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AES Archives of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan
Enlightenment: Ancient scripts
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A letter from Thomas Young about hieroglyphs
Written on 10 Febuary 1818
The state of decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1818
English polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829) had been trying to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs since the French army discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799.
In this letter he writes to the father of the British dilettante, antiquarian, and close friend of Byron, William John Bankes (1786-1855) who was travelling in Egypt at the time. With his artist-draughtsmen, Bankes made an important record of inscriptions and temples in both Egypt and Nubia.
In the letter Young asks Bankes to look out for the missing fragments of the Rosetta Stone, ‘worth their weight in diamonds’, and offers advice on how to identify which hieroglyphic inscriptions would be most worth copying. At the end he provides a list of some groups of signs that he had translated, including some from the Rosetta Stone.
The meanings he suggests for these groups are mostly correct, but he was unable to analyse how the signs conveyed their meaning, and they are little more than highly-educated guesses.
Young believed the hieroglyphs were largely pictorial symbols that conveyed meaning without the use of language, whereas in fact they are largely signs recording the sounds of the Egyptian language, as Young’s rival, Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) realised in 1824.
In 1815 Bankes discovered an obelisk at the sacred island of Philae which played a significant role in the decipherment. He had this brought to England where it erected in his Dorset house at Kingston Lacy in 1830, but 11 years later Bankes had to flee England after being committed for trial for indecency with a guardsman.
K. Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment. Discovering the (London, The British Museum Press, 2003)
R. Parkinson, Cracking codes: the Rosetta St (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)
P. Usick, Adventures in Egypt and Nubia: (London, British Museum Press, 2002)