This year marks the 200th anniversary of one of mankind’s great achievements, the decyphering of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the British Museum is planning an exhibition that explores this pivotal moment. The exhibition, opening in October, will explore the inscriptions and objects that helped scholars unlock one of the world’s oldest civilisations, exactly 200 years ago.
At the exhibition’s heart will be the Rosetta Stone, one of the world’s most famous ancient objects and one of the British Museum’s most popular exhibits. Before hieroglyphs could be deciphered, life in ancient Egypt had been a mystery for centuries with only tantalising glimpses into this forgotten world. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, with its decree written in three styles — hieroglyphs, demotic and ancient Greek — provided the key to decoding hieroglyphs in 1822.
To celebrate the decyphering of the Egyptian language, the exhibition will bring together over 240 objects, including loans from national and international collections, many of which will be shown for the first time. It will chart the race to decipherment, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars to more focussed progress by French scholar Jean-François Champollion and England’s Thomas Young.
To show how the Rosetta Stone was the key to the discovery, it will be shown alongside the very inscriptions that Champollion and other scholars studied in their quest to understand the ancient past.
If you’ve ever wondered, the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is a decree passed by a council of priests, one of a series that affirm the royal cult of the 13 year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation. The reason the stone was inscribed in Greek as well as Egyptian, is likely to be because Ptolemy V was pharaoh at a time when Egypt was a state of ancient Greece, having been conquered by Alexander the Great. It was controlled by Greece until the time of Cleopatra.
Rarely on public display, but included in this exhibition will be the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet, which is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. The papyrus will feature alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.
Among the loans to the exhibition is the mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs. The exhibition will also bring together personal notes by Champollion from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Young from the British Library. A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.
The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25–30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.
Ilona Regulski, Curator of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum, said “The decipherment of hieroglyphs marked the turning point in a study that continues today to reveal secrets of the past. The field of Egyptology is as active as ever in providing access to the ancient world. Building on 200 years of continuous work by scholars around the globe, the exhibition celebrates new research and shows how Egyptologists continue to shape our dialogue with the past.”
Adult: £18 | Student/16-18/Concessions: £16 | Children: Free | Members: Free
(There’s an early-bird offer on Adult tickets for Mon-Fri visits at £16)
Note, as the Rosetta Stone will be in the exhibition, it won’t be available to view for free in the Egyptian Sculpture gallery as it is usually, so people keep to see it, should so do before it’s moved to the exhibition rooms.
Alternatively, you can buy a small replica to own.