Wednesday, August 8, 2007

John Ray's "The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt"

John Ray is Herbert Thompson Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University and is also a Fellow of Selwyn College.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, and reported the following:
In the Rosetta Stone I started to tell the story of how Egyptian hieroglyphs were first deciphered. There was an Englishman, Thomas Young, who was a brilliant polymath, but whose work has been dismissed by recent biographers. I tried to show that he is the Dr Jekyll of the Rosetta Stone and not the Mr Hyde. Then there was the younger Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champollion, who was both a genius and a born Egyptologist at the same time. Page 99 of my book explains how the Catholic church thought Champollion was an upstart revolutionary, who was overthrowing the chronology which was found in the Bible. At one point his discoveries actually came to the aid of the Church, which puzzled him, but eventually relations with the authorities became reassuringly sour again.

This story led me to bigger questions. How does writing work, and what is its history? What did the decipherment of hieroglyphs tell us about one of the world's earliest, and greatest civilisations? The Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum, along with the Elgin Marbles. But who really owns it, and who should own it? What happens if we start giving works of art back to their places of origin? Big questions - but I hope those who read my book will come to their own conclusions. Finally, if the pleasure I had writing the book comes over to the readers, it will have been worthwhile.

Page 99:

Before Champollion, the only ancient voices from the ancient world that could be heard were Greece, Rome and the Bible. Now the Egyptians were beginning to speak with their own voice. This was a triumph for understanding, but it was clear even in Champollion's own lifetime that parts of the new story would turn out to be divisive. Before the decipherment, Champollion's work on the chronology of ancient Egypt had started to provoke the Catholic Church, which had an uneasy relationship with the revolution in France and those who supported it. As his work progressed, and he found more and more Pharaohs with higher and higher regnal years, it became increasingly clear to Champollion that the traditional time-scale taught by the Church was too short. The thirty dynasties given by the chronicler Manetho could not be reconciled with the received dates for Old Testament figures such as Abraham and Solomon. The Church retaliated by declaring that the advanced dates for Egyptian civilisation which this pipsqueak was proposing were far too close to the period of Noah's flood, which as every one knew was a time of primitive ignorance. In the case of the Dendera zodiac, however, which Champollion had shown to be very late by Egyptian standards, the paradoxical result was that the same pipsqueak was hailed by the Church as a champion of its cause. Here we have a foretaste of the bitter debate about science and religion which was to occupy much of the nineteenth century, and whose echoes are still with us in the twenty-first. Champollion found something of the controversy and opposition which was later to beset Darwin in the realm of evolution. The authority of Holy Writ was a mighty opponent to take on.
Read more about The Rosetta Stone, including an excerpt, at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue