The texts on the Rosetta Stone have long been deciphered, so why does it still hold such a fascination for both scholars and the public? wonders Karen Gold.
Surely only a geeky schoolboy would have spent a half-day holiday thus. But in 1958, John Ray, now Cambridge University's Sir Herbert Thompson professor of Egyptology, took his 12-year-old self off to the British Museum. He scrutinised the mummies, the sarcophagi, the massive sculptures, and he bought a book. It was his first foray into academic Egyptology: a monograph on the Rosetta Stone.
By almost any criteria, the Rosetta Stone does not impress. Its greyish granite is not pretty; its dimensions (112cm tall, 76cm wide, 24cm thick) not imposing. A sizeable chunk of its apex has fallen off. Its 14 lines of hieroglyphs, 32 of demotic and 54 of Ancient Greek, seem pecked out of the stone: small, shallow and scratchy. Its literary style is overblown; its historical significance (a priestly decree confirming the royal cult of Ptolemy V in 196BC) minor. It does not even originate from the Egyptian city of Rosetta, but was moved there - probably from its original home in a Nile Delta temple - in a fit of medieval recycling.
And yet, from the moment Napoleon's Egyptian campaign army of soldiers and scientists found it in July 1799, the sight of the three scripts on the one stone was mesmerising. French soldiers and engineers were set to dig for the missing bits. English generals, negotiating the subsequent French surrender, insisted on its inclusion in their booty. The defeated French debated burning the stone and scattering its ashes at sea rather than allowing the English to claim it.
When at last it arrived in Portsmouth in 1802 it was presented to George III, who - adding his own inscription down the side - presented it to the British Museum where, astonishingly, it has been the most visited, most photographed, most iconic item in the collection ever since. By the late 1820s, its scripts had been deciphered and its purpose served. Visitors might have moved on to more glamorous objects. But the Rosetta Stone postcard remains the museum's top seller. You can buy replicas of it on scarves and pencil cases, as well as touch the museum's full-size one. The museum even sells plastic casts so you can make your own copy in chocolate.
Space probes and dictionary software are named after it. It is a talisman, a communication from the ancient world, in a sense the communication from the ancient world, seducing even professors into anthropomorphism.
"What the stone tells us about ourselves seems to be as important as what it tells us about events long ago," Ray says. "I knew, even as a schoolboy, that I wanted what the stone was trying to tell me."
"I have turned over in my hand the titles of years whose history was entirely forgotten; the names of gods who have not had altars these 15 centuries." So wrote Jean-Francois Champollion, who used the stone's inscriptions to unlock the linguistic system of hieroglyphic writing and thereby open a door into 3,000 years of history.
Before Champollion and the stone, says Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper in the British Museum's department of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan, Ancient Egypt was a world of monuments and objects. After them, it became a culture that could speak in words. "It gives us an interior view of their world,"
he says. "We have their poetry and their laundry lists. It is writing for a purpose, and some of it is rhetoric - life is wonderful, we always win battles - but we have their culture in its own words."
Ray, whose book on the stone is published this month, but whose previous book, Reflections of Osiris , comprised portraits of individual Ancient Egyptians, recently translated the hieroglyphs in a papyrus that had been sealed since its sender wrote it.
"The letter is from a young girl to a relative, asking for an oracle. She asks should she move a needle and thread from one room to another: the hieroglyphs are easy to read, the original meaning hard to understand. She's probably asking if she should marry someone."
Champollion was not the only scholar to wrestle with the stone's three languages. England's Thomas Young - a multilingual physicist, optics expert and inventor of the term "Indo-European" - though overtaken by the Frenchman, made substantial strides towards understanding it.
The code-breaking element of ancient Egypt is part of its fascination, says Ray, himself a breaker of another ancient language, Carian, spoken by the Carians who originated in Turkey.
He recalls: "I was on an excavation in Egypt. There in the sun were these big slabs of stone that had been taken out of the pit. They had hieroglyphs and pictures and lots of this strange language I didn't recognise. I turned to our surveyor and said 'Ken, what's that writing?' He used to dig in Turkey in summer and Egypt in winter, so he knew. He said: 'That's Carian. Nobody can read it.'"
The years of code-breaking that followed, he says, were "like finding a key that opens a very rusty door and walking into a room where no one has been for 200 years. Most so-called decipherments are wrong, so you start to get very cold feet. You think there are so many cranks in attics hoping to make their name, what if I'm one of them? But it turned out to be right."
Eighteenth-century scholars had already begun to be interested in languages and codes, Parkinson says. The path was open not only to other ancient languages, but also to the Nazis' Second World War Enigma code: "The stone asserts that history can be deciphered; that what was incomprehensible can be comprehended," says Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University. That is its achievement and allure.
Pioneer 18th-century linguistic theorists, on whose work Young and Champollion built, were moving towards an understanding of how written language worked, says Ray - in particular that words could be written not only as one-to-one picture equals meaning (fish picture = fish), but also as what he calls cartoons - combined pictures to express a more complex idea, such as our "no dogs" sign - and puns, such as paired symbols of a bee and a leaf to signify "belief".
Puns depend on sound, not visual signs, and are thus untranslatable between languages. Champollion's achievement was to recognise that the Ancient Egyptian writing system was a mixture of the visual and phonetic, breaking into it with his first translated word, the name of the king Rameses, which comprises a pun-picture for the sun (Ra), and phonetic signs for "m" and "s".
Once the stone demonstrated that even the most apparently mystical and primitive script was, in fact, a rational system based on linguistic rules, that principle could be applied more widely, Ray says. Cuneiform turned out to work in the same way, so did other scripts in Mesopotamia and Turkey and even, extraordinarily, among the Maya in Mesoamerica.
"That's really interesting," Ray says. "In the Old World, you can say people might have got it from China or Iraq. But the Mayas can't have got it from anywhere unless you believe people travelled there on rafts. So people from entirely different civilisations have come up with the same answer. This isn't just about hieroglyphs, it's about the story of writing and how it works.
"Before the Rosetta Stone, Ancient Egypt is the Magic Flute," Ray says.
"It's the embodiment of mysticism: strange symbols on stones telling the secrets of the universe. Once the stone is deciphered, we realise that these are real people with a real history. Some of them aren't very metaphysical. Some of them even aren't very nice."
The order of the three languages on the stone, for example, turns out to be a statement of priestly spite: their own ancient language at the top, the Government's official Greek at the bottom, where anyone wanting to read it would have to lie down in the dust. Its content, and that of subsequently deciphered hieroglyphs, undermine the biblical dating of Solomon and Abraham, throwing Champollion into a pre-Darwinian clash between science and the Church.
The stone shifts its onlookers from Romantic to modern, from myth to reality, Ray says. "People start to look at Abyssinia and Babylon, to ask what can be proved and disproved by digging things up. Can we find Troy? Can we find where Achilles dragged Hector round the walls, or did Homer make it up?
"Often decipherment is held up because people think these ancients couldn't possibly be like us. It happened with the Maya script: everyone thought their writing was about priests and temples and when it was finally deciphered in the 1950s it turned out to say things such as 'This is so-and-so's cocoa'. Once people understand this about ancient cultures, there's no going back."
The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt , by John Ray, is published this month by Profile Books, £15.99.