Cracking the code: Deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with the Rosetta Stone

As you walk through our new Hall of Ancient Egypt, you might wonder how we know so much today about a civilization that thrived thousands of years ago. Here is how we got there: For most of the Middle Ages and even during the Renaissance, ancient Egypt was a vague concept in the Western world, most often associated with Biblical history. All of that changed in 1798.

Napoleon in Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Less than 10 years after the French revolution, Napoleon invaded Egypt. His army was accompanied by scientists, scholars and artists, who collected artifacts and mapped a good number of sites. With the support of Napoleon, this group of people known as the “Savants” started a center for the study of ancient Egypt, the Institut d’ Égypte. Sadly, in 2011, the Institut was severely damaged and most of its library destroyed.

The work by the French scholars culminated in a magnificent and monumental multiple-volume publication, the Description de l’Égypte, which appeared between 1809 and 1828. These volumes unleashed a wave of Egypt-o-mania in European art and design. This wave eventually reached American shores.

The month of July 1799 was of utmost importance in the history of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Sometime around the middle of that month, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, an officer of the Engineers, found what we now call the Rosetta stone. He was working on reinforcing the defenses of a small fort on the west bank of the Nile, near the small port of el-Rashid (the ancient Rosetta).

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Map of the Nile Delta, identifying the location of Rosetta, where the famous inscription was found. Image courtesy of michelhoude.com

Bouchard realized that the stone slab he had found was part of a larger stela inscribed in three scripts. The stone was cleaned, and the ancient Greek text of the inscription translated. Among other things, the Greek text conveyed the order that the inscription be recorded in three different scripts: ancient Greek on the bottom portion, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the top portion. The middle portion was initially thought to have been ancient Syriac; we now know that it is demotic.

News of the Stone’s discovery spread fast. By August 1799, the inscription was in Cairo, at the Institut d’ Égypte. Copies of the text reached Paris by the fall of 1800. We should not forget, however, that there was still a war being fought in Egypt. French forces, initially successful in the conquest of Egypt, were slowly being defeated by an Anglo-Turkish army. After Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at anchor in the bay of Aboukir, and after Napoleon ignominiously slipped through a British blockade on one of the few surviving French ships, a French defeat was inevitable.

By August 31, 1801, the last French units to offer resistance surrendered in Alexandria. By then, the Rosetta Stone had been transported from Cairo to Alexandria to keep it in the hands of French explorers and out of the hands of anyone else. But it was not to be. The victorious British forces took possession of the Stone, after allowing the French scholars to make a cast of the monument. A British warship carrying the Rosetta Stone arrived in Portsmouth in February 1802. It was placed in the London-based Society of Antiquaries, where several plaster casts were made. Engravings made of the inscription were made and widely distributed throughout Europe and even the United States.

The easiest portion of the inscription to translate and publish was the ancient Greek text. The translation, made in 1802 and presented as a paper, was published 10 years later in 1812. The Stone itself was officially donated to the British Museum by King George III in 1802; a painted text on one of the stela’s sides commemorates this act. With only two exceptions, it has remained in the British Museum ever since. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, when the Museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other portable, ‘important’ objects. The Rosetta Stone spent the next two years in a station on the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below the ground. Other than during wartime, the Rosetta Stone has left the British Museum only once. In October 1972, it was displayed at the Louvre in Paris alongside Champollion’s Lettre to mark the 150th anniversary of its publication (p. 23).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
 Cover of Champollion’s Lettre a M. Dacier. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Even though the inscription is known as the Rosetta Stone, referring to the ancient settlement of Rosetta, it is most likely that the stela fragment was brought to Rosetta as construction material from a more ancient site further inland. It is also probable that it was already broken by the time it was moved to the site of its discovery (p. 26).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Reconstruction of the Rosetta Stone. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Based on similar decrees of the same period, it is likely that the original shape of the Rosetta Stone included a rounded top, as can be seen in the reconstruction drawing (p.26).** The shape of the monument can also be seen toward the end of the last line of the hieroglyphic text.

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Black and white drawing of the Rosetta Stone. The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs.

Deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the role of the Rosetta Stone.

The decipherment of the Rosetta stone involved the contributions of many individuals. Among these were Swedish scholar Åkerblad; two British men, Bankes, a collector of antiquities, and a linguist, Young. Across the Channel, there were two Frenchmen, the orientalist de Sacy and a fellow by the name of Champollion.

An initial step towards reading ancient Egyptian texts came when de Sacy, working on the demotic portion of the text, identified the name of Ptolemy. In 1802, Åkerblad identified the demotic equivalents of “Egypt”, “temples”, “king”, and “Greek.” Unfortunately, both men were hampered in their attempts to crack the hieroglyphic portion by firmly believing that this script was alphabetical, a premise that proved to be false (p.31).**

In 1816, the British scholar Thomas Young, identified the name Ptolemy inside a cartouche on the hieroglyphic section of the stone. Using insights from the demotic text, he assigned the correct values of p, t, ma/m, i, s to five hieroglyphic signs (p.31).** In 1821, in a similar exercise, Bankes correctly translated the name “Cleopatra” inside a cartouche on an obelisk from Philae.**

It was a French scholar, Champollion, who by 1822 truly broke the code. Working with an engraving of the stone and a rendering of it in the Description, Champollion managed to go further than other researchers of his time. By 1822, he was aware of the work done by Young and Bankes. Working with a total of fourteen signs, he deciphered cartouches of other members of the Ptolemaic dynasty and even some Roman emperors. All of this led to Champollion writing his report, the Lettre à M. Dacier, which was read at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris on September 27, 1822 (p.35).** In 1824, Champollion’s letter was published. Subsequent application of Champollion’s insights on Egyptian texts in the British Museum collections proved that he was correct(p. 38 – 39).**

Champollion did not live long to savor his achievement. He was appointed curator at the Louvre in 1830. He held this position until 1832, when he died from a stroke (p.40).**

We all benefit from the hard work of these pioneers and those who came after them. They made it possible to read a vast corpus of ancient Egyptian texts. Texts carved in stone, like the Rosetta text, as well as those painted on pottery shards and shell, or carved in wood, are on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Each in their own way lift the veil of this distant past. Their messages vary from prayers on a papyrus to a medal issued to a soldier; all help us to understand what it must have been like to walk and talk like an ancient Egyptian.

What did the text on the Rosetta Stone say?

The inscription dates to 196 BC. It is an official document, with a message of thanks – in triplicate – from some priests to the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V. Its content is interesting for those who like Hellenistic history; others might think that reading a part of the IRS code is equally interesting. A translation of the demotic portion of the inscription can be read here.

At the end of each text portion, we read that “the decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing, and [that] it should be set up in the first-class temples, the second-class temples and the third-class temples, next to the statue of the King, living forever.” It is therefore very likely that several copies of the Rosetta Stone exist, as yet undiscovered.

**Dates and other factual information sourced here, for further reading: Parkinson, Richard, 1999. Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Shaking Hands Now

Sometimes it’s the small things.  I’ve previously written about the power of objects that captivate us.  Objects can make us curious to know more about the world and on occasion turn us into collectors.  Objects can also evoke memories, giving perspective and context to history.

It’s that last ability I’d like to discuss here.  The museum has a small collection of space memorabilia, mostly flight crew publicity photos, plaques, newspaper articles and other documents.  Recently an embroidered souvenir space flight patch entered the collection; probably not of high monetary value, it could have easily been sold in a gift shop at NASA or here at the museum.  Except that this patch was for the Apollo 17–Soyuz 19 mission.  Now unless you’re an ardent fan of NASA history or, ahem, a certain age, that last sentence is very likely meaningless to you.  My reaction however was “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years!”  Instantly history telescoped.

Context

For those of you either too young or a bit foggy on history, the Apollo-Soyuz mission took place July 15 – 24, 1975.  I’ll leave it to the HMNS Astronomy staff to determine the scientific significance of the flight but politically and historically it was a really big dang deal.  It was the last Apollo program flight and the first joint mission of two different nations in outer space.  Having won the race to be first on the moon six years earlier (1969), the last Apollo spacecraft docked with the Soyuz spacecraft of the USSR, the Americans’ lunar landing rival.  The 1970s were a time of détente, but the Cold War between the USA and the USSR was still raging. The fact that these two countries were able to pull off this joint venture is amazing.  And politics aside, the science and technology to be worked out between the two space agencies was no easy task.  Not to mention the language difficulties.

Our fair city was a big part of the mission. The Soviet cosmonauts, Alexey A. Leonov and Valery N. Kubasov, trained at JSC several times.  In turn, the Apollo astronauts, Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, and Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, trained in Moscow and were the first Americans to visit the Russian launch pad.  It was decided that each crew would learn the language of the other and speak to their counterparts in their newly acquired tongue.  Thus during the mission, the cosmonauts spoke in English to the astronauts who spoke to the cosmonauts in Russian.  Neither language is easy to learn, they don’t even share a common alphabet.  Just imagine that, along with all the pressures of a space flight and representing the best of your home country, you’re doing it all in a language that isn’t your native tongue.  When the two spacecrafts docked on July 17, the cosmonauts responded with “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.”  After the hatch between the two spacecrafts opened the crews physically shook hands in a moment transmitted live to earth and seen by a world-wide audience. For a good overview of the entire mission read this.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission wasn’t the only news event in 1975.  A few other things from that same year…Saigon fell to the communists, Franco died in Spain, oil rose to over $13 a barrel, a gallon of gas was about 44¢, Motorola took out its first patent for a mobile phone, a couple of guys named their start-up company Microsoft, some guy from New Jersey named Bruce released a vinyl record album called Born to Run, and NBC let a bunch of unknown comedians fill up dead air time in a show with the unimaginative title of Saturday Night Live.

Perspective

So, zooming thirty-five years forward through the telescope of history, what perspective does this simple patch bring?  Well, Americans and Russians have been working side by side in space for years now.  The USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended (the recent spy swap not withstanding!), and no one gets too excited about the multiple nationalities working together on the International Space Station.  We can see crystal clear NASA shuttle films in 3-D in the IMAX theatre right here at HMNS, no need to gather around a boxy television watching grainy images.  However, sad to say, as we note the 35th anniversary of the last Apollo flight we’re nearing the end of the space shuttle flights that replaced it.  Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, Microsoft, the Boss, and SNL are still influencing American culture, but there seems to be uncertainty about the future of NASA and manned space flights.  Our little souvenir space flight patch represents a distinct moment in both the history of NASA and the history of the country at large.  Small and ordinary it might be, but it allows us to reflect on what’s been and to wonder what’s next.

When Fiction Becomes Reality [Steve Berry]

Some of the most compelling works of fiction rely heavily on reality (Jurassic Park, anyone?) New York Times best-selling authors James Rollins and Steve Berry are masters of weaving fact into fiction – and both will be at HMNS on Tuesday, Jan. 19 for An Evening of Thrills: How Science and History Make Great Thrillers.  They’ll each be signing their latest releases after the lecture; tickets are going fast – get yours here.  Last week, Rollins gave us a sneak peak in his own guest blog; this week Berry talks about the upcoming lecture.

Fiction into reality?   That’s a little backwards for me.   What I do is turn reality into fiction.  I like to find something from the past—the Amber Room, the lost Romanov children, Charlemagne, the tomb of Alexander the Great—items or artifacts you may not know much about (but, hopefully, would enjoy exploring), then weave a modern day tale around them.  The kind of stories I’ve always like to read have a mix of secrets, conspiracies, history, action, adventure and international settings.  So it was only natural that I would write that same kind of story.

Every novel for me starts as a treasure hunt.  I’m searching for bits of reality that somehow can be woven together into a coherent plot.

And it’s not easy.

AASSWW

In fact, the challenge is to find the most unrelated stuff as possible, then relate them  through a twist of the facts.  While doing this, I have to always keep in mind that I’m not writing a textbook, it’s a novel, whose primary job is to entertain.  But that doesn’t mean the reader can’t learn some stuff along the way.  I enjoy that aspect, and I’ve come to learn that my readers do too.  I’m careful, though, with my twisting, and I make sure the reader knows where I played with the facts by including a writer’s note at the end of each of my books.

In Houston, on January 19th, Jim Rollins and I will be discussing all of this.   Jim’s books are a little history and lot of science, mine are the other way around.  But we both definitely like to tinker with reality.  For me, every book involves around 200 -300 sources obtained from many trips to bookstores; lots of internet browsing; and at least one visit to a locale important to the book.   I have, for days, sat in a German Cathedral (The Charlemagne Pursuit); roamed an abbey in Portugal (The Alexandria Link);  scoured Paris (The Paris Vendetta); climbed citadels in southern France (The Templar Legacy); boated all over Venice (The Venetian Betrayal); and wandered through the Kremlin (The Romanov Prophecy).

But that’s all part of the job.

So drop by January 19th to the museum at 6:30 and spend an evening with me and Jim Rollins.  Have your questions ready.  See you then.

An Evening of Thrills: How Science and History Make Great Thrillers will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 pm. Both authors will sign copies of their latest works after the lecture; copies will be available for purchase from Murder by the Book. Tickets are available here.

HMNS’ 100th year comes to a close…

And what a year it’s been!

All throughout 2009, we’ve celebrated our hundredth year in Houston with a dedicated web site, a series of 100 fun family events; a showcase of our 100 favorite/most amazing/coolest artifacts; a video series with our longest-serving staff (the record is 39 years!), and a contest (which you can still enter for a chance to win a 2010 Museum membership!)

You can also check out 100 years of Museum history here: from our very first Museum bulletin in January 2010 through historic scientific expeditions, ambitious building projects and blockbuster exhibitions, it’s been quite a trip!

But we’re even more excited about what’s coming next – in our second century of science.

In fact, we’ve just broken ground on perhaps our most ambitious project yet: an expansion that will double the amount of public exhibition space that will be available for temporary and permanent exhibitions – including what we intend to be the world’s finest Hall of Paleontology; double the number of classrooms available for educational programs; and triple the amount of available collections storage space, to ensure the conservation and care of our collections for decades to come.

President Joel A. Bartsch talks about what’s next for the Museum in this video – and how you can help.

Help us continue and expand our mission of science education for even greater numbers of children and adults. Donate to the expansion today – and join our Cause on Facebook to help spread the word!

Happy New Year!