This exhibition in the British Museum’s Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery is a tribute to the scholarly endeavour exerted over many centuries in trying to decode the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script. It is timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the critical breakthrough in the field achieved by French scholar Jean-François Champollion in 1822. The exhibition details the fascinating rivalry between Champollion and his contemporary the Englishman and polymath Thomas Young, and the well-known critical role of the Rosetta Stone which has been relocated to the exhibition from its regular home in the museum’s Egyptian sculpture gallery.
The exhibition delves into the complex background of how the language of hieroglyphs developed and evolved, how the ability to understand them became lost for centuries, and the fascination they held for scholars for hundreds of years before they could be read again. The visitor learns more about the Rosetta Stone, including the circumstances of its discovery by a French soldier in 1799 and its removal to London by the British two years later, after the defeat of Napoleon.
Among the many artefacts on display to contextualise and illustrate the story are fragments of another, later-discovered copy of the same decree shown on the Rosetta Stone and dating from the same year (196 BC) lent by the Louvre, and the striking basalt bust (350 – 300 BC) shown at the top of the page, on loan from National Archaeological Museum of Naples.