Enlightenment: Ancient Scripts

A poem on papyrus

Height: 21.200 cm

EA 10182/2

During the Enlightenment, people studied ancient scripts in order to understand the histories of ancient and modern civilizations.

European scholars had been collecting and studying inscriptions and early manuscripts for several centuries. Their Enlightenment successors built on this work. Much of their work was inspired by the Bible as a historical source, which led to important new research in the Near East. Attempts to prove the truth of Biblical accounts such as that of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of Nineveh, for instance, resulted in the discoveries of these ancient cities. In the early nineteenth century, major breakthroughs occurred when Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Assyrian cuneiform were finally deciphered. Other writing systems, such as glyphs from Central America, proved much harder to decipher.

At the same time, scholars were studying languages and texts from living cultures in order to understand how those cultures had developed and how different civilizations might relate to each other.

This is one of several tours exploring the themes of the British Museum's new gallery, Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

On display: Enlightenment: Ancient scripts