Romancing the Stone

By Reviewed by Jonathon Keats
Sunday, July 22, 2007


And the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt

By John Ray

Harvard. 199 pp. $19.95

As an Egyptian pharaoh, Ptolemy V was a glorified placeholder. Just to preserve his royal title and protect his status as a god, he gave tax breaks to priests and performed favors for two sacred bulls, worshipped by commoners, named Apis and Mnevis. We know this because it is written, in three languages, on the Rosetta Stone.

Before the Rosetta Stone was found by Napoleon's army in 1799, Ptolemy's ploys were understandably forgotten, yet he wasn't the only pharaoh whose feats were unknown: Even the legacy of Ramses, builder of the great temple at Karnak, had sunk into hieroglyphic obscurity. For many centuries, nobody could read hieroglyphics. As Cambridge professor John Ray writes in The Rosetta Stone, the fractured granite slab "gave us back one of the longest and most romantic chapters of our history, a chapter which had been thought lost beyond recall." Ray's brief book evokes the process of rediscovery, succinctly capturing the story of the stone's recovery and decipherment and passionately, albeit unoriginally, arguing for the slab's iconic status.

Like Ptolemy V, the Rosetta Stone is of accidental significance. One of many stelae -- stone markers -- produced as political propaganda in the year 196 B.C., it advertised the pharaoh's generosity to three key constituencies -- the Greek government, the Egyptian people and the otherworldly gods -- each of whom used a different script. The gods happened to read hieroglyphics.

Evidently, they were not impressed by Ptolemy's antics. The temple where the stone rested fell to ruin, and the granite was recycled in a citadel in the town of Rosetta until the French invaded Egypt in 1798, and, to keep the British Navy at bay, decided to remodel. A year into the job, an engineering officer named Pierre Francois-Xavier Bouchard stumbled upon the century's greatest archaeological find.

By 1801, the Royal Navy had taken Egypt from Napoleon and seized the plunder of war. This included Bouchard's slab of granite, destined to become, according to Ray, "the most famous object in the British Museum."

The real story begins here, for the stone became iconic as a consequence of its decipherment, or rather through the decoding of Egyptian history with this hieroglyphic key. The British and the French both played crucial roles, and many have read the decipherment as a continuation of their political rivalry. Ray acknowledges this, yet wisely concentrates his attention on the personal ambitions of Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion, the two men who did the actual scholarship.

Young was the first to work on the stone. He was not a likely candidate. Egypt didn't interest him especially, at least not as much as biology and physics, fields to which he routinely contributed major discoveries. For instance, Young figured out how humans perceive color and, in one of the most elegant experiments ever, demonstrated that light travels in waves. "Much of his work is characterized by a feeling that all truths, however complex, could be expressed in terms that were essentially simple," writes Ray. Pre-Rosetta Egyptology, on the other hand, was mired in enigma, operating under the assumption that the land of pharaohs was a "nation of philosophers and religious visionaries [who] codified their profoundest insights into the symbols on their obelisks and temples."

All of this was naturally distasteful to Young, yet the scientist could not resist a conundrum, and from his position outside Egyptology, he was able to approach the stone with unsentimental mathematical discipline. "Young stripped away the mystery which had accumulated round Egyptian hieroglyphs," Ray writes, "and showed that they too obeyed rational rules."

Working out those rules in detail was another matter, requiring deep immersion in ancient Egyptian culture, an obsession of Champollion. While Young was a pragmatist, Champollion was a romantic -- "the Byron of scholarship" in Ray's phrasing -- able to reconnect hieroglyphics with the myths that inspired the Egyptians to write. "Hieroglyphic writing is a complex system," wrote Champollion, "a script at the same time figurative, symbolic, and phonetic, in one and the same text, in one and the same sentence, and, if I may put it, almost in one and the same word."

Ray is at his best when elucidating this intellectual history, which he might have examined at greater length in place of maddeningly vague chapters on Egyptology after Champollion, other famous decipherments and the history of looting. Of course, if studied with the rigor of Young or the imagination of Champollion, the stone could yield a key to any of these subjects. A political platform, a citadel block and a linguistic database, the Rosetta Stone is as useful, and significant, as we make it. ยท

Jonathon Keats is most recently the author of "Control+Alt+Delete: A Dictionary of Cyberslang."

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