Hieroglyphs from the North: new Champollion correspondence on the 190th anniversary of his decipherment

190 years ago today, on the 27th of September 1822, a young scholar delivered a paper just eight pages long and rather unassumingly titled ‘Letter to Monsieur Dacier’, but which would completely change the world’s understanding of ancient history. The scholar was Jean-François Champollion and his paper was the first truly significant breakthrough in the decipherment of hieroglyphs. By cracking a code that had defeated scholars for hundreds of years, he revealed the key to ancient Egypt’s secrets, opening up over three thousand years of history and one of the world’s oldest civilisations. After almost two millennia of relying on ancient Greek and Roman historians’ somewhat spotty understanding of the much older history of Egypt and the persistent misinterpretation of Egyptian writing as purely symbolic, with Champollion’s breakthrough the ancient Egyptians were finally able to speak for themselves. Champollion’s achievements were certainly the work of a genius but he also worked unbelievably hard, which probably contributed to his sudden death at age 42, and his great grammar and dictionary had to be published posthumously by his brother. Arguably the first Egyptologist, despite a relatively short career, he was already a hard act to follow.

Although the French scholar is famed for his work on the Rosetta Stone, the trilingual Egyptian inscription now in the British Museum, he was more interested in the insights it could offer than the text itself. In fact he never actually bothered to publish a full translation! When I began my work with the British Museum’s Future Curator programme, it was unsurprisingly that I got drawn into answering public enquiries about the Rosetta Stone and learning more about Champollion’s work. But I little expected to continue this research at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was posted for a year as part of the BM programme’s expertise sharing.

To my astonishment, the archivist there, June Holmes, casually mentioned that the museum had in its possession an incredibly rare letter written by Champollion, part of the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Egyptian collection. I was astounded. Further investigation revealed an additional letter, though preserved only in copied translation, written even earlier, just one year after Champollion’s initial breakthrough, when his understanding of the ancient Egyptian language was still in its early stages. Object enquiries are now a routine part of museum work, so it was rather delightful to instead find the museum itself applying to someone else to interpret its objects! It was exhilarating to read Champollion’s sometimes faltering yet surprisingly confident and competent early work on one of the objects on display in the museum, the mummy of Bakt-en-Hor. Before Champollion was able to decipher the inscription, absolutely nothing was known about her and the usual stereotypical assumptions about her being a ‘princess’ abounded. Though he did not succeed in reading her name, his efforts gave the first real insights into her identity and beliefs.

It was also just fascinating to read the words of the great man himself and find a rather different story to the generally accepted narrative of ‘the usual rivalry and animosity between the British and the French’ (Usick 2002, 77). Access to the Rosetta Stone and accurate copies of its inscription had been the source of some friction between Champollion and his English rival Thomas Young. When Champollion later failed to acknowledge a debt to Young’s early insights, his relationship with English scholars grew even frostier. The letters somewhat contradict this though, revealing a warm correspondence between the great man and the liberal scholarly community in the North East, which likely stemmed from a mutual interest in Egypt and shared political beliefs.

Newcastle was home to an enlightened scholarly community community at the time (the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society was host to the first public room to be lit by electric light, as well as many other scholarly achievements), as well as having rather radical political leanings towards social, political, and religious reform, including strong support for the French Revolution. The Champollions’ reformist ideals and dangerous support for Napoleon over the monarchy certainly adversely affected their careers. At the time, Champollion’s initial achievements were questioned, but the forward-thinking scholars of Newcastle upon Tyne embraced his breakthrough. The letters demonstrate that the inscription on the Great North Museum: Hancock’s mummy, Bakt-en-Hor, was amongst the earliest hieroglyphic texts read by Champollion, and offer new insights into the early process of his decipherment.

For Champollion, at a time when he had not yet been able to achieve his dream of travelling to Egypt, any hieroglyphic texts were precious and vital to his continuing progress with the script and language. As Richard Parkinson has stated, ‘The decipherment of the Egyptian scripts is not a single event that occurred in 1822, but a continuous process that is repeated at every reading of a text or artifact. Like any process of reading, it is a dialogue.’

Before leaving Newcastle next week at the end of my post, I wanted to seek a new dialogue by bringing those historic dialogues to light again- both Champollion’s dialogue with the ancient Egyptian language and with the scholars of Newcastle. On Thursday 4 October I will give a free lecture at the Great North Museum: Hancock to share my findings and honour the 190th anniversary of the decipherment.  I will be presenting a work-in-progress, but I hope to finish this very soon and publish the letters. Many readers won’t be able to make it to the lecture, but to learn more about Champollion, I highly recommend Andrew Robinson’s recently published very readable and informative biography Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion, and Richard Parkinson’s Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, from the British Museum 1999 exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the Stone’s discovery.

A History of the World in 100 objects: Poetry, mathematics & myth at the British Museum

This Thursday, February 18th, the British Museum is holding a free evening of events in connection with their ongoing series with BBC Radio 4, A History of the World in 100 Objects. It sounds like there will be lots of fun events over the course of the evening (18:30-20:30), especially a performance of the Tale of Sinuhe, bringing the dramatic adventures in the poem to life, as well as a talk about the Ramesses II colossus. I myself will be giving a couple of very brief, basic introductory workshops on hieroglyphs. There is also a lecture by Dr. Richard Parkinson at 18:30 on ‘Same-Sex Desire in Ancient Egypt’ and the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (£5, concessions £3).

The event is listed on the British Museum website, but here is a more detailed schedule of all the activities:
Relax and listen to poetry inspired by Museum objects, recitations of ancient myths, or a talk on mathematics by author Simon Singh. Join a behind-the-scenes tour, view clay tablets in the historical Arched Room, listen to the sounds of Babylon, taste ancient beer, learn to decipher ancient scripts and take the ancient Egyptian civil service test.
All events are free, some are ticketed Tickets are available at the desk in the Great Court, near the entrance to Room 4
PERFORMANCES & STORYTELLING
18.30–18.50 & 19.10–19.30
Babylonian fingers
Ahmed Mukhtar, Baghdad master of the oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute), gives a solo performance inspired by the Lachish Reliefs.
Room 10a
18.30–19.00 & 19.50–20.20
The world above, the world below
Performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton explores the origin of writing and myth making in Mesopotamia. Drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she brings to life a dramatic love story – one of the earliest pieces of literature, written down in cuneiform – which follows a lover’s search for her beloved in the Underworld. Room 56
19.15–19.45
Ozymandias
Patricia Usick, honorary archivist in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, gives a recital of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, followed by a talk about the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4, and its relationship to the poem.
Room 4
19.30–19.45
Centaur and Lapith
In response to the Parthenon sculpture depicting a Centaur and Lapith, an ensemble of graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama presents a performance exploring the idealised body of Greek sculpture, resistance to cultural absorption, and the ekstasis of sacred processions. Includes students from Trinity Laban and the University of Wyoming. Room 18
19.30–19.40 & 19.50–20.00
The Sphinx of Taharqo
Poet, novelist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Carol Rummens reads contemporary verse she has written in response to the Sphinx of Taharqo. Room 65
19.45–20.30
The Tale of Sinuhe
The Tale of Sinuhe from c. 1850 BC is considered the supreme masterpiece of ancient Egyptian poetry. It will be performed by Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, following their acclaimed recital of the poem at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Introduced by the poem’s translator Richard Parkinson, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Room 4
WORKSHOPS & DEMONSTRATIONS
TALKS
18.40–19.00 & 19.10–19.30
Hieroglyph workshop
A short introduction to hieroglyphs and the basics of ancient Egyptian writing with independent lecturer Margaret Maitland. Learn how to read symbols on the monuments of Ramesses the Great, hear how the ancient Egyptian language sounded, and learn how to write your name in hieroglyphs. Room 4
18.45–19.45
Ancient Egyptian civil service test
Test your wits against the ancient Egyptians and see if you can answer some practical questions based on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. With independent lecturer Patrick Mulligan. Room 61
18.40, 19.20 & 20.00
Special behind-the-scenes visit and cuneiform demonstration See ancient cuneiform tablets and a demonstration on cuneiform writing in the historic Arched Room with curator Jonathan Taylor, Middle East.
Meet at the West stairs (north end of Room 4) five minutes before each session. Each session is 25 minutes. Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4
19.00–19.45
The story of ancient beer
Beer has been brewed since the 6th millennium BC and records indicate that beer was first brewed in Mesopotamia. The Beer Academy have picked four beers which take you through different eras of brewing techniques. This tasting and information session will tell you all about the changes through history in how the perfect pint was made.
Great Court
Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4
18.50–19.15
The myth of kingship in ancient Assyria
The throne room relief from the 9th- century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud encapsulates the mythology surrounding the king in ancient Assyria. Independent lecturer Lorna Oakes relates how it also acted as a warning to anyone contemplating usurping the throne. Room 7
19.05–19.40
Mathematical goddesses in Sumerian culture The world’s oldest poetry was made in ancient Sumer in southern Iraq, 4,000 years ago. The mathematics, writing and justice depicted in this pottery portray a vibrant world of gods and goddess, kings and commoners. In this talk, Eleanor Robson, Reader in Ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, explores how ideals of mathematics, writing and justice were transmitted from the divine realm to the human – not by gods, but by goddesses. Room 56
19.45–20.30
Code breaking
Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh speaks on Greek mathematics, the Arithmetica by Diphantus, Fermat’s Last Theorem, ancient codes and code breaking, which he demonstrates with the help of the Enigma Cipher.
Room 17
Programme subject to change. Photography and filming is allowed.

The event is listed on the British Museum website, but here is a more detailed schedule of all the activities:

Relax and listen to poetry inspired by Museum objects, recitations of ancient myths, or a talk on mathematics by author Simon Singh. Join a behind-the-scenes tour, view clay tablets in the historical Arched Room, listen to the sounds of Babylon, taste ancient beer, learn to decipher ancient scripts and take the ancient Egyptian civil service test. All events are free, some are ticketed Tickets are available at the desk in the Great Court, near the entrance to Room 4

PERFORMANCES & STORYTELLING

18.30–18.50 & 19.10–19.30

Babylonian fingers

Ahmed Mukhtar, Baghdad master of the oud (a Middle Eastern forerunner of the lute), gives a solo performance inspired by the Lachish Reliefs. Room 10a

18.30–19.00 & 19.50–20.20

The world above, the world below

Performance storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton explores the origin of writing and myth making in Mesopotamia. Drawn from the Epic of Gilgamesh, she brings to life a dramatic love story – one of the earliest pieces of literature, written down in cuneiform – which follows a lover’s search for her beloved in the Underworld. Room 56

19.15–19.45

Ozymandias

Patricia Usick, honorary archivist in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, gives a recital of the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, followed by a talk about the statue of Ramesses II in Room 4, and its relationship to the poem. Room 4

19.30–19.45

Centaur and Lapith

In response to the Parthenon sculpture depicting a Centaur and Lapith, an ensemble of graduates from Central School of Speech and Drama presents a performance exploring the idealised body of Greek sculpture, resistance to cultural absorption, and the ekstasis of sacred processions. Includes students from Trinity Laban and the University of Wyoming. Room 18

19.30–19.40 & 19.50–20.00

The Sphinx of Taharqo

Poet, novelist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature Carol Rummens reads contemporary verse she has written in response to the Sphinx of Taharqo. Room 65

19.45–20.30

The Tale of Sinuhe

The Tale of Sinuhe from c. 1850 BC is considered the supreme masterpiece of ancient Egyptian poetry. It will be performed by Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor, following their acclaimed recital of the poem at the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Introduced by the poem’s translator Richard Parkinson, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan. Room 4

WORKSHOPS & DEMONSTRATIONS

TALKS

18.40–19.00 & 19.10–19.30

Hieroglyph workshop

A short introduction to hieroglyphs and the basics of ancient Egyptian writing with independent lecturer Margaret Maitland. Learn how to read symbols on the monuments of Ramesses the Great, hear how the ancient Egyptian language sounded, and learn how to write your name in hieroglyphs. Room 4

18.45–19.45

Ancient Egyptian civil service test

Test your wits against the ancient Egyptians and see if you can answer some practical questions based on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. With independent lecturer Patrick Mulligan. Room 61

18.40, 19.20 & 20.00

Special behind-the-scenes visit and cuneiform demonstration See ancient cuneiform tablets and a demonstration on cuneiform writing in the historic Arched Room with curator Jonathan Taylor, Middle East.

Meet at the West stairs (north end of Room 4) five minutes before each session. Each session is 25 minutes. Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4

19.00–19.45

The story of ancient beer

Beer has been brewed since the 6th millennium BC and records indicate that beer was first brewed in Mesopotamia. The Beer Academy have picked four beers which take you through different eras of brewing techniques. This tasting and information session will tell you all about the changes through history in how the perfect pint was made. Great Court

Limited places, tickets available at the desk in the Great Court near Room 4

18.50–19.15

The myth of kingship in ancient Assyria

The throne room relief from the 9th- century BC palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud encapsulates the mythology surrounding the king in ancient Assyria. Independent lecturer Lorna Oakes relates how it also acted as a warning to anyone contemplating usurping the throne. Room 7

19.05–19.40

Mathematical goddesses in Sumerian culture The world’s oldest poetry was made in ancient Sumer in southern Iraq, 4,000 years ago. The mathematics, writing and justice depicted in this pottery portray a vibrant world of gods and goddess, kings and commoners. In this talk, Eleanor Robson, Reader in Ancient Middle Eastern Science at the University of Cambridge, explores how ideals of mathematics, writing and justice were transmitted from the divine realm to the human – not by gods, but by goddesses. Room 56

19.45–20.30

Code breaking

Author, journalist and TV producer Simon Singh speaks on Greek mathematics, the Arithmetica by Diphantus, Fermat’s Last Theorem, ancient codes and code breaking, which he demonstrates with the help of the Enigma Cipher. Room 17

Programme subject to change. Photography and filming is allowed.

Defining Delta Sites

While many people I meet labour under the misconception that there is very little left in Egypt to discover (though not for long, after I’ve gotten hold of them!), the reality of the situation is clear to anyone who has travelled in Egypt itself. The landscape is littered with monuments and the debris of millennia of civilization. While much of this is not quite as obvious as the Great Pyramid, remaining hidden in the desert sands or beneath modern city streets, everywhere the ruins of ancient Egypt are inescapable. At many sites, like Saqqara, the location of the first step pyramid, you cannot take a step without standing on crushed pottery sherds or broken limestone building blocks thousands of years old. In fact, the map of archaeological sites that I will discuss below lists, for example, approximately 125 sites within the Ash-Sharqiyyah governate alone!

The problem with Egyptian archaeology is not trying to find anything left, but rather trying to deal with the overwhelming amount of material out there. In reality, there is simply more ancient Egypt than modern Egypt can really handle. Not to disparage Egypt’s efforts, since caring for such a rich cultural legacy would present a daunting prospect for any country, but their political and economic situation undoubtedly make it much more of a challenge.

I recently had the pleasure to hear an excellent talk related to this subject given by Penelope Wilson of Durham University discussing some of the issues raised by the way sites are dealt with by the Egyptians, under the auspices of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities). It was given in Oxford as one of a number of research seminars offered by the departments of Egyptology and the Ancient Near East and held at the Oriental Institute. These seminars allow academics and doctorate students to present and discuss their latest research with their peers and also offer the delightful prospect of tea afterwards. Penny Wilson of Sais excavation fame presented one of the recent sessions, entitled ‘Defining Delta Sites’. I have had many opportunities to hear countless Egyptologists’ speak about the archaeological process in their own work, but it was fascinating to instead hear an Egyptologist’s take on the current general situation and her greater philosophy on how we approach identifying, investigating, and preserving archaeological sites.

Her thoughts were presented partially as a reaction to the ‘Historical Sites of Egypt’ being produced by the Egyptian Antiquities Information System, the GIS department of the SCA (strangely enough in conjunction with the Finnish Government for some reason). The map and catalogue of information as it stands so far is fairly impressive considering the monumentality of the task. The identification and assessment of the sites though is focused around land ownership and sites are variously categorized as either property of the SCA, under SCA supervision, under registration request (some as far back as the 90s), or site under research. One of the problematic aspects of this system is that it doesn’t distinguish between more or less substantial sites, or between different eras, lumping together a Ramesside temple in with a site with a vague scattering of Roman pottery.

Another negative aspect of a site identification system based on land ownership is that land that has been sold off and no longer belongs to the SCA is not included. Theoretically, this shouldn’t be a problem since the SCA is only supposed to sell off land that has been deemed unfruitful in preliminary excavation. However, the reality that Professor Wilson accidentally discovered when surveying at one of these sites was that SCA had done a trench survey there and had declared the site devoid of interest despite having turned up very obvious evidence of ancient settlement! Wilson then turned her attention to the famous site of Merimde Beni Salame, which lent its name to a phase of Neolitic Egyptian culture, and managed to elicit gasps from the audience by her announcement that the site has been reduced to a small desert strip, the rest having been sold off for agriculture.

Wilson commented that although the SCA will send out representatives if any archaeological remains turn up during construction work, it is unfortunate that there are not SCA officers on the ground who could do assessments as foundations were being dug. In fact, during the much-publicized building of the reconstructed Sphinx Avenue in Luxor that is ongoing now, several sphinx statues have been uncovered, but only when bulldozers have plowed through the site rather than through proper excavation before the construction work. Having worked on an excavation in the Delta myself, I can attest that while the intentions of the SCA employees that we worked with were good, their training and knowledge was lacking and impaired their performance.

Even with sites wrongly left off of the map, there is still an immense number that have been identified, which raises the question how much of it do we bother with? Archaeology has to believe in its own paramount importance to justify its work, but the fact is that when there is just so much of it all, one can’t hold everything sacred. Some sites can be seen as representative of general cultural trends. It is always best to have a number of examples, but there is little need for evidence to be duplicated again and again. One priority that archaeologists need to focus on just as much as excavating new sites, is preserving what we already have.

Although she catalogued numerous concerns with the SCA’s handling of Delta sites, Wilson pragmatically recognized that with an excess of more sites than there are excavators or resources that could handle them, or would even want to, it is perhaps better to resign oneself to letting some of them go for now. While it goes against archaeological principles, I fully agree that practicality must be considered alongside idealism. If the sites have waited for thousands of years, they can probably wait a few more.