John Sturrock

  • Keys of Egypt by Lesley Atkins and Roy Atkins
    HarperCollins, 335 pp, £7.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 00 653145 8
  • The Rosetta Stone: The Story of the Decoding of Hieroglyphics by Robert Solé and Dominique Valbelle, translated by Steven Rendall
    Profile, 184 pp, £7.99, August 2002, ISBN 1 86197 344 6
  • Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts by Andrew Robinson
    McGraw Hill, 352 pp, £25.99, June 2002, ISBN 0 07 135743 2
  • The Man who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson
    Thames and Hudson, 168 pp, £12.95, April 2002, ISBN 0 500 51077 6

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in