Highlighting hieroglyphs at the British Museum and the Petrie Museum

This autumn marked 200 years since the ‘hieroglyphic code’ was cracked, allowing scholars to read and understand the ancient Egyptian script for the first time in centuries, and revolutionising our understanding of the people who used it. Carly Hilts visited two London-based exhibitions reflecting this milestone.

On 27 September 1822, Jean-François Champollion made an announcement that would change the course of Egyptology forever: he had worked out how to read hieroglyphs, casting illuminating light on to a civilisation which, for thousands of years, had been shrouded in shadow. Champollion had not been alone in his endeavours, however, as a major new exhibition at the British Museum explores. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt uses more than 240 objects and manuscripts to illustrate the race to decipher this complex writing system, as well as the wealth of insights into every aspect of ancient Egyptian life and death that became accessible once we could read their writings.

image: British Museum

The first part of the exhibition focuses on the polymaths who strove to make sense of the symbols, and this scholarly theme feeds into the design of the displays, with manuscripts arranged in cases that resemble desks, with plenty of places to sit and pore over them. Complementing the texts are many visually striking artefacts, notably a huge granite sarcophagus covered in hieroglyphic writing, and of course the Rosetta Stone itself (pictured), whose tripartite inscription was the key to Champollion’s ultimate success. The stone is usually displayed in the British Museum’s very popular ancient Egyptian sculpture gallery, and it was a treat to be able to see it here without having to peer through ten-deep crowds – equally delightful, though, was the presence nearby of a fascinating family tree revealing that the iconic inscription is not unique, but is in fact one of 28 such stones now known, most of which remain in Egypt.

Other displays place the decipherment in its wider context, highlighting the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in which the French army was accompanied by a host of scholars and linguists; how the Rosetta Stone was discovered during the demolition of a fort, where it had been recycled as building materials; and its subsequent seizure by British forces.

The second half of the exhibition emphasises the richness of information that became available once hieroglyphs could be read once more. Sacred texts and administrative proclamations rang out after centuries of silence, but it was also now possible to encounter individual ancient Egyptians, providing a stark contrast to the exotic and esoteric stereotypes that had fascinated Europeans for so long. Among the displays we find poetry, literature, jokes, and a decidedly cheeky little sketch that bring long-vanished peoples and personalities very much to life once more.

While the achievements of Champollion (and British polymath Thomas Young) dominate many discussions of hieroglyphs, over at the Petrie Museum (around five minutes’ walk away), female stories come to the fore. There, a small free display turns the spotlight on women who helped to shape how hieroglyphs and other ancient languages were taught in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These include Margaret Murray (1863-1963), an influential Egyptologist, feminist, and folklorist, who became the UK’s first female lecturer in archaeology. She was determined to make the study of ancient languages more accessible, and the display includes some of the plaster casts and colourful watercolours of hieroglyphic symbols that she created for that purpose. Exercise- and textbooks also reflect the work of two of her students who went on to excavate in Egypt: Margaret (Peggy) Drower and Georgina Aitken. Just as the British Museum’s exhibition includes Egyptian voices in its displays, these cases too represent a welcome widening of perspective.

Further information
Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt runs at the British Museum until 19 February 2023; see www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/hieroglyphs-unlocking-ancient-egypt.
Women and Hieroglyphs: teaching ancient languages at UCL is at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology until 27 May 2023; see www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/whats-on/women-and-hieroglyphs-teaching-ancient-languages-ucl. 
You can read more about the decipherment of hieroglyphs in issue 116 (December/January) of our international sister-magazine Current World Archaeology.