The Rosetta Stone is really a very boring object and yet it is arguably the most important one in the British Museum. It is a piece of granite forty five inches tall proclaiming an edict by King Ptolemy the Fifth in 196 BC and discovered in 1799 by a French soldier called Pierre Francois Bouchard. We beat the French in a battle soon afterwards and gained the Stone as one of the spoils of war, typical of the way many of objects in the museum were ‘acquired’. The stone’s significance was realised immediately because it contained the same text in Greek, Egyptian Demotic and ancient Hieroglyphic so it was used to decipher the then unknown hieroglyphs. It has been on display at the BM for 200 years.
If I want to talk about the Stone (which I almost always do at the BM) I take my group into the Enlightenment Gallery behind the ticket desk where there is a little-known copy of it which you can see more clearly and even touch, which makes for a better explanation.
Unsurprisingly the Egyptians want the Rosetta Stone returned, just as the Greeks want the Parthenon Marbles. Neither country is likely to be successful. It is all very well to criticise people in the past for ‘stealing’ objects from local communities and cultures but, if they had been left there, they would have almost certainly been destroyed, neglected or ignored. The Parthenon Marbles were in a terrible state when Lord Elgin removed them and the Rosetta Stone was found in a wall where it had been used as a building stone. (See my last post for an alternative view.)
The Anglo-French rivalry continued after the Stone came to London. The Englishman Thomas Young, a scientist whose hobby was learning foreign languages, began the decipherment of the text but was unable to complete it. This was done by Jean-Francois Champollion, a brilliant linguist who had been a professor of languages at Grenoble university since the age of eighteen. The two men were working independently on the text in 1814 and began to warily co-operate the year after as the wars between Britain’s monarchy and France’s republic came to an end with the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
It was not until late 1822 that Champollion told his brother “Je tiens l’affaire!” (“I’ve cracked it” would be the English equivalent) and gave a lecture at the French Academy releasing his findings. He then published a ‘Table of Phonetic Signs’, the first key to unlocking the language of ancient Egypt.
Young was impressed with Champollion’s work but felt he should have been given more credit for his own work on the translation. Champollion refused and the dispute rumbled on. I love France and the French but relations between the two countries have always been edged with rivalry, possibly to be renewed in this summer’s World Cup. Both nations have won it just once, when hosting the competition..
Andrew Robinson has written biographies of both Young and Champollion and he believes that the work of both men was essential in cracking the hieroglyphic code. Young was English the amateur, who worked on the puzzle out of curiosity, while Champollion was the linguist professional, more driven by the lure of fame and less wiling to share the credit.
The Last Man who Knew Everything and Cracking the Egyptian Code are about Young and Champollion respectively, both by Andrew Robinson. Go to http://www.andrew-robinson.org for more on these books and to order them.