The Rosetta Stone: The real ancient codebreakers

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Champollion, following a similar path, initially downplayed the phonetic element of the script. His first thought was that hieroglyphs represented sounds predominantly when they were employed to write non-Egyptian names. Later, after his fainting episode, he realised that phonetics were in fact a central component of the script and could be used to denote Egyptian names too. A single sound, he showed, could be represented by more than one hieroglyph. This was not just a script, he realised, but a spoken language.  

There is no denying that Champollion made an enormous contribution to the history of scholarship in making these discoveries. “Without Champollion,” says Dr El Daly, “our knowledge would have had to wait a few more decades.” His decipherment of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone facilitated the translation of hundreds of other previously incomprehensible texts down the centuries and therefore opened up countless new avenues of scholarship and debate. On a human level, too, Champollion clearly deserved the praise he received for his perseverance and intellectual clout.

But as we celebrate Champollion’s grand achievement 200 years on, might we not also think of the other scholars who, though in many cases obscure today, through their own discoveries helped him on his way? It is arguable that the likes of Ibn Wahshiyah, Athanasius Kircher and Thomas Young worked no less tirelessly to unpick the mysteries of the most mysterious of ancient scripts. Now is the time to put them back into the puzzle they embarked upon so zealously all those centuries ago.

Daisy Dunn is the author of In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny.

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt is at the British Museum from 13 October to 19 February.

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