Reading the wave

Can I just kick this one off with a bird’s head or some odd circles and waves? Or perhaps a more comprehensible drawing of a thumbs-up, directed at good old Jean-François Champollion. You respond with an ornate question mark? Well, he’s the guy who on September 27 of 1822 published a decipherment of the Rosetta Stone. And the sphinx never looked back.

The Rosetta Stone is, fairly famously, the great key to reading ancient Egyptian inscriptions because some clever chap way back when had written the same thing three times in three different languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic (the Egyptian not the Greek kind) and Ancient Egyptian. I say fairly famously because it is the most visited object in the British Museum which is not exactly short of other interesting exhibits. And of course Egypt wants it back so they can treat it with the same care they have given to various other antiquities.

The actual text is kind of odd, basically declaring King Ptolemy V divine which he wasn’t.

Interestingly, even ancient Greek was a challenge in those days. Not the truly classic Aristotelian stuff which scholars could read, but the Hellenistic bureaucratic jargon of the Rosetta Stone and similar such bumf. As for Demotic, nobody knew what it was including even whether it was alphabetic, until people who weren’t Champollion got hold of prints of the Rosetta Stone and discovered that it basically was.

Then Champollion really cracked the hieroglyphic stuff. He may not have been “good old” after all; he was apparently an annoying character who didn’t give others due credit, which not only made his life difficult but led to a lot of hair-splitting, or glyph-splitting, or stone-splitting, about the accuracy of his translation. But recently he’s been given full credit as an annoying genius.

So what? Who cares about a bunch of squiggles?

We do. That’s what really stands out to me about the whole venture. It might be that the ancient Egyptians had something really important to tell us about life, the universe and everything. Though if so, I still don’t know what it was and maybe won’t until the sphinx finally opens up. But we just wanted to know, to understand, to connect with them even if it was purely one-way, because they too were humans, groping through the fog, and they mattered even if their religion was an unholy mess.

There’s a huge contrast between the West, with its obsession with historical memory, even of non-Western peoples, and the habit in much of the world of ignoring or erasing it because it had not achieved the degree of perfection of those doing the destroying. An attitude which helps explain why that degree was and is so low, from Nazis to ISIL.

In some sense people were determined to decipher hieroglyphic in the Hillary-Everest spirit. Just because it is there, we’re going to figure out what it says. But even more it’s because people were there and we just had to say hello, we’re here too, how was it on the banks of the Nile back then? And by golly we managed to read the squiggles and get some idea.

P.S. What’s with the pyramids? You can level with us, so to speak. How did you do it? And why?

It happened todayJohn Robson