The Writing of the Gods: The Race to decode the Rosetta Stone

Review by Andrew Robinson.

The Rosetta Stone, dated 196 BC, is of course famous worldwide – and perhaps the best-known object in the British Museum, following its 1801 capture by the British army from its French military discoverers in Egypt. Yet, although most people are aware of this early British–French rivalry, few really know what the Stone is, claims Edward Dolnick, probably accurately. He himself was one of them for 20 years, despite having a Rosetta Stone postcard on his bulletin board as a souvenir of a trip to London.

Inspired by subsequent curiosity to understand the Stone, his book is designed to answer a general need, without extensive scholarly detail. As a notable science writer, good at popularising tricky subjects, Dolnick is well placed, by drawing on the scholarship of Egyptologists and others, including my own biographies of the two leading Rosetta decipherers: the English polymath Thomas Young, and the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion. (I should add that I have no personal involvement with the book.) The only surprising omission is The Riddle of the Rosetta by Jed Buchwald and Diane Josefowicz, a recent, significant, scholarly study.

As Dolnick remarks upfront, ‘the Rosetta Stone is that unlikeliest of objects, a window made of solid stone, and the view through the window tells us not only about the nitty-gritty of sleuthing and deciphering but also about the nature of language and the byways of history and the evolution of human culture.’ His book skilfully integrates these aspects.

For example, he notes that the Egyptian ruler discussed in the Rosetta Stone, Ptolemy V – whose name provided the first major clue – was not Egyptian but Greek: a descendant of a general of Alexander the Great, who conquered Egypt in 332 BC. In 196 BC, Egypt was ruled by a small class of Greek officials, merchants, and soldiers, while the Egyptian peasantry tilled the fields. Hence the appearance of the Greek alphabet as one of the three inscriptions on the Stone, along with the hieroglyphic and demotic texts. No ruler spoke Egyptian or could read these two Egyptian scripts. Thus, ‘the very hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone that declared Ptolemy’s virtues would have been, so to speak, Greek to him.’

Young and Champollion’s scholarly rivalry and highly contrasting personalities are rightly stressed. But their fascinating personal interaction is not always clearly revealed. In 1815, Champollion’s Parisian teacher and mentor Sylvestre de Sacy wrote to Young in London: ‘If I might venture to advise you, I would recommend you not to be too communicative of your discoveries to M. Champollion. It may happen that he may hereafter make pretension to the priority.’ This astonishing, and prescient, warning goes unmentioned by Dolnick.

The Writing of the Gods: The Race to decode the Rosetta Stone, Edward Dolnick, Scribner, HARDBACK, $28, ISBN 978-1501198939.