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Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt

  • Art
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty, 1855–08 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum
Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty, 1855–08 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

200 years ago, a young Frenchman called Jean-Francois Champollion rushed into his brother’s room, shouted 'I’ve got it!', then promptly collapsed. After centuries of failed attempts, Champollion had cracked the code of Hieroglyphics: the mysterious, semi-pictorial ‘language of birds’, of magic, rituals, the Pharoahs and their awesome monuments. The monument that enabled this breakthrough was of course the Rosetta Stone. It resided – still does, despite lukewarm calls for repatriation – at the world’s first free public museum, the British Museum, which has staged this thoughtful and scholarly exhibition in tribute to the eureka moment that’s known in the biz as ‘the decipherment’.

The Rosetta Stone is important and momentous: it’s the BM’s most-visited object. But it’s a little dry IRL, being essentially a paragraph of bureaucratic whiffle, writ in stone (specifically, 762kg of granodiorite), in 3 scripts; hieroglyphs, demotic and greek. As rock stars go, it’s more Sheeran than Jagger. So intellectual kudos to the curators of this exhibition, Ilona Regulski and Kelly Accetta Crowe, for using this blockbuster opportunity to tell a thoughtful and accurate story of languages, conquest, and above all scholarship, instead of whacking out the usual richly coffined bodies of the Egyptian super-rich. If you want glamour, guts and glory, skip this and head upstairs to the Mummies gallery instead.

This dimly lit and intense exhibition requires and repays close attention. The entrance is dominated by an incredible magic bathtub, black granite and inscribed all over, believed to give bathers relief from the torments of love. Room one sketches the European Renaissance take on hieroglyphic artefacts, often assumed to have occult powers and preserved in private cabinets of curiosity. Some of the show’s most alluring objects are here. Like an incredible model of a man’s torso, inscribed with glyphs and terrifying many-headed gods, surely the world’s greatest tattoo. And the London Papyrus, a paper of 61 recipes to cure ailments and woes, mingling medicine and magic.

This dimly lit and intense exhibition requires and repays close attention

It gets drier and more aware of its troubled context as we move into the backstory of ‘the decipherment’, a tangled tale of tyrants, soldiers and scholars that’s hard to summarise in a short review or indeed the big visual space of this exhibition. You need to dig deep into the detail here to understand boggling relationships between the different languages spoken in Egypt and their different scripts, including hieroglyphics (carved on stone) and hieratic (penned with ink).  The lost meaning of hieroglyphs was obliterated by years of conquest and plunder: first in 30 BC by the boy who would become Caesar Augustus, fighting Antony and Cleopatra; then by the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire, and Napoleon. It was Napoleon’s soldiers who uncovered the Rosetta stone, astonishingly, at a fort they were occupying in 1799, where it had been recycled as part of the wall. It was recognised because Napoleon had taken a brigade of scholars along for the ride, with explicit instructions to find ancient Egyptian booty for France. When Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, it came to London instead. 

As the exhibition moves into the Enlightenment it becomes clear that the significance of Rosetta is the decipherment, not the stone itself. The eighteenth century code crackers get busy and the scholastic rivalry between extraordinary eccentric British polymath Thomas Young ('the last man to know everything'), and Champollion is tracked in nerdy detail. The Frenchman won, following much hard slog, and chucking out earlier ideas that the mysterious symbols were occult pictograms rather than an alphabet of sounds (actually they were both).

Many of the BM’s treasures are subject to cries for repatriation to their countries of origin right now, but that cry seems a bit half-hearted in this case: unlike other pre-loved artefacts, the Rosetta Stone is not unique; there are 28 surviving stones with the same inscription, and most of them are in Egypt. It’s good to see the museum at least including Egyptian voices in the exhibition too. I personally feel more disappointed by the fact that the BM is still taking cash from BP, the oil company which sponsored this exhibition. That aside, this is a nuanced and never dumbed-down account of the European reception of ancient Egypt and the birth of Egyptology: through conquest, plunder, decipherment and now re-contextualisation with an awareness of all the above. As Napoleon’s battalion of scholars would surely attest: knowledge, wealth and power have snuggled up together since the days of the Pharoahs and beyond.

Written by
Caroline McGinn


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