’t have any great feel for the hazards and shifts contingent on a life lived first in Napoleonic – Champollion was born in 1790 – and then Restoration France; who see a need to locate the Louvre every time it is mentioned; and who sink to a new low in asinine anglicisation by turning the Ecole Normale into the Normal School. The book’s one real fault, however, is strategic: inflexibly chronological as it is, it introduces the technicalities of the decipherment piecemeal, according to how well Champollion was doing, with the result that his epochal achievement is harder to follow than it need have been: this, if ever, was a Life in which l’homme and l’oeuvre should have been kept apart, with a section devoted to the at times abstruse procedures of the decipherment alone. Anyone who wants to swallow these down in one go would do better to read the summary expertly given in The Rosetta Stone, or, best of all, in Andrew Robinson’s lucid and well illustrated chapter on hieroglyphics in Lost Languages (whose many line drawings are at once valuable and deceptive, since they make the signs displayed look a great deal easier to identify than they are in the worn and weathered reality).
Champollion was a provincial, from Figeac in the South-West, whose brains and ambition eventually drew him north, in the best Napoleonic tradition, to Paris and the Collège de France. He was first smitten with ancient Egypt, and the hieroglyphs that gave it so literally graphic a fascination, when he was a small boy. At the age of 11, having moved to Grenoble, he got to meet Joseph Fourier – the mathematical Fourier, not the interestingly deranged phalansterist – who had been a leader on the Egyptian expedition and had since become the local prefect. According to The Keys of Egypt, Fourier showed him the hieroglyphic inscriptions he had charge of, no doubt lamenting as he did so that, despite centuries of trying and of variously wild theorising, no one had as yet worked out how to read them. Champollion thereupon knew what he must do with his life. The story fits almost too neatly with that of Michael Ventris, the decipherer of Linear B, who went with a school party at the age of 14 to a London exhibition of Greek and Minoan artefacts and happened to hear Sir Arthur Evans no less, the excavator of Knossos, explain that no one had yet been able to understand the signs cut into the clay tablets that he had begun to find there at the turn of the century. Fifteen years later, Ventris knew how they must be read, having become a practising architect and survived bombing missions as a navigator over Germany in between.
It’s no great surprise to find a fixation on decipherment of this sovereign order being traced back to the decipherer’s childhood: one of the most brilliant of the American decipherers of Mayan glyphs, David Stuart, was already drawing them at the age of eight, when he went on a trip to the Yucatán with his parents. Childhood is, or anyway was in my cryptophile generation, a time for slipping conspiratorially in and out of the linguistic disguise of some code or other, whether an elementary one whose rules were known to just about everyone or, more exclusively, one we’d made up for ourselves. But you can play at codes of that artless kind without having the first idea how a language works, of how it fits together as a system, because they do no more than substitute an alternative set of signs, one at a time, for those we’re used to; the grammar and syntax of the coded message stay the same. Deciphering a forgotten script like the Egyptian hieroglyphic or Linear B isn’t, needless to say, like that. Their signs haven’t been substituted for others and the grammar of the language whose written representation they are may be significantly different from that of the language into which they are to be translated. If you are to decipher them sucessfully, you need to have a firm sense of the way in which the elements contributing to a written language function as a system, and to be able to deduce the rules governing their mutual relations.
Both Champollion and Ventris had a gift for languages that was out of the ordinary. Even before he was old enough to pass on to the lycée, Champollion was describing Oriental languages as his ‘favourite passion’ and asking his older brother to send him such grown-up works of reference as ‘the Ethiopian grammar of Ludolph’. He became especially, and valuably, proficient in Coptic, a language that had devolved since the early Christian era into a purely liturgical medium but which was known to be continuous with ancient Egyptian, and, in its written form, used letters of the Greek alphabet along with signs it had taken over from the old Egyptian cursive script. It was by extrapolating from the known sound values of Coptic characters that Champollion gained highly productive insights into the way the phonetics of hieroglyphs had to go.
Ventris, anglophone by birth, also knew French, German, Swiss-German and Polish by the time he was eight. He’d been at school for a time in Switzerland and his mother was half-Polish; he later learned Swedish in only a few weeks and is quoted by Andrew Robinson as telling a friend that the more languages he spoke the easier he found it to learn a new one – a facility lending weight to the assumption that if your Language Acquisition Device is up to snuff, one natural language will fit into position smoothly in your brain on top of another, thanks to the eventual convergence, as they become more abstract, of the differing grammatical structures.
Champollion believed at one moment that his hieroglyphics were an entirely alphabetical system, representing, with whatever degree of precision, the sounds of the spoken language. He wasn’t the first to have thought this, though it had never been the orthodox view. It was, as it turned out, only partly right, but sufficiently rational to keep him working along the most profitable lines. The unwillingness of so many hopeful decipherers to allow that hieroglyphics might be even partly phonetic can seem strange, given that the languages the decipherers themselves were used to were written out in that fashion. Even more strangely, and Champollion’s success notwithstanding, there were those in the next century who still couldn’t accept that Linear B might be phonetically based; and strangest yet, Ventris’s success having been added to Champollion’s, it was a while before it was generally agreed among archaeologists that Mayan glyphs, too, contained phonetic elements.
Why the reluctance? You have to suppose that those who shared it would much rather these exotic scripts were not phonetic, as though to find out that they were so would demean them, would evacuate any lingering mystique from ancient forms of writing that deserved better than to be reduced to the prosaic representation of the sounds that daily came from the mouths of Egyptians, Cretans or Mayans. Rather ahead of time, these stubborn sceptics were proto-Derridians, defending the autonomy of the scripts in question against the phonocentrism of those who put their trust in alphabets and see the written form of language as inescapably subordinate to the spoken, whose graphic representation they believe it must be.
There was a second reason for hanging back from a phonetic solution, exceptionally strong in the case of the elaborate Egyptian and Mayan scripts, less so in that of the more functional-looking Linear B. So labour-intensive for the writer do hieroglyphs or Mayan glyphs appear to be, that a lifelong familiarity with our own relatively elementary characters and the ease of their inscription on paper might well lead anyone to assume that the manual effort required to cut these fancy shapes into stone or clay was unlikely to be wasted on the registering of trivia. The temptation is to see such forms of writing in sacred or aesthetic as opposed to practical terms. Indeed, the author of a fine (if wearingly gung-ho) account of the Mayan decipherment, Michael Coe, has also published what is more or less a picture book called The Art of the Maya Scribe (1998), the splendour of whose illustrations of the glyphs bears out the title absolutely. You can see why Mayan experts, the domineering and wrong-headed Englishman Sir Eric Thompson in particular, resisted interpretations that had them dealing with less than transcendental matters, religious, mythological or astronomical; it turned out, however, that glyphs might also record items of local history, the dates and triumphs over enemies of particular rulers or dynasties, for example.
Because bits and pieces from the natural and/or human environment have earned inclusion as characters in both hieroglyphics and Mayan glyphs, they give an immediate impression of being fundamentally pictographic scripts; and when the pictographic element is pervasive, it might well seem far-fetched – or, as we’d now say, guiltily, ethnocentric – to believe that they contained phonetic elements as well. Run the eye along a string of hieroglyphs and it’s caught by what it takes to be conventional but recognisable representations of, to take the obvious example, different kinds of bird. Ask yourself why birds should occur as frequently as they do, however, and you may begin to wonder whether this script is all that it first seemed: can the inscriptions really be that much about birds? Were the Egyptians into ornithology to the point where they were forever needing to make reference to them? Or do the chicks, owls and the rest in fact stand for something other than themselves? Early decipherers might have got nearer to the truth more quickly had they ever – and here I revert again to childhood – made up childish texts incorporating rebuses, in which, it will be remembered, drawable objects are portrayed as a roundabout means of representing either a required sound or bit of spelling, so that the silhouette of an owl might, in English, be used after the letter t to stand for the word towel, or, switching to an ocular as opposed to an aural take, after a b, to make bowl. Rebuses come inevitably to mind when you look in Lost Languages at the reproduction of the top line of Champollion’s ‘Tableau des Signes Phonétiques’ of 1822, where, facing the Greek alpha, he gives, first the ‘demotic’ Egyptian equivalents and then a whole aviary of bird signs used in different combinations to represent the same vowel sound.
Champollion’s conclusion as to the nature of the hieroglyphic system was that it was mixed, ‘at once figurative, symbolic and phonetic’. The figurative elements were what he took to be pure pictographs, or signs bearing an unequivocal resemblance to the items in the world whose names they stood for; the phonetic signs, whether or not they bore, rebus-like, a resemblance to some material object, were there for a different purpose, which was to represent a phoneme of the spoken language. The signs in between, the ‘symbolic’, he held to stand for an ‘idea’: it was he, indeed, who first introduced the term ‘ideogram’. So far as I can see, the authors of The Keys of Egypt preserve Champollion’s own usage here, which wasn’t wise, since the notion of ideographic writing is a confusing one, seeming to imply that ‘ideas’ can somehow be represented ‘directly’, as though such signs lacked an acoustic aspect altogether. Safer these days to refer to ‘logograms’ or ‘logographs’, as signs that may stand for whole words without analysing them into their phonetic components. If, as we commonly imagine, written language must have begun ostensively, by showing pictures of the things it referred to, it will then have evolved into increasingly conventional forms of inscription before going the whole phonetic hog. You would be hard pressed to recognise surviving pictographic elements in the agreed catalogue of 87 Linear B signs, as worked out by Ventris and displayed in Lost Languages, any more than among our own alphabetical characters (in their multiple forms), whose remote descent from Egyptian hieroglyphics may be linguistic fact but doesn’t exactly leap out at you.
In The Man who Deciphered Linear B, Andrew Robinson tells us more about Michael Ventris than we knew before, when all there were to go on were the few personal remarks about his ‘charm’ and ‘modesty’ that John Chadwick felt able to include in The Decipherment of Linear B (a book first published in 1958 and reprinted many times since). Chadwick was a Cambridge philologist, a specialist in the history of ancient Greek, who collaborated with Ventris on the closing stages of the decipherment, and the title of his book, when set alongside Robinson’s, spells out the cultural distance we have travelled since the late 1950s: then it was the story of how the decipherment came about that was alone seen as being worth the telling; now it’s the decipherer’s turn, as Robinson attempts to trace what he calls ‘the diverse and unique influences that drove Ventris’. What this means is that such evidence as Robinson has been able to gather respecting Ventris’s life as son, airman, husband, father and architect, is made all of it to point in the one direction, serving as a fragile explanation for an unusual obsession. Even at the time, Ventris struck those around him as not very knowable, so you might say that Robinson, coming along half a century later, hasn’t a chance. Interestingly, Ventris was the opposite of secretive in the one part of his life where you might have expected him to be so: far from keeping his thoughts as to the nature of Linear B to himself, he was entirely open in circulating them to others who were also working on its decipherment. Once he’d completed it, and persuaded all but a few diehards that the so-called ‘Minoan’ script in fact represented an early state of the Greek language, he seems to have suffered from depressions, and when, three years later in 1956, aged only 34, he was killed when driving his car into a parked lorry in the middle of the night, he left some wondering whether this wasn’t more of a suicidal than an unlucky death.
Robinson is an enthusiast for decipherment, to the extent of claiming Ventris’s achievement as the equal of that of Crick and Watson at much the same time in unravelling the structure of the Double Helix. Intellectually that may be so: who’s to say, when there’s no measure to hand by which to compare them? In terms of their effects the two ‘decodings’ are almost absurdly disparate, especially since the information contained on the Linear B tablets, described by Chadwick simply as Mycenaean ‘account-books’, added rather little to classicists’ knowledge of that civilisation. Ventris’s purely intellectual achievement, pared of speculation about what may or may not have ‘driven’ him, is summarised at just the right length, and extremely clearly, in Robinson’s other book, Lost Languages, which has chapters on the ‘Three Great Decipherments’ – of hieroglyphs, Linear B and Mayan glyphs – and eight further chapters on scripts whose decipherment is either incomplete or has barely started, usually because not enough inscriptions have so far been found to attract scholarly decipherers as opposed to stumbling amateurs. The most intriguing is the one known as rongorongo, found only on Easter Island, which is written, alarmingly for anyone wondering whether to have a go at it, in a ‘reverse-boustrophedon’, whereby alternate lines are written not only back to front but upside down. To judge by the illustrations in Lost Languages, they can look, when incised on wood with what may have been a shark’s tooth, highly decorative; so decorative, indeed, that T.H. Huxley wasn’t having any: he laughed at the notion that these marks might form some kind of Polynesian script when it was obvious to him that they were meant to be used for printing designs on fabrics. If the fate of the Rosetta Stone is anything to go by, by now they probably have been.