An ancient light brown lintel with Egyptian hieroglyphs on it, including bird figures, a human face and a lion. There is darkness in the corners of the image but light shines illuminating the middle.

Past exhibition


13 October 2022 – 19 February 2023

Room 30

The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

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For centuries, life in ancient Egypt was a mystery.

We could only glimpse into this hidden world, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone provided the key to decoding hieroglyphs, allowing us to read this ancient script. The breakthrough expanded our understanding of human history by some 3,000 years.  

Marking 200 years since the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, this major exhibition took visitors through the trials and hard work that preceded, and the revelations that followed, this ground-breaking moment. 

Hieroglyphs were not just beautiful symbols, they represented a living, spoken language. From romantic poetry and international treaties, to shopping lists and tax returns, the hieroglyphic inscriptions and ancient handwriting in this exhibition revealed stories that are fantastically varied. As well as an unshakeable belief in the power of the pharaohs and the promise of the afterlife, ancient Egyptians enjoyed good food, writing letters and making jokes. 

The show charted the race to decipherment, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars to more focussed progress by French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) and England’s Thomas Young (1773–1829). The Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799, with its decree written in hieroglyphs, demotic and the known language of ancient Greek, provided the key to decoding the ancient signs. The results of the 1822 breakthrough proved staggering.

Using inscriptions on the very objects that Champollion and other scholars studied, this immersive exhibition helped visitors to unlock one of the world’s oldest civilisations.