The Writing of the Gods: The Race To Decode the Rosetta Stone

Scribner. Oct. 2021. 336p. ISBN 9781501198939. $28. ARCHAEOL
The year 2022 will mark the bicentennial of the modern decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, which unlocked many aspects of that ancient civilization. This new volume by journalist Dolnick (The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World) is an account of the breakthrough. He explains that its key was the 1799 discovery at Rashid (called Rosetta by Europeans) in the Nile Delta of a broken stela, by soldiers from Napoléon’s army. The Rosetta Stone, as it has come to be called in the Western world, bears a trilingual text in ancient Greek and Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphic. Copies of the text were made and disseminated among European scholars to attempt to decipher the two Egyptian inscriptions. Dolnick focuses particularly on the intense rivalry between two of those savants: Englishman Thomas Young (1773–1829) and Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832). Both compared royal names appearing in the stone’s Greek and hieroglyphic texts and discovered that hieroglyphs weren’t just ideograms but representations of sounds. For more on Champollion, one might seek out Andrew Robinson’s outstanding biography Cracking the Egyptian Code.
VERDICT Dolnick presents a fast-paced intellectual adventure for general readers that surveys the invention of writing and the processes of deciphering and decoding. Highly recommended for anyone who relishes challenging puzzles.
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