opposite Detail of the Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet. Papyrus, 21st Dynasty, 1070 BC. Size: 34 x 416cm overall right The Rosetta Stone, from Rasid. Granodiorite, Ptolemaic period, 196 BC. Size: 112.3 x 75.7 x 28.4cm

Hieroglyphs: the key to ancient Egypt

As the British Museum marks the 200th anniversary of the decoding of the Rosetta Stone in a new exhibition, Lindsay Fulcher talks to its curator, Ilona Regulski, about the two men who worked to decipher its text, what it revealed, and the powerful role of the scribes who created these petrified books.


‘I have turned over in my hand the titles of years whose history was totally forgotten; the names of gods who have not had altars these fifteen centuries, and I have gathered the tiniest pieces of papyrus, scarcely drawing breath for fear of reducing them to powder, the last and only memory of a king who during his life maybe found himself all pent up in the immense palace of Karnak.’

Jean-François Champollion, letter to his elder brother Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figerac, 6 November 1824

Until, in 1822, the brilliant philologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) worked out how to decipher hieroglyphs, the words carved on the Rosetta Stone, and in many other ancient Egyptian inscriptions, could not be accurately read – and much of our knowledge about life in ancient Egypt was based on speculation and conjecture. But it was not his work alone that led to this momentous discovery, for the painstaking analysis carried out before him by the equally brilliant English polymath, Thomas Young (1773-1829), helped to prepare the way for Champollion’s revelations.

Discovered by French troops during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in the summer of 1799, seized by British troops, dispatched to London in June 1802, and deciphered 20 years later, the Rosetta Stone has gone on to become one of the most famous and most visited exhibits in the British Museum. It is with good reason that this iconic object, dating from 196 BC, has come to be seen as a magical touchstone, for it held the key that opened the door to the myriad secrets of ancient Egyptian civilisation.

opposite Detail of the Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet. Papyrus, 21st Dynasty, 1070 BC. Size: 34 x 416cm overall right The Rosetta Stone, from Rasid. Granodiorite, Ptolemaic period, 196 BC. Size: 112.3 x 75.7 x 28.4cm
Detail of the Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet. Papyrus, 21st Dynasty, 1070 BC. Size: 34 x 416cm overall. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Yet the stone itself is not very exciting to look at – a broken slab of greyish granodiorite, part of a stela, on which the same text appears in three sections. The top is in hieroglyphs (for the gods and priests to read), the middle in demotic (a kind of hieroglyphic shorthand used for everyday affairs), and at the bottom in Greek (the language of the Ptolemaic government of Egypt of the day).

Part of it reads:

[King Ptolemy] has created temples, shrines and altars once more for the gods; he has put other things in order, since he is at heart a god pious towards the gods. He has sought after the glories of the temples, to make them new again in his time as Pharaoh, as is fitting. In exchange for this the gods have granted him might, victory and triumph, prosperity and health; and all other blessings for his reign as Pharaoh are secured for him, together with his children.

(Rosetta Stone, demotic version, lines 20-21)

The Rosetta Stone, from Rasid. Granodiorite, Ptolemaic period, 196 BC. Size: 112.3 x 75.7 x 28.4cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

But this stone was not unique (except that it survived); it was one of many identical stelae designed and destined to be placed in all the major temples in the land. This particular one had been reused as building material in a fort near Rosetta (modern-day Rashid) on the Nile Delta. There, in 1799, it was spotted in the rubble by one of Napoleon’s men and sent off to the Institut d’Egypte in Cairo, where a group of French scholars and scientists were assembled. It remained in Egypt until it was seized along with other booty by the victorious British, who sent it home as one of the spoils of war.

Although no one could yet read what was written in the mysterious scripts, from 1802 the Stone was on display in the British Museum. (In the intervening years, it has only left the museum three times – twice during the two World Wars for safety’s sake and once for a brief visit to Paris, in 1972, to celebrate 150 years since its decipherment.) There, in 1813, it came under the scrutiny of an ingenious polymath, physician, and physicist named Thomas Young, known for his seminal work in physics and physiology, as well as in Egyptology. His focus was on the demotic script and his analysis of this section laid the groundwork for Champollion’s later decipherment of hieroglyphs, which he had been working on since 1808. So, an Anglo-French military struggle in the Middle East, metamorphosed into a kind of academic competition over who could decode the Rosetta Stone first – or so we have been led to believe.

above Eugène Champollion, Portrait of Jean-François Champollion. Ink on paper, 19th century. Size: 29.7 x 21cm below Medal of Thomas Young. Copper alloy, 20th century. Size: 5.1cm diameter
Eugène Champollion, Portrait of Jean-François Champollion. Ink on paper, 19th century. Size: 29.7 x 21cm. IMAGE: Musée Champollion – les Écritures du Monde | Figeac

However, when I ask Ilona Regulski, the curator of Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, about it, she explains that it wasn’t quite as simple as that and, when a television interviewer wanted her to support Young in opposition to Champollion, she was reluctant to do so. She finds the Englishman a rather pedantic person; Champollion, on the other hand, was a much more romantic, colourful character, a child prodigy philologist who went on to learn and speak Coptic, ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic:

‘Thomas Young’s research went very far in the decipherment of the demotic and, although Champollion started work earlier on the hieroglyphs, ultimately he needed Young’s groundwork – it helped him. The two men disagreed over the way in which Coptic could contribute to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs: Champollion, who learnt the language, initially thought it held the key, while Young couldn’t see how it could help as it was not close enough to the hieroglyphs. Both were in a way wrong. Champollion made a lot of U-turns in his work but, in the end, it was the kings’ names, the cartouches, that gave him the key to unlock them. He was totally obsessed with deciphering the Rosetta Stone, although he never saw it and had to work from copies, which he complained were not good enough and he wrote to Thomas Young asking him to check that the hieroglyphs he had been sent were correct.’

Medal of Thomas Young. Copper alloy, 20th century. Size: 5.1cm diameter. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Between them, these two men have enabled us to read the true story of life in ancient Egypt. As well as prayers to the gods, magical spells, and incantations, written sources tell us about their international treaties and everyday matters, such as tax returns and shopping lists. It seems that, like us, they enjoyed good food, writing letters, and making jokes. They also enjoyed listening to readings and recitations, and watching performances.

For the ancient Egyptians, the power of the spoken word was considered to be a much more potent force than the written word. The reciting of ritual spells ensuring a safe passage through the underworld after death, for example, was essential if an afterlife was to be guaranteed. So, what sort of advice do they give us for surviving in the hereafter? ‘Face forward. Never look back. Don’t walk upside down – and don’t eat faeces,’ Regulski tells me. But, although this sounds rather down-to-earth, the language of magic is often poetic:

On this scroll there are two spells. If you read the first spell you will orbit the heavens, the earth and the underworld, the mountains and the seas… If you read the second spell, even if you are in the underworld, you will resume your form on earth. You will see the sun rising in the heaven together with his retinue of gods, and the moon at its invisible birth.

(From the demotic story of Setne, 1st century BC)

above Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, from Hawara. Limestone, 12th Dynasty, 1855-1808 BC. Size: 89 x 239 x 12cm
Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, from Hawara. Limestone, 12th Dynasty, 1855-1808 BC. Size: 89 x 239 x 12cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Included in the British Museum’s exhibition is a fine Book of the Dead, belonging to Queen Nedjmet, wife of King Herihor, the High Priest of Amun at Thebes. An impressive four metres in length, it is one of the most beautifully illustrated of all the Books of the Dead in the museum’s collection and shows the careful, lavish attention paid to properly presenting these essential texts for protecting the deceased on their journey into the afterlife. Bandages that wrapped the deceased could also be inscribed. On loan from the Louvre is a fragment of bandage bearing the Book of the Dead (previously misidentified as a calendar). It once belonged to the mummy of Aberuait, who was unwrapped at an event in the 1690s. The linen strips from these popular public mummy-unwrapping sessions (Aberuait’s was an early one) were then unceremoniously cut into pieces and sold as curios or souvenirs.

With such vital importance attached to words, whether he carved hieroglyphs on stone or wrote them in ink on papyrus, ceramics, or linen, working for all levels of society, the role of the scribe was an extremely important – and well-regarded – one.

As for those scribes and sages from the time which came after the gods
– those who would foresee what was to come, which happened –
their names endure for eternity,
although they are gone, although they completed their lifetimes and all their people are forgotten.

Be a scribe! Put it in your heart, that your name shall exist like theirs!

A man has perished: his corpse is dust,
and his people have passed from the land;
it is a book which makes him remembered
in the mouth of a speaker.
More excellent is a roll than a built house,
than a chapel in the west.
It is better than an established villa,
than a stela in a temple.

(Chester Beatty IV papyrus, 1295-1186 BC)

Regulski explains what we know about these enduring writers: ‘Scribes were not necessarily priests, but it was a role that carried status and it was difficult to become one. To become a scribe was an inherited, male-only position, which was jealously guarded by members of elite families. In the Satire of Trades [which is on show in the exhibition] the scribal profession is compared favourably to other jobs, such as that of a bricklayer who is made to work too hard and forced to stand in the sun all day.’

Mummy bandage of Aberuait, from Saqqara. Linen, Ptolemaic period, 332-330 BC. Size: 16.5 x 131cm. IMAGE: © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

‘Only one per cent of the population could read and write, so, if someone wanted a written marriage or legal contract or a petition, they had to get the village scribe to help them. In this way the scribes got to know all about everyone else’s business – gossip, family and other secrets, etc – this gave them a lot of power. Scribes had specialities, too, transmitting text first on papyrus and then on stone. They were trained to be scribes by endlessly copying, and examples exist of their many versions of a text, including some that show their mistakes.’

‘High-ranking scribes could train to become lector-priests who read out funerary rites, during which it was very important to pronounce the words correctly as one wrong word could have dire consequences for the deceased! The Pyramid Texts, written on the subterranean walls inside the pyramid of King Unas (2650 BC) at Saqqara, are the earliest written religious corpus. They are exclusively for the use of the king and composed only of text with no other illustrations, although hieroglyphs themselves may be viewed as art.’

Statue of a scribe. Limestone, 5th Dynasty, 2494-2335 BC. Size: 58 x 35 x 33cm. IMAGE: © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

The signs may be art that does not need any extra adornment, but Regulski tells me that it is still not clear why certain images are used for particular sounds, such as the zigzag sign for rippling water pronounced ‘mw’, or why the verb ‘to open’ is represented by a hieroglyph depicting a seated hare.

The allure of hieroglyphs can be seen in the first object one encounters in the exhibition, the so-called ‘Enchanted Basin’, a large, black granite sarcophagus dating from about 600 BC and belonging to a man called Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty. It encapsulates the enduring power of Egyptian writing, even when its meaning was elusive. Covered in hieroglyphs and images of the gods, from the late 900s it was believed to have magical powers and, by the 17th century, it had come to be known as the ‘lovers’ fountain’, offering relief from the torments of love to anyone who bathed in it. It was found in a place near Cairo that still bears the name al-Hawd al-Marsud, ‘the enchanted basin’. Rather appropriately perhaps, in 1902 the British built a hospital on the site dedicated to treating venereal disease, where registered sex workers came for their annual medical examinations.

Cartonnage of Baketenhor. Late 22nd Dynasty, 945-715 BC. Size: 30 x 175 x 40cm. IMAGE: © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

As well as the more modern linguistic approaches of Young and Champollion, the exhibition charts the longer path to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs 200 years ago, from the early attempts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars, including excursions into alchemy and hermeticism. One of these earlier figures was the 10th-century Iraqi alchemist and historian Ahmad Ibn Waḥshīyah, who wrote much-consulted books on the decipherment of ancient scripts, including different Egyptian scripts, and expressed the idea that one language could be the secret to understanding another, unknown one – a line of thinking that proved critical in the later decoding of the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Stone is at the heart of Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, where it can be viewed alongside some of Young’s and Champollion’s notes and letters, and some of the actual inscriptions and objects studied in their quest to unlock the ancient past. These include a 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin, which was used by Champollion to unravel ancient Egyptian numerals. The rod measures a cubit – a unit of length reflecting, like others, the human body. The cubit (the length of the forearm up to the tip of the middle finger) is made up of seven palms, themselves each measuring four fingers.

Champollion studied the cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor too (on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria). Baketenhor died when she was about 25 to 30 years old, sometime between 945 and 715 BC. Examining the case in the 1820s shortly after he had decoded the hieroglyphic system, Champollion correctly identified an inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer, addressed to several deities, for her soul.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ (sarcophagus of Hapmen), from al-Hawd al-Marsud. Black granite, 26th Dynasty, c.600 BC. Size: 119.4 x 274.4 x 139.7cm. IMAGE: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Reflecting the importance of the spoken word, the curators have also used digital media and audio to bring the language to life, including recordings of the voices of Egyptian colleagues and citizens of Rashid (modern-day Rosetta), which are featured throughout the exhibition.

For our last word, though, let’s return to Champollion. This is part of a letter he wrote to his brother from Egypt on 24 November 1828:

All that remains to add, to sum up, is that we Europeans are merely men of Lilliput, and no people ancient or modern has conceived of art or architecture on so sublime a scale, so broad, so grandiose, as did the Egyptians of old; they created like men a hundred feet high, and compared with this we at the very most are five foot eight.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is at the British Museum (britishmuseum.org/hieroglyphs) until 19 February 2023. The accompanying illustrated catalogue, edited by Ilona Regulski, is available in hardback at £40 and in paperback at £25.

A selection of exhibits will then go on tour to regional museums and galleries in the UK: Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (17 March to 18 June 2023); Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum, Northern Ireland (24 June to 15 October 2023); Torquay Museum, Devon (21 October 2023 to 18 February 2024).

All quotations – apart from those by Ilona Regulski and Chester Beatty IV Papyrus, which comes from the catalogue – are taken from The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt by John Ray (Profile Books, hardback, £15).