Fatma Keshk reveals the sometimes surprising and often spot-on takes from Egyptian students on ancient Egyptian objects and their inscriptions.
In my role as heritage outreach facilitator, I have had the pleasure of holding a number of workshops in Rashid and other cities in Egypt such as Aswan and Asyut. In March 2019, I had the chance to organise a heritage outreach workshop titled 'Rashid, heritage of the place and the people'. The workshop was an eye opener to the potential of heritage documentation and outreach in a city with rich and complex layers of ancient and modern history. We then had a full week of interactive workshops about the heritage of Rashid, the famous findspot of the Rosetta Stone, but I could not wait for my return to the outreach workshop for more exploration of the ties between the people of Rashid and their heritage.
Due to the pandemic, the second workshop in Rashid had to wait until February 2022 – but not all delays are negative. The 2022 workshop provided the wonderful opportunity to align with the 200-year anniversary of deciphering hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone – a granodiorite stela (inscribed stone slab) – provided the crucial key in this groundbreaking achievement, completed by France’s Jean-François Champollion in 1822.
The land of a million palm trees
'Rashid, the Lotus flower', 'Rashid, the land of a million palm trees'. These are the sayings that the children of Rashid have grown up with, and that encapsulate their perception of their home – and one of the main aims of the workshop was to understand the knowledge and perspectives of participants about the heritage of their historic hometown. We also wanted to document their account of the Rosetta Stone and its decipherment. So we themed the workshop activities around the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. I kicked off the workshop with a discussion with the young students about the meaning and significance of the Rosetta Stone. It was quickly apparent that they already have a thorough knowledge of the stone’s significance, its relation to Rashid and the stories about its discovery and decipherment. It was well-known in the group that the Rosetta Stone dates to the reign of the Macedonian Greek king Ptolemy V (r. 204–180 BC), contains a text in ancient Egyptian, Greek and was deciphered in 1822 by Champollion.
What did it all mean?
As always, the content of the Rosetta Stone was less well-known. The content was interpreted variously as: an appeal of the past; an expression of life in ancient Egypt; an account of events in the era of Ptolemy V; secrets of the Ptolemaic era; a system of past government; rituals performed during pharaonic life; a description of the punishment for whoever throws rubbish in the river; an ancient commandment of kings to preserve the waters of the Nile; instructions on how to cultivate the land; or other 'useful things for humanity'. It was also considered to be a message to other worlds, as if to say 'when we die, the world will know our very great position'.
When shown a reconstruction of the top of the Rosetta Stone, based on the Nobeira stela, the participants interpreted the gods depicted in the pediment overwhelmingly as guardians of the Stone. One participant added 'It could be guarding the Rosetta Stone, in fact, in a British Museum.' Others thought they were guarding a king, functioning as a modern army or worshiping something.
Building on knowledge
Building on what the students already knew, we added details about the original texts, its exact history in relation to the Ptolemaic period (the last dynasty of ancient Egypt, which ran from 305 to 30 BC), the differences and connections between its languages and scripts and hence the reason behind it being the key to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. More thoughts were shared by the students about the significance of the Stone and its decipherment to their local heritage, many of them being pride that their city is connected to a major artifact that acted as a key to understand the secrets of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
In the second workshop, the students were shown a selection of ancient Egyptian objects from international museums that have traces of texts including statues, amulets and stele, enabling them to compare them to the well-known inscriptions of the Rosetta Stone. They were then asked to guess the original use of each of these objects and their texts and to describe the first thing they thought of when they look at each of the images. Their answers were both creative and thoughtful and it was clear that the exercise facilitated a holistic, free approach to considering and interpreting these objects. Here are a few examples…
The stone lintel of Ramesses III
We decided to use this lintel because it has clear and impressive hieroglyphs that could 'speak' to children without requiring knowledge of hieroglyphs – but we also chose it because of its connection to the royal names used by Champollion to crack the hieroglyphic code, which were written in oval-shaped cartouches. After successfully reading the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Champollion theorised that if phonetic spelling was present in the Greco-Roman period, it must have been there from the start, as ancient Egypt was fundamentally conservative and resistant to change. He tested his new alphabet on pharaonic names, with the name of Ramesses one of the first to be analysed, as the name was known from the Bible. This lintel clearly shows cartouches enclosing the name of Ramesses (although in a more complicated spelling). Workshop participant Hana’s attention was particularly drawn to the cartouches.
Hana, 12 years old
It could be a plane, a missile, a fire extinguisher, lampshades, or a light bulb, but it's actually [a] cartouche.
The ancestor bust of Muteminet
Like many cultures, Egyptians saw death as a natural progression into another state of being. Ancestor busts preserved the memory of the deceased on earth. They were often set into household shrines and sometimes found near tombs. This depiction of the musician Muteminet may be from the tomb chapel of her son Amenmose, where a bust of her husband was also discovered. Workshop participant Malak comments on the unusual shape of the statue.
Malak, 12 years old
The head is in the form of a human being and there are signs of ancient Egyptian writing and it is called a sculpture.
The royal cubit rod of Amenemope
Mathematics is not everyone’s favourite subject – but this 3320-year-old measuring rod was an exception for the group! It was this humble-looking object that revealed to Champollion that the Egyptians used units of measurement taken from the human body. The basic unit was the cubit, or the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger (about 45cm). The cubit was subdivided into seven palms (about 7.5cm) and further separated into four fingers (about 1.75cm). Heights in cubits are mentioned in a letter from Mentuhotep to Ahmose about the construction of a house. Rulers like this are very recognisable for students today, as Farah from Rashid points out.
Farah, 12 years old
This is [like] the ruler we use at school.
It can be said that the workshop with this group of young students from Rashid was an opportunity to explore the local meaning of the Rosetta Stone and its decipherment in its original place of discovery. The different activities of the day offered the chance to discuss a variety of inscribed ancient Egyptian objects that allowed a clearer contextualization of the decipherment story. For the purpose of future outreach events, this workshop highlighted the necessity of creating alternative narratives of the remarkable discoveries in Egyptology that should clearly include the local perspectives of such events.
Find out more
You can see the objects Champollion used to make his breakthrough and discover more about the race to understand hieroglyphs in Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, which runs until 19 February 2023.
Supported by bp
The 2019 workshop was made possible by the support of the Goethe Institute in Cairo and the Robert Bosch Foundation, in collaboration with the local representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Rashid. The 2022 workshop was organised thanks to the kind collaboration of the National Museum of Rashid under the supervision of the Egyptian Museums’ Sector. My special thanks go to Dr. Moemen Osman, the Museums’ Sector and the wonderful collaborative team from Rashid: Mr. Said Rakha, Director of the National Museum of Rashid and Mrs. Amira El-Shorbagy, Responsible of museum education at the museums of Alexandria and Rashid.