Cracking the Rosetta code: How a black slab of stone unlocked a world to an ancient Egyptian civilization 

Special A new British Museum exhibition marks 200 years since scholars cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone, pictured. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
A new British Museum exhibition marks 200 years since scholars cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone, pictured. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
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Updated 14 October 2022

Cracking the Rosetta code: How a black slab of stone unlocked a world to an ancient Egyptian civilization 

Cracking the Rosetta code: How a black slab of stone unlocked a world to an ancient Egyptian civilization 
  • For centuries, ancient Egypt was shrouded in darkness until a discovery of a slab of stone that put Egyptologists to the test
  • The 3,000-year-old Rosetta Stone, engraved in three different languages, would prove to be the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

LONDON: From a military perspective, the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, an attempt to disrupt British trade and influence in North Africa and India, was a complete failure. For the world’s understanding of 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history, however, it would prove to be an accidental triumph.

An army of 50,000 men under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte landed at Alexandria on July 2, 1798, and over the next three years there were a series of victories, and the occasional defeat, for the French troops in Egypt and Syria.

But after the British navy sank Napoleon’s fleet in Aboukir Bay at the Battle of the Nile on July 25, 1799, the dwindling, disease-ravaged French army, harried by Ottoman and British forces, found itself trapped in a hostile, alien land. With no way out, and no chance of reinforcement, the end was inevitable.

Napoleon knew this, and on the night of Aug. 22, 1799, he abandoned his troops and slipped back to Paris and his ultimate destiny — in 1804, he would be crowned emperor of France.

The remains of his army in Egypt clung on, even after Napoleon’s successor as commander was assassinated, until it finally surrendered to the British at Alexandria on Sept. 2, 1801.

As part of the expedition, Napoleon had ordered the wholesale looting of antiquities to be taken back to France. But, after the French surrender, most of these fell into the hands of the British. Among the spoils shipped back to the British Museum was a block of polished stone engraved with writing in three different languages — ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Discovered in July 1799 by a French army engineer who had been strengthening the defenses of a captured 15th-century Ottoman fort near Rosetta on the west bank of the Nile, the object became known as the Rosetta Stone.




Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet, papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

It would prove to be the key to understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Although many European scholars were fluent in ancient Greek, it would be more than two decades before they were able to crack the Rosetta code. When they did, it was a landmark moment in Egyptology, which the British Museum is celebrating this month with a major new exhibition that brings together a collection of more than 240 objects, including the Rosetta Stone.

The exhibition, “Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt,” coincides with the 200th anniversary of the final breakthrough by French philologist and orientalist Jean-Francois Champollion in 1822.

“Deciphering the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone unlocked 3,000 years of Egyptian history,” Ilona Regulski, curator of Egyptian written culture at the British Museum, told Arab News.

“Until then, nobody knew how far back the ancient Egyptian civilization went, or how long it lasted. But after his breakthrough, Champollion was able to translate the names of kings and establish a royal chronology which went back much farther in time than anyone had previously realized. 

“Very soon, there also came the understanding that this was a complex civilization that had relationships with its neighbors, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, and step by step we came to understand the society better.

“From the Greek historians, who reported some practices that they saw, we knew that the ancient Egyptians mummified their dead. But we didn’t really understand how these people lived and experienced their world.”




Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty, 1855–08 BC. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Cracking the Rosetta code was a complex business that tested the minds of European academics. Although the stone featured three translations of the same decree, they were not alike word for word.

“Champollion and others started by looking at the Greek text and identifying words that appeared often, for example, the word for temple, or the title basileus (a term for monarch),” said Regulski. “They looked at the demotic text to see if there was a cluster of signs that appeared more or less in the same place.”

It was a reasonable start, but a process frustrated by the fact, not initially appreciated, that neither ancient Egyptian nor demotic were alphabet-based scripts, and that any one word could be spelled in many different ways in the same document.

Eventually, a sign list, a kind of ancient Egyptian dictionary, was created, “but it was not enough to understand the entire text, or to use it to read other inscribed objects,” said Regulski.

It was Champollion who finally figured out that hieroglyphics was a hybrid system.

“There are alphabetic signs, but also single signs that represent two or three letters, or even entire words,” said Regulski. “And some are silent signs, what we call ‘determinatives’ in Egyptology. You don’t read them in any way, but they indicate the meaning of the preceding word, telling you whether it’s a verb or a noun.”

Basically, hieroglyphics “appears to be a very simple, symbol-based language, but it’s much more complicated than that, and much more complex than an alphabetic script, and that took a long time to figure out.”




Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty, 1855–08 BC. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The script on the Rosetta Stone turned out to be a decree written in 196 B.C. by priests at Memphis, recognizing the authority of the Ptolemaic pharaoh Ptolemy V. It would have been written originally on papyrus, with copies distributed around the kingdom so the text could be engraved on stone slabs, or “stelae,” for display in temples throughout Egypt.

Over the following decades, nine other partial copies of the decree would be discovered at sites across Egypt. But the Rosetta Stone is the most complete and, without it, for example “the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun,” excavated by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, “would have looked very different,” said Regulski.

“It would have been difficult for Carter to identify the king, which is quite crucial, and his place in the context of the chronology of the 18th dynasty. We would just have a beautiful tomb with beautiful things.”

By the standards of ancient Egypt, the Rosetta Stone is not that ancient. “For us as Egyptologists,” said Regulski, “the stone, from about 200 B.C., comes very late in the story of hieroglyphics, a writing system that first came into use in about 3250 B.C.”

And in 200 B.C., hieroglyphics were already on the way out.

“The first really important change in Egypt was the use of Greek as the administrative language,” said Regulski.

“When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., people were already speaking Greek; the language was already circulating from the eighth century onwards, because of trade and because there were lots of Greek mercenaries who fought in the Egyptian army and settled in the country.

“But from Alexander the Great onward, and especially in the Ptolemaic periods, Greek became the language of administration and slowly pushed Egyptian out.”




Clockwise from left: Statue of a scribe, limestone, Egypt, 6th Dynasty. (Musée du Louvre); a casket with hieroglyphs on its side (British Museum); a Mummy bandage of Aberuai, linen, Saqqara, Egypt, Ptolemaic period. (Musée du Louvre). 

Regardless of the historical context of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, and its seizure by the British, “for the field of Egyptology, and for Egypt, it is definitely something to celebrate,” said Regulski.

“Today, there are many Egyptologists in the world, including our colleagues in Egypt, and we all work together, a huge community trying to refine our knowledge of ancient Egypt, which all came out of this one venture.”

Regulski, who spent two years working alongside Egyptian colleagues at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, could not be drawn on the vexed subject of whether the Rosetta Stone should be returned to its country of origin.

More than 100,000 artifacts from Egypt’s rich past will be housed in the Grand Egyptian Museum, currently nearing completion at a site west of Cairo, close to the Giza pyramids.

Among them will be the 5,400 treasures entombed with Tutankhamun more than 3,300 years ago, including his iconic death mask, which, after decades of touring the world, will finally come to rest where they belong.

However, the Rosetta Stone, the key to understanding it all, will remain in Britain.

The British general who accompanied the stone back to Britain in 1801 after it was taken from the French, chose to see it and 20 other pieces not as loot, but as “a proud trophy of the arms of Britain — not plundered from defenseless inhabitants, but honorably acquired by the fortune of war.”

The British Museum exhibition will feature the French capitulation document, on loan from the UK’s National Archives and displayed for the first time. This, said a spokesperson for the British Museum, is “the legal agreement which included the transfer of the Rosetta Stone to Britain ... as a diplomatic gift ... signed by all parties; representatives of the Egyptian, French and British governments.”




Cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor. (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

Today, an Egyptian government might justifiably take issue with the description of an officer of the Ottoman army as a rightful custodian of Egyptian heritage. 

Certainly, at the time, no thought was given to whether the Rosetta Stone and other antiquities ought to remain in Egypt, a question that is becoming ever more acute today, in an era when pressure is mounting on Western institutions such as the British Museum to return the spoils of imperial wars and adventures.

“The only thing I would say is that having worked closely with Egyptian curators at the museum, it’s not a priority for many of them,” said Regulski. “I find it a bit sad that our relationship is framed in this way, about giving back objects or not, because our relationship with our Egyptian colleagues is about so much more than which individual objects went to this place, or that.

“It’s about celebrating ancient Egypt, and there is still so much to do in Egypt, so much to learn, to research and collaborate on, and that is the positive thing to focus on.”

The public fascination with ancient Egypt owes its origins to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the single most visited object in the British Museum, and “to a culture that left behind such a well-preserved, monumental testament to its existence that also has such a powerful visual appeal, which you don’t have in some other ancient cultures.

“I think the general visitor to a museum is drawn to this highly visual, artistic culture, including the writing system itself. If you compare it with cuneiform, for example, you’re going to be drawn more to hieroglyphics, because it’s so beautiful, so visually appealing. I think that’s what hooks people and encourages them to learn more about the culture.”

Certainly, the British Museum expects the exhibition, which will chart the journey to decipher hieroglyphs, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travelers and Renaissance scholars, through to Champollion’s triumph in 1822, to be one of its most popular to date. 

‘Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt,’ is at the British Museum from Oct. 13, 2022 to Feb. 19, 2023.

 


Russia’s Lavrov says United States involved in Nord Stream explosions

Russia’s Lavrov says United States involved in Nord Stream explosions
Updated 54 min 27 sec ago

Russia’s Lavrov says United States involved in Nord Stream explosions

Russia’s Lavrov says United States involved in Nord Stream explosions
  • Russia vows to push Ukrainian army back in response to longer-range rockets

MOSCOW: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday said the United States was directly involved in explosions that severely damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea last year.
Lavrov provided no evidence for his claim. President Vladimir Putin has previously accused Britain of blowing up the pipelines, which London denied.
In an interview on state TV, Lavrov also said the West was lying about Russia’s refusal to negotiate over Ukraine and was trying to turn Moldova, Georgia and former Soviet states in Central Asia against Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russian forces would respond to the delivery of longer-range Western weapons to Kyiv by trying to push Ukrainian forces further away from its borders to create a safe buffer zone.
In the interview on state TV, Lavrov said everybody wanted the conflict in Ukraine — which Moscow calls a “special military operation” — to end, but that the West’s support for Kyiv was playing an important role in how Russia approached the campaign.
Two US officials told Reuters on Tuesday that Washington was preparing a new package of military aid worth $2.2 billion which is expected to include longer-range rockets for the first time.
.”..We’re now seeking to push back Ukrainian army artillery to a distance that will not pose a threat to our territories,” said Lavrov.
.”..The greater the range of the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime the more we will have to push them back from territories which are part of our country.”
Longer-range rockets would allow Ukraine — which has said it plans to retake all of its territory by force, including annexed Crimea — to strike deeper into Russian-held territory.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday that such rockets would escalate the conflict but not change its course.
President Vladimir Putin sent tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine in February last year. He has said the operation was needed to protect Russia’s own security and to stand up to what he has described as Western efforts to contain and weaken Moscow.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of waging an illegal war designed to expand its territory.


EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’

EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’
Updated 02 February 2023

EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’

EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’
  • EU countries have staunchly backed Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February
  • In June last year, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status

KYIV: European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she had arrived in Kyiv with a team of commissioners on Thursday, a day before a Ukraine-European Union summit in the war-torn country.
“Good to be back in Kyiv, my 4th time since Russia’s invasion.... We are here together to show that the EU stands by Ukraine as firmly as ever. And to deepen further our support and cooperation,” she wrote in a tweet.
She is accompanied by 15 commissioners, including the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
The Commission described the visit as a “strong symbol” of European support for Ukraine “in the face of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified aggression.”
EU countries have staunchly backed Ukraine since Moscow invaded in February, by hitting Russia with waves of economic sanctions and by sending weapons to Kyiv.
In June last year, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status.


Pakistan mosque suicide bomber ‘was in police uniform’: police chief

Pakistan mosque suicide bomber ‘was in police uniform’: police chief
Updated 02 February 2023

Pakistan mosque suicide bomber ‘was in police uniform’: police chief

Pakistan mosque suicide bomber ‘was in police uniform’: police chief
  • Hundreds of police were attending afternoon prayers in the police headquarters’ mosque when the blast erupted

The suicide bomber who killed 101 people inside a mosque at a police headquarters in Pakistan was wearing a police uniform and helmet when he staged the attack, a police chief said Thursday.
“Those on duty didn’t check him because he was in a police uniform... It was a security lapse,” Moazzam Jah Ansari, the head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province police force, told a news conference.
Police have a “fair idea” about who the bomber was after matching his head found at the scene with CCTV images.
“There’s an entire network behind him,” Ansari said, explaining that the bomber had not planned Monday’s assault in northwest Peshawar alone.
Hundreds of police were attending afternoon prayers in the police headquarters’ mosque when the blast erupted, causing a wall to collapse and crush officers.
Authorities are investigating how a major security breach could happen in one of the most tightly controlled areas of the city, housing intelligence and counter-terrorism bureaus, and next door to the regional secretariat.
It is Pakistan’s deadliest assault in several years and the worst since violence began to surge again in the region after the Afghan Taliban’s takeover in Kabul in 2021.


Australia to remove British monarch from banknotes

Australia to remove British monarch from banknotes
Updated 02 February 2023

Australia to remove British monarch from banknotes

Australia to remove British monarch from banknotes
  • The RBA said it would consult Indigenous people on a new design that “honors the culture and history of the First Australians”
  • Australia is a constitutional monarchy, a democracy with King Charles III as its head of state

SYDNEY: Australia will remove the British monarch from its banknotes, replacing the late Queen Elizabeth II’s image on its $5 note with a design honoring Indigenous culture, the central bank said Thursday.
The decision to leave her successor King Charles III off the $5 note means no monarch would remain on Australia’s paper currency.
The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) said it would consult Indigenous people on a new design that “honors the culture and history of the First Australians.”
Queen Elizabeth’s death on September 8 last year was marked by public mourning in Australia, but some Indigenous groups also protested against the destructive impact of colonial Britain, calling for the abolition of the monarchy.
Australia is a constitutional monarchy, a democracy with King Charles III as its head of state. A referendum proposing a switch to a republic was narrowly defeated in 1999.
The central bank said its decision was supported by the center-left Labor government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who favors an eventual move to an Australian republic.
The new banknote would take “a number of years” to be designed and printed, it said, with the existing $5 note remaining legal tender even after the new design is in people’s hands.
The RBA’s move was hailed by the nation’s republican movement, which noted that Indigenous people predated British settlement by 65,000 years.
“Australia believes in meritocracy so the idea that someone should be on our currency by birthright is irreconcilable, as is the notion that they should be our head of state by birthright,” said Australian Republic Movement chair Craig Foster.
“To think that an unelected king should be on our currency in place of First Nations leaders and elders and eminent Australians is no longer justifiable at a time of truth-telling, reconciliation and ultimately formal, cultural and intellectual independence.”
The Australian Monarchist League said the decision was “virtually neo-communism in action.”
“Before a referendum is held on whether the people want to retain the King as sovereign or opt for a President, this government has arbitrarily moved to discard the King’s head from Australia’s five dollar note,” it said in a statement.
“It is certainly not Australian democracy.”
A British monarch has featured on Australian banknotes since 1923 and was on all paper bills until 1953, the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation.
The queen’s face adorned the 1-pound banknote and then the new $1 note from 1966.
That first $1 banknote also included imagery of Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings based on a bark painting by Indigenous artist David Malangi Daymirringu.
The queen’s face has peered up at Australians from the polymer $5 note since 1992.
But the central bank’s governor Philip Lowe announced three months ago that it had begun talking with the government about whether to forego replacing the queen’s image with a portrait of King Charles III.
Australian coins, which are issued by the Royal Australian Mint, currently feature an image of the queen.


North Korea says US drills have pushed situation to ‘extreme red-line’

North Korea says US drills have pushed situation to ‘extreme red-line’
Updated 02 February 2023

North Korea says US drills have pushed situation to ‘extreme red-line’

North Korea says US drills have pushed situation to ‘extreme red-line’
  • Pyongyang was not interested in dialogue as long as Washington pursues hostile policies: statement
  • White House rejected North Korean statement and reiterated willingness to meet North Korean diplomats

SEOUL: North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that drills by the United States and its allies have pushed the situation to an “extreme red-line” and threaten to turn the peninsula into a “huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone.”
The statement, carried by state news agency KCNA, said Pyongyang was not interested in dialogue as long as Washington pursues hostile policies.
“The military and political situation on the Korean peninsula and in the region has reached an extreme red-line due to the reckless military confrontational maneuvers and hostile acts of the US and its vassal forces,” an unnamed ministry spokesperson said in the statement.
In Washington, the White House rejected the North Korean statement and reiterated a willingness to meet with North Korean diplomats “at a time and place convenient for them.”
“We have made clear we have no hostile intent toward the DPRK and seek serious and sustained diplomacy to address the full range of issues of concern to both countries and the region,” said a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council.
The North Korean statement cited a visit to Seoul this week by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. On Tuesday Austin and his South Korean counterpart vowed to expand military drills and deploy more “strategic assets,” such as aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, to counter North Korea’s weapons development and prevent a war.
“This is a vivid expression of the US dangerous scenario which will result in turning the Korean peninsula into a huge war arsenal and a more critical war zone,” the North Korean statement said.
North Korea will respond to any military moves by the United States, and has strong counteraction strategies, including “the most overwhelming nuclear force” if necessary, the statement added.
More than 28,500 American troops are based in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty.
“We reject the notion that our joint exercises with partners in the region serve as any sort of provocation. These are routine exercises fully consistent with past practice,” the White House statement said.
Last year, North Korea conducted a record number of ballistic missile tests, which are banned by United Nations Security Council resolutions. It was also observed reopening its shuttered nuclear weapons test site, raising expectations of a nuclear test for the first time since 2017.
In New York, South Korea’s foreign minister, Park Jin, met with the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday and called for the UN’s continued attention to North Korea’s recent provocations and efforts to implement sanctions on the reclusive regime.
Guterres said any resumption of nuclear testing by North Korea would deal a devastating blow to regional and international security, and reaffirmed support to build lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, according to Park’s office.
Park is on a four-day trip to the United States, which will include a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Friday.
On Wednesday the United States and South Korea carried out a joint air drill with American B-1B heavy bombers and F-22 stealth fighters, as well as F-35 jets from both countries, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
“The combined air drills this time show the US’ will and capabilities to provide strong and credible extended deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.