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Hieroglyphs: unlocking Ancient Egypt, British Museum

A confession. I thought that when the Rosetta Stone was discovered [in 1799 by the French in the siege of Rosetta, subsequently nabbed by the British as a spoil of the Napoleonic Wars], the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics was instantly solved. That it was like some early form of Google Translate. WRONG! The eureka 'moment of decipherment' didn't happen for another 20 years.

Nonetheless, the Rosetta stone is very much at the centre of the British Museum's latest show, both literally and figuratively.

Before you go in, you are presented with a wall made up of blocks of symbols. Easy, swing the block and see what each one means. Into the exhibition proper and experience the enduring lure of these ancient carvings. What did they mean? Were they a spoken language or sacred written text? The hieroglyphs appear on some of the most beautiful pieces of ancient stone ever made and there is plenty to look at, while kids can learn simple words and phrases from a couple of chosen symbols.

But simple this is not and the show doesn't make any attempt to dumb it down. The 'code' was fiendishly difficult to crack. Once the Rosetta Stone was discovered - with the script in hieroglyphs, ancient Coptic and Greek, a race began. It is the stuff of a Hollywood film. In the English camp, Thomas Young, brilliant polymath, supported (to a lesser extent) by William John Bankes Esq, enthusiastic Victorian traveller and keen Egyptologist. In the French camp, the sickly, single-minded Jean-Francois Champollion. They fell out, big time. Bankes declared the Frenchman a 'dirty scoundrel' and they refused to share their notes with each other. Champollion got there first, though the contributions of the two Englishmen are now acknowledged. It is thrillingly set out but goodness you need to engage your brain.

The final part shows how the discoveries opened up and changed our understanding of Ancient Egypt, both in the sense of historical events and in how people had lived. The names of the queens, written out of history by Rameses; the breathtakingly beautiful Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjut (1070 BC). Interspersed throughout there are contemporary commentaries from the young inhabitants of Rashid, modern day Rashid.

It is a cerebral show but if you have older children (say 12+) who are prepared to put in the effort, their concentration will be hugely rewarded.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking Ancient Egypt at the British Museum until 19 February 2023

Tickets: £18 adults, £16 concessions, under 16s free.

Emily Turner, 11 October 2022


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