Unpicking History

We went to the British Museum to see their exhibition on Egyptian Hieroglyphs. The most interesting section, for me, was the description of the hunt to decipher this unique and almost lost language. A French Egyptologist and and English polymath probably played the largest rolls in this detective story but there were many others involved. Most especially, the Rosetta Stone provided the vital clues to how the language was structured.

I must say, if you are visiting, take your best reading glasses as so much is in a tiny print that, by the end, I rather felt as if my eyes had pulled the duvet over their heads and refused to come out. And more than once the confusing layout – there was no coherent order to your way round – meant I found myself reading from the end to the beginning – a bit like reading a line of script right to left when it should be left to right.

There were other Egyptian objects to admire.

And one to snigger at…

It happened that our visit coincided with two other events. the first, and directly related was the 200th anniversary of the British bringing the stone from Egypt to London to be housed – as it still is – in the British Museum; and the second the announcement that another museum, but not the subject of as many legal constraints as the BM – the Horniman Museum – is returning some Benin bronzes to Nigeria which had been looted in the 19th century.

The Rosetta stone’s history is somewhat different. It was found when the French colonial authorities were repairing a fort in Rashid in Egypt in the 1790s – it had been used as building material in that city and somehow been preserved – and ‘given; to the British when, with the help of the Ottoman Empire, they had pushed the French out of Egypt.

But, and of course here’s the thing, it is clearly as crucial to the understanding of Egyptian history as the Sphinx and the Pyramids and the many sarcophagi that have been disinterred over centuries. More so, given its crucial role in deciphering the complex language.

I stared at that famous slab, at the extraordinary intricate carvings in there languages: Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Egyptian Demotic which derived from northern hieratic forms and Greek. And I thought, you know, it should go back. I’m sure they’d loan it to us when we had a major exhibition; you can make an identical 3D print of it these days and no one would be any the wiser and, frankly, it’s the right thing to do.

I know the arguments, how if we’d not looked after it in the 19th century it probably wouldn’t have survived – that argument runs with the Greek marbles that Elgin acquired and sold to the BM in the 1800s (and which are being discussed today by the BM authorities) – but that, even if true then, is it a reason to hang onto something so fundamental, so much at the core of that civilisation? One day maybe we will see sense.

Meanwhile, here’s Dog being Dog

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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37 Responses to Unpicking History

  1. The Archeologist would approve

    Liked by 1 person

  2. joylennick says:

    Most edificating, Geoff. Can you imagine if all the countries who pilfered from other countries, returned their ill-gotten gains!! What a todo….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Can I claim my ball back from Dog?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. trifflepudling says:

    Return them, definitely. And it’s frankly insulting to assume that they won’t be looked after properly and even if they weren’t, what business is it of ours? We probably should offer free advice and materials for 100 years anyway.
    Actually, are any of the photos of the Rosetta Stone? What are they?
    The story of how these things were deciphered is probably as interesting as the stones in glass cases. They sometimes just look a bit sad and lifeless or like they would be happier in the ground.
    I’m sure “Detectorists”Lance had a suitable quote!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. noelleg44 says:

    Brilliant minds deciphered what to me looks like great art! I agree that taking some of Egypt’s history back to England was cultural robbery, but I am pretty sure it saved what was taken. Now that Egypt has it’s own museums and curators, maybe it’s time to return it?
    As for Dog, he’s a canine that likes to have fun!
    Thanks for the tour!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Just about 20 years ago, I was charged at work with the task of managing our full company data backups to high density tape archives. But I found the problem to be much more complex as for the tapes to be of any use, especially those we had to keep for legal compliance, came with a sneaky expense. Like all thing technical, the tapes kept getting more and more data dense as did the drives used to write and presumably some day read the data back from each cartridge.
    Like when we were young with our music tapes, you could not enjoy your 8-track tapes on the newer cassette tape drives. For the company this meant that I somehow had to not just store racks of racks of tapes. I had to keep drives & computers around in case we needed to read one certain cartridge – a crushing expense.
    Which got me thinking- how would a archeologist read these same tapes if they to be discovered in some buried warehouse 300 years from now?
    Our “Rosetta stones” would be useless magnetic scribbles for lack of the technology needed to read, what?- our email or blog posts from today…
    A perfect image is here. This is how much of our history will be in someone’s hand but lost nonetheless.
    Fun stuff Geoff.
    If I ever make it back to London, can I book you as a tour guide?
    I’d pay by picking up the tab at your favorite pub. . . 🍺
    Warm Christmas greeting from a friend currently held captive in California.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I’d be delighted to show you this bonkers city in all its many contradictions. I recall asking for access.to a staff.members work email (the person had left) to review some correspondence to be told.we couldn’t access.it.this would have been about 2000. Since then that problem has resolved itself but like the ones you list there will be countless others.

      Like

  7. Love ancient history. Thanks for the view.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. tootlepedal says:

    You make a very good point about the possibility of making very accurate copies. If the BM copies the Elgin marbles they could send either the original or the copies to Athens and nobody need ever know which was which.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Strongly in agreement about returning artefacts to their rightful homes.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. arlingwoman says:

    I love those figures. They look like some version of a totem pole and it’s amazing to think they can be read like stories. Years ago I remember gaping at the Rosetta Stone in the BM. As well as the Parthenon Marbles (which Elgin had been keeping in a shed). In the US we’ve had a lot of discussions of native artifacts as well as bones, some of the things sacred. In the past few years it’s been a relief to see them going back to tribes.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. CARAMELODY says:

    I love the British Museum ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • CARAMELODY says:

      But yes…it is a travesty that there is a hoard of artifacts from other lands that is being stored. I visit the Museum because it is fascinating to learn, but I do understand the injustice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        It is a difficult one. As I understand the position of the Cairo museum they’re content we keep the many sarcophagi but major items like the stone should return..that seems.fair

        Like

      • CARAMELODY says:

        The Rosetta Stone is such a crucial piece, and I do think it should be returned. Yes, definitely. However, I also think that while it has been in London, many many many have been able to see this very important artifact – the key to hieroglyphics and an insight into the worship demanded by Egypt’s rulers. But yes, it ought to go home.

        Liked by 1 person

      • TanGental says:

        Given 3D copies are so exact there really seems no justification

        Like

    • TanGental says:

      Indeed it never disappoints

      Like

  12. Mick Canning says:

    Yup. Time to return everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Holly says:

    Very eloquently stated about the ethics of the varied treasures in that museum. It’s a marvelous collection, but unfairly acquired, to be sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      It’s undoubtedly true that some, possibly many items would have disappeared into private collections or been destroyed without this activity but the power dynamics of the time of acquisition mean that they really need to go back. Thanks for joining in the debate

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Jennie says:

    I do think that it was preserved (thank goodness) because the British looked after it, but at some point it needs to go back to its rightful place. Thank you for the wonderful photos!

    Liked by 1 person

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