Deciphering Hieroglyphs in the British Museum - A Review

by Owain Williams

"Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt" is the latest exhibition at the British Museum. Tracking the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the exhibition offers both an insightful perspective on the journey linguists and antiquarians undertook to understand ancient Egypt, as well as a fascinating view into the everyday lives of the people of ancient Egypt.

Rather than focusing on the historic achievements of the actual decipherment of the hieroglyphs, the exhibition begins its journey with Arab scholars in the Early Medieval period, who were questioning the meaning of the pictographic script long before Egyptomania took hold in Europe during the Renaissance. The trial and error (and sometimes fabrications) of scholars over several centuries is truly a testament to human ingenuity.

Portrait of Jean-François Champollion by Léon Cogniet (1831)

The true highlight of the exhibition, however, is the display on the work of Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young. With drawings of monuments, letters between the two scholars, and their notes, this display revealed the work behind the long process to decipher the hieroglyphs. It also displayed the contrasting, and often conflicting, attitudes of scholars and antiquarians at the time, with some fascinated and excited by the glyphs, and other, like Williams John Bankes, dismissive, believing the glyphs had no historical merit, revealing only “[the Egyptians’] ridiculous rites and ceremonies.”

Poem of the Battle of Kadesh, 19th Dynasty © The Trustees of the British Museum

With an understanding of the work that went into the decipherment, the artefacts that complete this exhibit can be appreciated all the more. From commemorative stelae to fragmentary papyri mummy wrappings, the final display offers a look into the lives of ancient Egyptians. Particularly illuminating were a papyrus recording a poem about the Battle of Kadesh and a limestone ostracon with a fragment of the Tale of Sinuhe, demonstrating how Egypt had a vibrant literary culture, much of which must not have survived.

Ostracon with the concluding stanzas of ‘The Tale of Sinuhe’ © The Trustees of the British Museum

If you are in London with some spare time, this exhibition is well worth a visit, even if you are not well-versed in Egyptian society and history. The exhibition is running until 19th February 2023 and tickets cost £18 for adults.

More information can be found here.

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