On 24 August AD 394, a priest composed what seems at first glance to be an unremarkable dedication. It was inscribed on the temple of Isis at Philae, in southern Egypt, and accompanied an image of the Nubian god Mandulis. The text identified the priest as Nesmeterakhem, and recorded his wish that the words would endure ‘for all time and eternity’. The very act of consigning Nesmeterakhem’s modest dedication to posterity, though, marked the end of a distinguished line, for the Philae inscription is the last known use of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. By then, this writing system had been around for almost 4,000 years, with its development dating back to roughly 3250 BC. While the word ‘hieroglyph’ comes from Greek and means ‘sacred carving’, the ancient Egyptian way to describe this script was ‘the god’s word’. As far as mortals were concerned, we can be confident that even during the heyday of ancient Egypt, only a tiny proportion of the population – perhaps 1% – was able to read hieroglyphs. By Nesmeterakhem’s day they were a dying breed.
While the script fell out of use, though, interest in it never truly went away. Ironically, it seems that even before the last flickers of knowledge about reading and writing hieroglyphs had been extinguished, Greek and Roman writers were already investing considerable ingenuity in attempting to understand the secrets hidden within. One of the reasons hieroglyphs posed such a challenge was that the individual characters present something of a red herring. The creatures, human figures, and many other shapes and symbols making up hieroglyphic script were borrowed from nature, hinting that they should be read as pictures with symbolic meanings. An early advocate of this method was a 5th-century AD priest called Horapollo, who recorded meanings for 189 hieroglyphic signs. His musings were rediscovered in 15th-century Italy, when the early date of Horapollo’s work encouraged scholars to believe that he knew what he was talking about. It would be another four centuries before the truth – that most of the signs represent sounds, not symbols – would be triumphantly expounded in 1822. Two centuries on, it could not be more appropriate that the latest British Museum exhibition is dedicated to the race to read hieroglyphs, and the extraordinary world unlocked by this success (see ‘FURTHER INFORMATION’).
A turning point for hieroglyphs came when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC. Afterwards, a ruling Greek dynasty was imposed on Egypt: the Ptolemies. While hieroglyphs were still used for great public texts, Greek became increasingly important as the language of the administration. This also had an impact on another way of writing ancient Egyptian that existed at the time. It is now known as demotic, and was widely used for drawing up documents, as it offered an easier way of representing the ancient Egyptian language using handwriting. The last appearance of demotic can also be found in the temple at Philae, where the script features in an inscription dating to 11 December AD 452. Even this does not mark the end of the ancient Egyptian language, though, as a way was found to render it in Greek letters, with a handful of symbols for additional sounds taken from demotic. Around AD 100, this gave rise to the Coptic alphabet, which is still used in the liturgy of the Coptic church. Indeed, the British Museum exhibition features a recording of a Coptic hymn being sung, allowing visitors to experience this last surviving remnant of the spoken ancient Egyptian language.
‘A key moment comes when the link between hieroglyphs and the spoken language is lost,’ says Ilona Regulski, exhibition curator at the British Museum. ‘This is a process that starts with the Greeks, and continues when Arabic becomes the language of Egypt. As early as the 6th and 7th centuries, those people who could speak Coptic started to feel that their language was being lost, so they began copying their manuscripts into Arabic and consciously created Coptic-Arabic dictionaries in order to preserve the language. It is also in this period that much more begins to be written about hieroglyphs. This was done by the Egyptians themselves, who have always reflected on their culture and the ruins in the Nile valley, and also Arabic travellers from other regions. At this time, the Arab world was technologically and intellectually ahead of Europe, with many scholars travelling to Cairo to study at the universities there.’
‘Most of this medieval writing was speculation. Hieroglyphs were generally interpreted as magical symbols, which held hidden knowledge about the secret of life. So, if they could be read, they would reveal the truth about everything. This idea was later picked up by Europeans, and lived on into the 17th century. Despite this belief, some early scholars tried to approach the matter in a more scientific way, like the 10th-century historian Ahmad Ibn Waḥshīyah, by seeking to attach meaning to the hieroglyphs. In a few cases they do get bits right, but decipherment is about more than correctly identifying the sound of two or three hieroglyphs. What I think is a very important contribution by Arab scholars comes from them being closer both geographically and in time to an environment where Coptic was still alive as a spoken language. They all wrote that Coptic contained the remnants of the ancient Egyptian language. This is a key observation that later scholars built upon, which I think would otherwise have been lost. They also comment on the relationship between hieroglyphs and handwritten scripts like demotic, saying that they reflect the same language. Later on, some scholars in Europe contested this.’
Interest in Egypt really took off in Europe in the 1400s. This was mainly due to the rediscovery of Greek manuscripts that talk about hieroglyphs, such as Horapollo’s work. It was brought to Italy, which was at the forefront of initial European interest in Egypt, with the subject finding favour in France and Britain rather later. At the same time that these ancient texts reappeared on the scene, authentic Egyptian objects were also being found in Italy. These had been brought back by the Romans, and in some cases were sizable monuments, such as obelisks. Re-erecting these marked the first time since the fall of Rome that people in Europe were able to examine monumental hieroglyphs in person. As the 15th century gave way to the 16th, increasing numbers of smaller artefacts bearing the script arrived, in the form of souvenirs picked up by European travellers. This fondness for collecting gathered pace, and by the 17th century numerous substantial collections had been amassed, some of which went on to provide the nucleus for national museums.
‘Something else that you see in the 17th century is scholars expressing the wish that they had a bilingual inscription,’ says Ilona. ‘For that they had to wait until the 1798 expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt, which also generated a huge amount of public interest in the subject. From the start, Napoleon was very keen on including a scientific element, and he took a team of 140-170 scholars with him. They travelled throughout Egypt, documenting the archaeology, the customs, everything. Then, in 1799, came the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone at Fort Saint Julien, which was named after one of Napoleon’s high officials. At the time, work was underway on existing forts on the north coast of Egypt, because fighting had intensified, with attacks from the combined naval forces of the British and Egyptians. During this programme to strengthen the defences, the Rosetta Stone was found in the fort foundations. The soldiers immediately saw its potential, because they realised that there were three different scripts – hieroglyphs, demotic, and Greek – on the stone. It was even reported in the press as the possible key to understanding hieroglyphs, which I think was amazingly perceptive at that early stage.’
One person likely to have followed reports about the discovery of the stone is Jean-François Champollion. Born in 1790, he was still a child, but was proving to be a prodigy who successfully mastered several languages in his early years. The fate of the Rosetta Stone, though, was dictated by the Capitulation of Alexandria, which was drawn up following Napoleon’s defeat. ‘With the terms of surrender, it had to be handed over to the British,’ says Ilona. ‘Article 16 of the Treaty was about antiquities, and initially it was proposed that all of the materials would be given to the British: the artefacts and the documentation, including the notes and drawings. But the French refused. They were not happy about parting with the objects, but would not give up the documents. One of the scholars, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, warned that they would rather burn this material. He noted the apparent fate of the ancient library, saying to the British, “For your fame, count on the remembrance of history; you too will have burned a library of Alexandria!” After that, it was agreed that the French could keep their notes. Some of this material was published very quickly, and Champollion must have read it.’
The Greek text on the Rosetta Stone revealed that it was a priestly decree, concerning the establishment of a cult dedicated to the young Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BC. It also specified that all three scripts presented the same information. While the stone was sent to Britain, the all-important text carved into its face was widely circulated. Not only did the French keep the drawings that had already been produced, they also successfully requested additional copies. The British, in turn, created more versions, which were distributed to scholars across Europe. At an intellectual level, rival countries were effectively working together in an international attempt to crack the secrets contained within the hieroglyphs. This sense that it did not matter who deciphered the script, so long as it could be read, was not to last, though. Instead, it developed into a race between two figures: Thomas Young, a British polymath once referred to as ‘the last man who knew everything’, and Champollion. The French prodigy seems to have received a copy of the Rosetta Stone text in 1808, and began investigating it at the urging of his brother, who was also Champollion’s financial supporter.
‘There are two important points that distinguish these scholars,’ says Ilona, ‘which has to do with their character. Champollion wanted to decipher hieroglyphs as part of a search for ancient Egypt. For him, it was a gateway to a lost past. Thomas Young, though, was a physician and scientist – among many other things – and he saw cracking the code as a scientific venture that was an end in itself. He didn’t have that much interest in the culture of ancient Egypt. Crucially, he didn’t think that it was capable of having a complex writing system. Although he never puts it like this, you get a sense when you read Young’s texts that for him Greece and Rome are the great civilisations, while anything earlier must have been a barbaric precursor. So, the two men had a very different approach to Egypt, which meant that they were working with different attitudes.’
‘Young came very close to the answer. But he was hampered by this belief that the hieroglyphic writing system was not sophisticated enough to represent a spoken language – with one exception. Young thought that foreign names were spelled out phonetically. The earliest breakthrough came with royal names – which are shown in a cartouche – when Young read the name of Ptolemy and Cleopatra. But while he understood these names correctly, he got the analysis of the individual signs wrong, because he read them as syllables. For example, he interpreted the lion character in Ptolemy as an “ole” or “olt” sound. But Champollion saw that the lion sign also appeared in Cleopatra, so it could not be “ole” or “olt”, as that sound does not occur in her name. Instead, from the order of the hieroglyphs, the lion had to be “L”. Everyone now agrees that it was Champollion who was successful with the decipherment, as he really understood the structure and logic of the language. Even so, when Champollion read his famous letter announcing his findings on 22 September 1822 in Paris, Young attended and essentially said, “We have already done this.” It’s not really true, though, as Champollion corrects and pinpoints exactly how hieroglyphs work. It’s his refinement that’s the key. Young seems to acknowledge this, too, because after this “eureka” moment, he leaves the hieroglyphs to Champollion, and goes on to do really important work on demotic.’
As hieroglyphs surrendered their secrets, it quickly became apparent that the great truth imagined by medieval scholars did not lie concealed within its script. Many inscriptions proved to be relatively repetitive official documents. Even dry, formal texts could court controversy, though, as Champollion discovered when he translated a list of Egyptian kings in the temple at Abydos, which he then extended using another list on a papyrus known as the Turin Royal Canon. These records pushed the chronology of ancient Egypt further and further back in time. As centuries became millennia, Champollion was drawn into conflict with the Church, which was unwilling to accept such a long history for Egypt.
Besides documenting the extraordinary longevity of ancient Egypt, reading the ancient texts also revealed powerful insights into daily lives. The exhibition illustrates how these writings shed light on everything from great battles to the use of magical spells to safeguard children. The sentiment on one such charm, carried by a little girl called Buiharkhons, echoes down the millennia: ‘we shall keep her safe’. Egyptian literature was also recovered from oblivion, with examples including the story of an ill-fated love triangle, the adventures of an eloquent peasant, and a ‘Satire of the Trades’, penned c.1300-1200 BC, which pokes fun at various professions. Among those on the receiving end was the coppersmith, whose description includes fingers ‘like the claws of the crocodile, and he stank more than fish eggs’. Alongside such lively exposés, there are also detailed – if rather drier – texts about the afterlife, medicine, and mathematics. Seen in the round, the insights that have flowed from the deciphering of ancient Egyptian writing are nothing short of staggering.
Even two centuries on, the story is far from over. ‘When I was still a PhD student, I was part of a British Museum expedition to Sudan,’ remembers Ilona. ‘We went to a place called Kurgus, where there is a big inscription on a rock. This turned out to be a boundary stela, and it is linked to the expansion of Egypt during the 18th Dynasty. The furthest south they ever conquered was this place at Kurgus. And they repurposed a rock that previously had indigenous rock art on it – I think this was on purpose – and carved their own inscription on top. It was very hard to see the text, because it was carved into white granite, so we had to spend hours and hours on a ladder, staring at the rock. But this illustrates how even now, in our generation, we are still discovering completely new texts, that continue to change how we understand history.’
As progress is also being made on using a specialised scanning machine called a synchrotron to read the text on papyri that have never been unrolled, we can look forward to hearing more from ancient Egypt in the future.
FURTHER INFORMATION Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt will run at the British Museum until 19 February 2023. For more details, including ticket prices, see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/hieroglyphs-unlocking-ancient-egypt A sumptuously produced publication accompanying the exhibition is also available: I Regulski (ed.) (2022) Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt (The British Museum, ISBN 978-0714191294, £25.)