Review: The Story Behind the Rosetta Stone | Book reviews and short stories


“The Writing of the Gods” by Edward Dolnick; Scribner, 336 pages, $28.

Ancient Egypt has persisted in the popular imagination for over 400 years, from Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ to Lawrence Kasdan’s ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. And it’s easy to see why, starting with the almost unfathomable scale of its pyramids and other monuments, many of which still stand thousands and thousands of years after they were built.

Overriding everything, often literally, are hieroglyphs, communication via tiny works of art that for centuries no one could read. Conventional wisdom held (incorrectly) that the hieroglyphs hid “not trivial messages but profound and universal truths”. Then, in 1799, Napoleonic troops in Egypt found a stone slab covered with text in three scripts – Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphic. The Rosetta Stone, as it was called, is believed to be the key that unlocked and demystified all of these messages adorning countless Egyptian artifacts.

But as Edward Dolnick’s meticulous new book, “The Writing of the Gods,” indicates, the process of decoding the Rosetta Stone’s 14 lines of hieroglyphics was not easy. At the heart of this sprawling tale full of amazing takeaways are two “rival geniuses”, Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion. Young, an English polymath, became interested in the Rosetta Stone simply because it was there, an unsolved problem. Frenchman Champollion has only ever had eyes for Egypt, in all its manifestations, including the ancient Coptic language which will prove crucial to understanding the Rosetta Stone.

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Dolnick treats their efforts like a thriller, with both men making groundbreaking breakthroughs, benefiting from wise guesses, and being hampered by preconceptions or bad luck.

While the deciphering chapters captivate, the supporting material – covering the development of writing, the history and culture of ancient Egypt, Napoleon’s military campaigns in the region, early 19th century academia and more – can be just as entertaining. Dolnick is an assiduous researcher, drawing his story from an extensive bibliography and enlisting dozens of historical figures, from pharaohs to philosophers. It can be didactic and tends to overdo it with metaphors explaining the challenges facing Young and Champollion, but it seems genuinely impressed with its subject matter, reflecting on the human approach to knowledge, on how we judge discovery and why we revere or denigrate what we do not understand.

It is indeed a remarkable story, starting with the fact that the Rosetta Stone was never found. Originally created as a propaganda poster for Ptolemy V in a temple in 196 BC, the stone was repurposed as building material for a fort, then languished for centuries in a pile of rubble, preserved by the arid heat of the Egypt. If not for Napoleon’s expansionist ego and intellectual curiosity – he brought 160 scientists, artists and scholars with him – it might never have been ripped off. Given the transience of today’s society and the damage we inflict on each other and the planet, it’s fair to wonder what will be left thousands of years from now to help those who might stay trying to learn what we did.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.

Alycia R. Lindley