In 1798, Napoleon, with some four hundred ships, set sail across the Mediterranean, bound for Egypt. He had a practical purpose: he wanted to kick the English out of the eastern Mediterranean and block their lucrative trade with India. But he was also interested in Egypt itself, which his idol Alexander the Great had conquered in 332 B.C. By the nineteenth century, Egypt was no longer the glamorous prize it had been for Alexander. It was a backwater, hot, dry, and poor. “In the villages,” Napoleon said, “they don’t even have any idea what scissors are.” Still, from its astonishing ancient monuments—pyramids and obelisks piercing the clouds—and its strange, beautiful picture-language, called hieroglyphics, which everyone admired and no one could read, people knew that this had once been a formidable civilization. So Napoleon brought with him not just soldiers but some hundred and sixty so-called savants—scientists, scholars, and artists, with their compasses and rulers and pencils and pens—to describe what they could of this fabled old realm.

The French, however, were no sooner launched than the English Navy, under Horatio Nelson, was on their tail, and shortly after they landed they were pretty much routed, at the Battle of the Nile, in which they lost eleven of their thirteen warships. “Victory is not a name strong enough for such a scene,” Nelson said. Napoleon moved on to an ill-fated campaign in Syria and eventually headed back to France, instructing his army in Egypt to go on fighting and, in particular, to fend off British incursions along the coast. They complied, dispiritedly, for two more years. So it was that, on a hot day in July of 1799, a team of laborers, working under a French officer to rebuild a neglected fort near the port city of Rosetta—now known as Rashid—discovered a stone so large that they could not move it. Under a different officer, the men might have been told to maneuver around it somehow. But their supervisor, Pierre-François Bouchard, was one of Napoleon’s savants, trained as a scientist as well as a soldier. When the dirt had been cleaned off the front of what is now known as the Rosetta Stone, he realized that it might be something of interest.

It was a slab of granodiorite (a cousin of granite), about four feet tall, two and a half feet wide, and a foot thick, inscribed on its front with three separate texts. The topmost text, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, was fourteen lines long. (It was probably about twice that length originally; the top of the slab had broken off.) The middle section, thirty-two lines long, was in some other script, which nobody recognized. (Called Demotic, it turned out to be a sort of shorthand derived, ultimately, from hieroglyphs.) But—eureka!—the bottom section, fifty-three lines long, was in Ancient Greek, a language that plenty of Napoleon’s savants had learned in school. One can only imagine what these men felt when they saw the third inscription, like a familiar face in a room full of strangers. Furthermore, the Greek writing explicitly stated that its text was the same as that of the two preceding inscriptions. Bouchard surely saw what that meant: the Greek text, if indeed it matched the others, would allow them to translate the hieroglyphs and hence, eventually, all the other hieroglyphic texts that people had been puzzling over for two millennia. The stone was swiftly carted away, to the tent of Jacques-François de Menou, a commander of the French forces.

When, two years later, the French finally surrendered to the British, they said that, by the way, they were taking home the antiquities they had discovered in Egypt—or what they liked—including the Rosetta Stone. The English replied that that was most definitely not going to happen: these things were spoils of war, and they, the British, had won the war. According to a witness outside General Menou’s tent, a great deal of shouting ensued. In the end, the French were allowed to keep a number of small things. The British took the big items, including the Rosetta Stone, which was then tenderly escorted to England and given to King George III. He, in turn, sent it to the British Museum.

Museum officials, worried about the strain that the stone, which weighed three-quarters of a ton, would inflict on the floor of their fine old building, put it in a temporary facility while they had a new wing erected for it. It went on public display in 1802. From that time on, the Rosetta Stone has been the most prized object in the British Museum, and the subject of any number of close studies. Now there is a new one, “The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone” (Scribner), by Edward Dolnick, a former science writer for the Boston Globe and the author of several books on the intersections of art, science, and detection. According to Dolnick, the Rosetta Stone was not only, as its discoverers suspected, a key to Egyptian hieroglyphs, and thereby to a huge swath of otherwise inaccessible ancient history. It was also a lesson in decoding itself, in what the human mind does when faced with a puzzle.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was not kept secret. The Courier de l’Égypte, the newspaper of the French expedition, carried the news a couple of months later, and within a few years plaster replicas had been sent to scholars in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and Dublin. Copies of the inscription were dispatched to a number of European capitals and also to Philadelphia. You’d have thought that this would have set off a stampede to decipher the stone, but in fact the response was slow. As Dolnick tells it, “Most scholars took a brief look, gulped in dismay, and skittered back to more congenial ground.” In the end, more than twenty years passed before the stone was made to yield a key to the hieroglyphs.

One can see why. First, the script was dead. Egypt fell to Rome in 30 B.C., after Caesar Augustus (at that time still called Octavian) defeated the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium, and the Queen, according to a version given by Plutarch—and then, memorably, by Shakespeare—placed an asp on her breast and died. Three centuries later, the Egyptians’ religion died. After the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, in 312 A.D., he began rolling it out as the official religion of the Roman Empire. By the end of that century, the Emperor Theodosius outlawed all pagan worship, and many temples were destroyed. (The Rosetta Stone had likely been displayed in one such temple.) There is no evidence that hieroglyphs were ever used after the fourth century A.D. No surprise, then, that nearly fifteen hundred years later there wasn’t any text, let alone any human being, to help European scholars decode them.

But wasn’t there the Rosetta Stone? Yes, but it was frustratingly incomplete. Pieces had broken off, not just from its hieroglyphic text but from the Demotic and Greek texts as well. What had the missing lines said? Then, too, no one was sure, early on, which way hieroglyphic writing ran: from left to right, as in European languages, or, like Hebrew, from right to left, or even going back and forth between those two, like ribbon candy. (This last pattern is called boustrophedon, from the Ancient Greek bous, or “ox,” and strophe, or “turn”—hence, “as the ox turns” while plowing—and was sometimes used for Ancient Greek, Etruscan, and a few other writing systems.) Or might the text be running vertically—perhaps top to bottom, as with traditional Chinese, or even bottom to top (much rarer, but found, for example, in ancient Berber)? Never mind that, though. Where did the words begin and end? Like classical Greek and Latin, the inscriptions had no spaces, not to speak of punctuation, between words. Were they even what Europeans called “words”?

“Don’t waste your time on video games, they said.”
Cartoon by Oren Bernstein

Furthermore, whatever the would-be decoder figured out regarding one hieroglyphic text might not be transferrable to another. Modern readers of English can go back maybe six centuries and still hope to understand a text written then. Chaucer, who died in 1400, is readable after perhaps a day of practice. But hieroglyphs developed over some thirty centuries. The Rosetta Stone, as one can deduce from its inscription, was carved in 196 B.C. How could its decoders claim that the lessons they derived from it applied to, say, a text from the time of Ramses II, who reigned from about 1279 to 1213 B.C. and is considered to have been ancient Egypt’s most important pharaoh? And, if scholars couldn’t apply what they learned from the Rosetta Stone to documents written under Egypt’s most important ruler, what could they say with confidence about ancient Egypt as a whole?

Finally, according to Dolnick, a major impediment to any kind of useful transcription was something less technical: the widely held belief that hieroglyphs communicated deep spiritual truths, which could not be lightly disclosed. Almost certainly, no one in the world could read hieroglyphs during the nearly fifteen hundred years or so before the Rosetta Stone was discovered, but that doesn’t mean that people weren’t looking at hieroglyphs, or reproductions of them, and at Egyptian monuments, or drawings of them, and thinking about what these things meant. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the vastness of Egyptian statuary made the vacuum left by the hieroglyphs’ impenetrability seem comparably great. From the early Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, thinkers recorded their sense that profound, perhaps even occult, teachings were lurking there. According to the third-century philosopher Plotinus, Egyptian scribes did not bother with “the whole business of letters, words, and sentences.” Instead, they used signs. And each sign, Plotinus said, was “a piece of knowledge, a piece of wisdom.” In the absence of anything to oppose this rather spooky and thrilling idea, it persisted, even into the Enlightenment. Isaac Newton firmly believed that the ancient Egyptians had solved all of nature’s apparent mysteries—that, as Dolnick writes, “they had known the law of gravitation and all the other secrets of the cosmos; the point of hieroglyphs was to hide that knowledge from the unworthy.” This belief, a sort of curse of the mummy avant la lettre, did not encourage the average linguist to have a go at the Rosetta Stone.

The first person to make real progress with the stone was Thomas Young (1773-1829), an English physician who had come into a large inheritance when he was still in school and therefore did not have to confine his adult years to the treatment of patients. Young began work on the stone in 1814, when he was in his early forties. A brilliant, ambitious, and modern-minded scientist, he was wedded to empiricism and did not stand back in awe before the hieroglyphs’ supposedly ungraspable truths. He just went ahead and looked at them for a long time and counted things and took notes and then drew conclusions. His most important conclusion was that some hieroglyphs appeared to give phonetic cues, signs of a word’s sound. That is, a hieroglyph might not represent the riddle of the sphinx or the meaning of the universe, but maybe just the sound “d.” Young cushioned this finding in caution, saying that it was true only of names, and names only of non-Egyptian rulers, and only when the names were set within cartouches, oval-shaped enclosures in the Rosetta Stone text, because those were the only cases in which he could demonstrate the truth of his claim. But even this modest assertion was significant, because it said, implicitly, that hieroglyphs obeyed rules. They were something you could figure out.

Young opened the door, but he wasn’t the one who walked through it. Young was a born scholar, the kind who seldom left his desk and was proud of that. When he proposed the creation of a society to collect and publish hieroglyphic inscriptions, he maintained that he saw no need to “scramble over Egypt” looking for more; that task could be left to “some poor Italian or Maltese.” As for him, he would stay home, where, if, say, he was caught up in his speculations when dinner was announced, his meal could be brought to him on a tray. Besides, he was a polymath. He was interested, and expert, in many things. Hieroglyphic writing commanded his attention for only about three years, until 1817, and, for the most part, only during his summer breaks. In 1819, he summarized his findings in the “Egypt” article of the Encyclopædia Britannica and turned to other matters. By then, he knew that another scholar, in France, was working on decoding the hieroglyphs. Within a few years, it was evident that he had fallen too far behind to catch up.

The other scholar was Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), seventeen years Young’s junior. Champollion grew up in southwestern France, the youngest of seven children. His father was a bookseller; his mother couldn’t read or write. He had little money. Until he was middle-aged and had already, more or less, founded Egyptology, he could not afford to go to Egypt. But, from an early age, he had shown an extraordinary gift for languages. While still in his teens, he acquired not only Greek and Latin but also Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Sanskrit, Syriac, Persian, Chaldean. Most important for his future work, he set about learning Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Orthodox Church, which was thought (correctly, as it turned out) to be descended from Ancient Egyptian.

Champollion was aided in his studies by his brother Jacques-Joseph, who was twelve years older than Jean-François and not just his brother but his godfather, too—an important job in the old days. Seeing Jean-François’s genius, he was happy to support him, even housing him when necessary. A linguist himself, he encouraged his brother’s passion for languages. Once, when the young man was recovering from an illness, he asked Jacques-Joseph for a Chinese grammar, to help him recuperate.

At sixteen, Champollion presented his first paper, on place-names in ancient Egypt, and announced to the Grenoble Society of Sciences and the Arts that he was going to decipher the hieroglyphs and reconstruct the history of pharaonic Egypt. He devoted himself to that project for the rest of his life. Dolnick takes Champollion as a sort of paragon of the scientific mind, above all in his willingness to dwell on a problem without ceasing. (He quotes Newton, who, when asked how he arrived at the theory of gravitation, replied, “By thinking on it continually.”) In such an endeavor, it helps to love one’s subject. “Enthusiasm, that is the only life,” Champollion proclaimed. The great moments of his life were his advances in research. After one breakthrough, he gathered up his papers, ran out into the street, and raced to his brother’s office. Bursting through the door, he yelled, “Je tiens l’affaire! ” (“I’ve got it!”), and fainted on the floor.

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