A major exhibition at the British Museum marks one of the most important moments in our understanding of ancient history: the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt explores the inscriptions and objects that helped scholars unlock one of the world’s oldest civilisations, exactly 200 years since this pivotal moment.
The exhibition’s features the Rosetta Stone, amongst the world’s most famous ancient objects. Before hieroglyphs could be deciphered, life in ancient Egypt had been a mystery for centuries. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, with its decree written in hieroglyphs, demotic and the known language of ancient Greek, provided the key to decoding hieroglyphs in 1822.
This exhibition brings together over 240 objects, including loans from national and international collections, many of which are shown for the first time. It charts the race to decipherment, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars to more focused progress by French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832) and England’s Thomas Young (1773 – 1829). The Rosetta Stone can be viewed alongside the very inscriptions that Champollion and other scholars studied in their quest to understand the ancient past.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
‘The Enchanted Basin’. Sarcophagus of Hapmen, blackgranite. al-Hawd al-Marsud, Egypt, 26th Dynasty, 600 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum
The ‘Enchanted Basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BCE, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods.The reused ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’. It has since been identified as the sarcophagus of
Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.
The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet, papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty. © The Trustees of the British Museum
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 metres long. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars have been reunited since the mid-1700s.
Mummy bandage of Aberuai, linen, Saqqara, Egypt, Ptolemaic period. Photo (C) Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Ponce
Among the exceptional loans to the exhibition is the mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, that 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.
Royal cubit rod of Amenemope, wood, Egypt, 18th Dynasty. Torino, Museo Egizio
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 striking cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. Baketenhor lived to about 25–30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.
© The Trustees of the British Museum
From love poetry and international treaties, to shopping lists and tax returns, the exhibition reveals fascinating stories of life in ancient Egypt. As well as an unshakeable belief in the power of the pharaohs and the promise of the afterlife.
Many people in ancient Egypt could not read or write so language was enjoyed through readings, recitations and performances. The exhibition includes digital media and audio to bring the language to life alongside the objects on display.
For more information and tickets, visit the British Museum website here
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