A Language for Immortals

The stark, 3/4 tonne Rosetta Stone, conquered from Napoleon by the British shortly after its discovery, now firmly held & proudly displayed at the British Museum in London. (Photo public domain/Wikimedia Commons 2007.)

Popular in English as well as in original French, La pierre de Rosette (The Rosetta Stone) by R Solé & D Valbelle is the memorable story of the trilingual inscribed stone, millennia old but rediscovered 1799 by the troops of Napoleon in Egypt, which helped decode the hieroglyphs of that ancient culture.

Mostly, it tells of the “meeting” of that one stone with one man, French J-F Champollion (1790-1832), the main interpreter of the intricate symbol structure & grammar behind the text, & thus known as a “father” of Egyptology. But there are important nuances. Far more people than Champollion contributed, & much more text than one relic was needed for ancient Egypt to speak, once again, to him & to humankind.

Among other contributors to the interpretation, the English (who captured the Rosetta stone & hold it to this day at the British Museum) are justly proud of the versatile Thomas Young, but Scandinavians can take pride in the exceptional & essential earlier contributions of the Danes Fredrik Norden & Jørgen Zoega; of a Germano-Dane, Carsten Niebuhr; & of the Swede JD Akerblad. Decoding the hieroglyphs was a truly European enterprise, a focus of both Enlightenment & romanticism, hotly embraced by the learned community of its time. When Champollion died at 41, prematurely exhausted by his immense toil of insight, precision & rigour, he had scarcely wasted a minute of his short days, yet the hieroglyphs were still not adequately understood. This craved the rest of the 19th Century, & the work is by no means “complete” even today. The solemn idiom, marshaling a painfully elaborate mix of ideographic & phonetic devices, is not like its obvious classical opposite Latin, a more immediate language for us to approach. Even to learn it demands angelic patience from conscientious scholars. From that point of view – & only from that view, because the scope & richness of several thousand years of Egyptian is unfathomably vast – I resolved to stick with polishing my Latin. Not that I’m not otherwise tempted.

(One of the world’s top egyptologists, John C Darnell, was recently asked how long it might take to master ancient Egyptian. His reply, strangely more stimulating than depressing: “I think I can safely say you probably die before you master it”. He may indeed have had Champollion in mind, but there is no shortage of others victims. This c25 minutes talk with a scholar in cheerful intellectual form is, by the way, well worth watching. Reference below.)

The book’s authorship is the fertile collaboration of a French-Egyptian writer & intellectual (Solé), with a full-blooded academic, holder of the Sorbonne’s Egyptology professorship (Valbelle). It strikes the exact measure between highly entertaining narrative & more scholarly, meaty material. Another desirable balance is between East & West, a popular issue these days. Ancient Egypt was neither because it still united both, which surely gives it tremendous force & application toward our own modern destiny.

This is a slim work, read in a few sessions, but it articulates a splendid tale resounding from an archaic, exalted past, as well as from the more recent emergence of scientific Europe.


Solé, Robert, & Dominique Valbelle. La pierre de Rosette. Paris: Seuil, 1999. ISBN 978-2757810545. (Translated by Steven Rendall as The Rosetta Stone. NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. ISBN 9781568582269.)

“John Darnell, Professor of Egyptology”. “The MacMillan Report”. The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, 16 Feb 2011. Web. Retrieved 3 Apr 2011. http://www.yale.edu/macmillanreport/ep61-darnell-021611.html.

An abridged version of this article is posted on LibraryThing.

(Webfront illustration caption & credit here.)

Categories: Enlightenment & Industrial Revolution, History Unplugged

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