How to use a stone to speak with the dead

Cracking Codes
July 16, 1999

Andrew Robinson on the bicentenary of the Rosetta Stone's discovery.

Two hundred years ago this month, French soldiers in Egypt digging the foundations for some fortifications against the British on the west bank of the Nile at the small port of el-Rashid (ancient Rosetta) discovered what is probably the most famous inscription in the world. With the French defeat, after a somewhat unseemly wrangle the Rosetta Stone came to rest in the British Museum in 1802, where it has become perhaps the museum's most popular object.

Now, after two centuries, it has been cleaned and conserved and made the centrepiece of a new exhibition. This magnificent book with an elegant, slate-grey intaglio of hieroglyphs on its cover, written by the organiser of the exhibition, Richard Parkinson, is both a catalogue of the objects on display and an introduction to the wonders of ancient Egypt revealed by the Rosetta Stone, which was of course the key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is not, and does not purport to be, simply a history and translation of the stone, such being already available in a useful booklet, The Rosetta Stone , published by the British Museum in 1982 and continually reprinted.

Thus, Cracking Codes begins with a chapter on the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its original context and significance at the time of its inscription in 196 BC; the rivalry between Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion, its eventual decipherer; and the subsequent scholarship that confirmed Champollion's brilliant work. The book then moves on to discuss the development of the Egyptian language and the various scripts that co-existed with the hieroglyphic script, such as demotic, hieratic and, later, Coptic. Next come more than 100 pages of catalogue, beautifully illustrated in black and white with a superb colour section, in which objects have been grouped into categories to demonstrate, for example, the figurative use of hieroglyphs or to show the nature of scribal equipment. Finally, there is a chapter on the relationship of the hieroglyphs to subsequent writing systems, including our current alphabets, and a brief description of the major ancient scripts that are still undeciphered; this includes a short but excellent account by two other experts of how decipherment of ancient scripts differs fundamentally from the breaking of codes such as Enigma during the second world war (hence computers will never play the major role in script decipherment).

Two preoccupations of the author may be discerned throughout the book. First, he wants to distance himself from the popular, Indiana Jones -type notion that once a genius has cracked the code of an ancient script, an entire civilisation becomes open and accessible. "It is one thing to start reading a language, but another to read a culture," warns Parkinson, who has a particular interest in ancient Egyptian literature. "The decipherment of the Egyptian scripts is not a single event that occurred in 1822, when a code was cracked (by Champollion), but is a continuous process that is repeated at every reading of a text or artefact. Such study is the closest one can come to speaking with the dead. Like any act of reading, it is a process of dialogue. The decipherment of the Rosetta Stone and of ancient Egypt is a dialogue that has scarcely begun."

Second, Parkinson, following the trend in linguistics, wants to disavow popular ideas of progress in the evolution of writing systems, in particular the so-called "triumph of the alphabet": the idea that alphabetic writing, and the close representation of speech by a script, is best suited to rational thinking and scientific reductionism and hence the belief in western superiority over, in particular, the Chinese, whose writing system involves thousands of signs. Hieroglyphs, says the author, are just as efficient (or inefficient) a writing system for the Egyptian language as is the alphabet for spoken English. They may look needlessly elaborate to most of us, but the same may be said of every script - think of the peculiarities of English spelling - until one has grown used to it. After all, the Japanese writing system, which is widely regarded as the most complicated in the world, has not prevented Japan from creating one of the world's most powerful economies and winning Nobel prizes in physics.

The first point is undoubtedly worth stressing, even if it seems a bit obvious. The great decipherments - of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamian cuneiform, Cretan Linear B and, since the 1950s, Mayan glyphs - did not enable experts to pick up a papyrus or clay tablet and read it like the latest novel. They did not provide total and incontrovertible translations. Instead, they allowed scholars to begin to hear the voices of extinct cultures where formerly they could interpret only mute physical remains.

On the second point, I am sympathetic but not entirely convinced by Parkinson's own account of hieroglyphic writing, which can be tough going and, at times, confusing. Like all writers on the subject, he attempts to break down the hieroglyphs functionally for ease of understanding, but gets into a bit of a muddle over definitions. "One basic function of a sign is as a logogram, in which a word was represented by a picture (also termed 'ideograms', or 'sound-meaning signs')." Turn to the book's glossary and you find "ideogram" defined as "A sign recording a concept or idea", and "logogram" defined as "A sign that records the meaning but not the pronunciation of a word/morpheme". The distinction between logogram and ideogram is not clear; it would have been better not to have used "ideogram". These are deep waters, philosophically and linguistically, as linguists like Roy Harris and John DeFrancis have shown. But unless such basics are got right, one cannot feel confidence in the conclusion that hieroglyphic writing is as efficient as the alphabet.

Minor faults in the book include the statement that Edward Hincks "deciphered Mesopotamian cuneiform" - which is surely going too far in downgrading the once-supreme figure of Henry Rawlinson - and a surprising degree of acceptance of the latest attempt to decipher the Easter Island script. (For some sceptical views, see The THES , March 1998.) The bibliography is also unsatisfactory. It would have been fine if restricted only to works on ancient Egypt, but instead it includes some non-Egyptological works, while excluding many relevant works referred to earlier in the footnotes.

These reservations apart, I should say unhesitatingly: go to the exhibition, buy the catalogue, and marvel at the ingenuity of the human mind over five millennia - in both writing and reading.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES , and author of The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms (1995). "Cracking Codes" is at the British Museum until January 2000.

Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment

Author - Richard Parkinson
ISBN - 0 7141 1916 4
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £16.99
Pages - 298

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