The Rosetta Stone by John Ray

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The Rosetta Stone by John Ray

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Engagingly written tale of the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of the hieroglyphic alphabet; the exciting early history of the science of Egyptology and introduction to decoding of ancient languages, written by an expert in the field. Light popular science read, recommended to anybody interested in ancient history and its modern discovery.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: February 2007
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1861973344

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John Ray's previous book Reflections of Osiris: Lives from Ancient Egypt provided a learned but accessible introduction to the civilisation of Ancient Egypt. In The Rosetta Stone he turns to the most famous artefact of this civilisation and uses it as a starting point for a tale of discovery and interpretation: how the hieroglyphic alphabet was deciphered and how this most glamorous of civilisations was given voice again, after being mute for more than a thousand years.

I used to want to be an archaeologist when I was a young teenager. I read Gods, Graves and Scholars: The Story of Archaeology (arguably, the most exciting archeology book of all time) and I dreamed of discovering another Troy, as Heinrich Schliemann (the boy who said 'I will dig out Troy' at the age of nine, when Troy was considered to be a figment of Homer's imagination; and went on to do it 30 years later) became my personal idol. Champollion, the French scholar who deciphered hieroglyphs without ever having visited Egypt, was another notable and fascinating personality from the early romantic era of archaeology and Ray gives a vivid portrait of him, contrasted with Thomas Young, the English polymath and a man of impatient but unquestionable genius who paved the way for Champollion's discovery.

There is also a translation of the stone's text, and some vignettes of Egyptian literature and life that were opened to us thanks to the stone being deciphered; as well as more general information on the deciphering of forgotten languages and alphabets, including a bullet-pointed list of how to go about it! The book closes with an eminently sensible chapter on ownership of the artefacts and claims for return of the historical loot.

Ray writes well and manages to make even less exciting aspects of his subject interesting, although his efforts at being effortless do not always work; while some of the asides and one-sentence digressions might confuse a reader who doesn't know what he's talking about. But it's still an accessible account and in exploring his own obvious love for the subject, it occasionally becomes exhilarating.

The book manages to fit a lot of factual information into less than 200 pages and to some extent each chapter is a separate entity which could be read on its own. The structure of the whole book is slightly disjointed, though, and the sequence of some chapters could be changed without detriment to the whole. But then it's because Ray presents not only the account of decipherment, but also uses the iconic object that Rosetta Stone had become as a starting point for many reflections, as a mirror that tells us as much about ourselves (or our predecessors 200 years ago) and our attitudes to history and art as it tells us about the pharaohs and Egyptian priests.

Anybody interested in history of archaeological discoveries or ancient languages will find this book a stimulating read, and even those who roughly know the story of this particular decipherment will probably find some points of interest. Unless you buy everything you read, I would recommend borrowing it, although the 'Wonders of the World' hardback edition is a handsome one and was a pleasure to handle. We've also reviewed another book in the 'Wonders of the World' series by Profile Books: St Pancras Station by Simon Bradley.

This book was kindly sent to us by the publishers. Thank you!

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catherine said:

i found this review very interesting so much so that i am considering purchasing the book myself as egyptian history intrigues me i would like to find out more.