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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hieroglyphics Are "Figurative, Symbolic and Phoenetic", 18 May 2004
This review is from: The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Hardcover)
If you are like me, you learned at some point that Napoleon's forces had located the Rosetta Stone while invading Egypt, leading to the rediscovery of how to read ancient Egyptian. The writing on the stone contained the same material in Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphs. From comparing the three texts, scholars deciphered hieroglyphs. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Well, it really wasn't, which is where our school book learning was incomplete. And that's the appeal of this unusual book.
Why do I say the book is unusual? Well, most books about scholarly discoveries focus on the work itself. While this one certainly contains information about how the hieroglyphs were translated, the main focus is on what it was like to be a French scholar in a high visibility area from the time after the French Revolution through the Restoration. The story is a fascinating one of constant intrigue, danger, poverty, and overwhelming odds overcome. This book would qualify as an exciting novel if written that way.
Jean-Francois Champollion was the key translator who finally succeeded in 1822, 23 years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered. He was the son of an impoverished book seller at 16 when the stone was found. His main competitor was an English physician, Thomas Young, who was to turn out to be an implacable foe who denigrated and challenged Champollion's work.
The work would have gone on much more rapidly, but there was a shortage of materials available to Champollion to work on. He also had the difficult task of getting an education and then earning his living as a teacher, and often had to put off working on the hieroglyphs for long periods of time. When the Restoration came, he and his brother were exiled to the small town they started in. But they succeeded in regaining official support for their careers, and were able to continue.
Despite the challenges, Champollion (with a lot of help from his friends, and especially his older brother) was eventually able to get recognition for his accomplishments and support from Charles X to go to Italy to study texts and later Egypt to translate the monuments and texts there. In the brief period of time before his death in 1832, he added tremendously to our knowledge of ancient Egypt and its culture.
The key problem was that the same hieroglyph (such as the picture of a duck) can represent an object (the duck), a concept ("son of"), and a sound ("sa"). One of the key breaks came in finding cartouches of foreign names that were easier to decipher because they used the phoenetic versions. Having had success there, with access to more material it was easy to notice cartouches that seemed to represent the names of well-known Egyptian Pharaohs such as Ramses (described as "Rameses" in the book). Cleopatra's name was an early translation breakthrough. Soon, these cartouches provided clues to the multiple ways that hieroglyphs can be used. Numerical analysis showed that the number of hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone did not match very well to the number of words or letters in the Greek text. That suggested that something more complex was going on than using a straight-forward alphabet from hierglyphs. Champollion soon made quick progress from there. He had an amazing talent for languages, having earlier produced a Coptic dictionary.
Champollion also uncovered that hieroglyphs were formal writing, Hieratic was cursive handwriting, Demotic dated from 650 B.C., and Coptic began in 250 A.D. So the dating of the materials studied could be determined in part by the languages used.
After you finish enjoying this interesting book, I suggest that you think about how languages divide us. Most of us read only in our native language. This means that works in other languages first have to be translated before we can enjoy them. Many works are never so translated. I urge you to take another language that you know and read something in that language. That experience allows you to enjoy the other culture much more than you can with a translation. If your language skills are not sufficient to do this, I suggest that you read something that has been translated by two different translators in separate editions. Compare them to see how much translations can vary. Although my examples focus on languages, you should also realize that such differences in understanding occur in one language. So pay close attention and check your assumptions when you read and listen to someone speak. For example, be open to what is not being said and is not being written, but is present. Don't miss the subtleties that may reveal most of the meaning to you!
Look, listen, and learn.
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Donald Mitchell

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