The British Museum has a major exhibition on hieroglyphs open from 13 October 2022. Two hundred years after the language was deciphered, Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt marks this important moment in our understanding of ancient history. It explores the inscriptions and objects that helped scholars unlock one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
Egypt was a superpower from around 3100 BC. The country experienced a cultural transformation as it was increasingly ruled by foreign powers throughout the first millennium BC. With the spread of Christianity, ancient religious practices were abandoned. Hieroglyphs and other written scripts were no longer used, and the ability to read ancient Egyptian was lost.
At the exhibition’s heart is the Rosetta Stone – considered one of the world’s most famous ancient objects. (The Rosetta Stone has been moved within the British Museum for the first time in 18 years for this exhibition.)
Before hieroglyphs could be deciphered, life in ancient Egypt had been a mystery. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 uncovered a bilingual inscription. By seeing what was already known, it became possible to access the unknown. With its decree written in hieroglyphs, demotic, and the known language of ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to decoding hieroglyphs in 1822. (Yes, it still took over 20 years.) This breakthrough expanded the modern world’s knowledge of Egypt’s history by some 3,000 years.
Prints and casts of the Rosetta Stone were distributed across Europe by the Society of Antiquaries. (This was where the stone was kept for a few months before moving to the British Museum.) Within one year of its arrival in England, institutions in every western European country had a copy.
Lots to See
The exhibition has brought together over 240 objects. This includes loans from national and international collections, many of which are shown for the first time.
Among the loans is the mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s, where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.
Star objects include ‘the Enchanted Basin’ – a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. The hieroglyphs were believed to have magical powers, and that bathing in the basin could offer relief from the torments of love. The reused ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’. The object has since been identified as the sarcophagus of Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.
The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet
Rarely on public display, the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four meters long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word, with ritual spells there to be pronounced.
Visiting the Exhibition
As is often the case with exhibits displaying such old and fragile artifacts, the gallery is dark. This is only exacerbated by the walls, floor and plinths all being black. Within minutes of my arrival, I saw two people fall over in the introductory area. You have been warned.
From the introduction space that explains how we can now read hieroglyphs, you are then taken on a chronological journey. The final section looks at legacy and impact.
The Race to Decipherment
Ilona Regulski, Curator of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum, said, “The decipherment of hieroglyphs marked the turning point in a study that continues today to reveal secrets of the past.”
The exhibition charts the race to decipherment, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travelers and Renaissance scholars to more focused progress by French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) and England’s Thomas Young (1773–1829).
From the 1400s, Rome became the European center for Egyptian studies. Before major museums such as the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, scholars used private collections and cabinets of curiosities for research.
By the 1700s, the Museum Borgiano was one of the richest Egyptian collections in Europe, with over 700 artifacts. (Private collections were often later integrated into national museums. The Museo Borgiano became part of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.)
Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. He wanted to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with India by seizing control of overland routes leading to the Red Sea. To safeguard its own economic interests, Britain allied with the Ottoman governors of Egypt who had ruled there since 1517.
The French made numerous drawings and maps of Egypt. Their work became invaluable for any scholar researching ancient Egypt.
Champollion and Young
The exhibition brings together personal notes by Jean-François Champollion from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and Thomas Young from the British Library.
And a 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.
The work of these two scholars differed in method and persistence but overlapped in many significant ways. There are long chronological tables here about the work of these scholars which will likely be a slow shuffle in line for most visitors as you want to see it in order.
During their work, Egypt increased in popularity as a travel destination for European visitors. Explorers brought large finds home and artists reproduced what they saw. These drawings were vital for research.
In September 1822, Champollion cracked the hieroglyphic code. He theorized that if spelling based on pronunciation was present at any time, it must have been there from the start. In 1823, Young and Champollion argued over who correctly identified sound signs first. The Frenchman finally acknowledged his reliance on the work of others. He carried on refining his understanding of hieroglyphs until his death in 1832. Over the next two hundred years, scholars have continued his work.
I’ll be honest; I didn’t understand a lot of the exhibition. There has been an attempt to simplify the captions, and I did find them very useful. But it’s a complex subject.
The museum is expecting a family audience as the Egyptian galleries are adored by visitors of all ages. But it seems a very small nod to those younger visitors with a couple of basic information boards in corners and some children’s comments on captions for some objects. I left with only a small amount of new knowledge as it wasn’t easy to take in. But I did enjoy looking at things and so here are photos of things I stopped to see.
As you would hope and expect, you exit through an excellent gift shop.
Exhibition title: Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt
Dates: 13 October 2022 – 19 February 2023
Opening Hours: Saturday – Thursday 10.00–17.00; Friday 10.00–20.30.
Location: Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG
Tickets: From £18, under 16s free, 2-for-1 tickets for students on Fridays
Official Website: www.britishmuseum.org
Between March 2023 and February 2024, the beauty and language of Egyptian hieroglyphs will be charted in a national tour. This tour will feature a selection of objects following on from a major exhibition at the British Museum marking the bicentenary of the decipherment of hieroglyphs.
Displaying a range of objects from Ancient Egypt, the tour will provide an insight into the importance of hieroglyphs for ancient Egyptians, playing a pivotal role in their lives and beyond. Objects conveying the impact of decipherment will include an extract from the Book of the Dead, a large limestone lintel revealing the name of Pharoah Ramses III, and an ancestor statue that helped to keep the memory of the dead alive in the family house.
- Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (17 March – 18 June 2023)
- Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum, Northern Ireland (24 June – 15 October 2023)
- Torquay Museum, Devon (21 October 2023 – 18 February 2024)
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