A letter from Thomas Young about hieroglyphs

A letter from Thomas Young

Height: 22.500 cm

AES Archives of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan

The English polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829) had been trying to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs since the French army discovered the Rosetta Stone in 1799. He wrote this letter to the father of William John Bankes (1786-1855), the English traveller and antiquary, in 1818. Bankes was travelling in Egypt at that time and Young was hoping that he would be 'able to assist in promoting the investigation of the hieroglyphical antiquities of that singular country'.

In his letter, Young expresses the hope that lost fragments of the Rosetta Stone might be discovered (which never happened), and that a duplicate of the Stone's text might be recovered in Cairo. He also encourages Bankes to concentrate on copying the most relevant inscriptions for decipherment - those giving the names of kings and gods - and indicates where these are to be found in relation to carved reliefs.

At the bottom of the letter Young copied out the hieroglyphic words he had deciphered by this date. The meanings he gives are mostly correct, but, unlike Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), he failed to understand the way in which the script worked.

On display: Enlightenment: Ancient scripts