Hieroglyphs in Scripophily Deciphered

[bsa_pro_ad_space id=4]

by Franky Leeuwerck

September 27, 2018 – Antique securities from companies that operated in Egypt were typically illustrated with pharaonic themes and hieroglyphs. Standing on their own as true pieces of artwork, their mysterious designs made possible investors dream of promising outcomes. People bought these share certificates in the 19th and 20th century when the stock exchanges of Alexandria and Cairo flourished. But are the hieroglyphs on these certificates actually legible?

Crédit Agricole d’Egypte.1 Share of 4 Egyptian Pounds, 1951. Are the hieroglyphs in the lower border genuine?

In August 2016, the Belgian radio program Weetikveel (English: I Don’t Know) featured an Egyptologist in a broadcast about the pharaohs of Egypt. I had been puzzled for quite a while by the hieroglyphs that were printed on Egyptian shares. I introduced myself by email to the guest speaker, researcher Marleen De Meyer, and she was amused by the pictures of these antique securities I had sent her. She agreed to have a look at them to see whether the texts were actually legible.

Gibberish!, she said when I showed her this stunning share in the Crédit Agricole d’Egypte. De Meyer works as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Archaeology with a specialty in Egyptology at KU Leuven University. She is an experienced Egyptologist and can read and understand ancient Egyptian texts.

The earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions are over 5000 years old. The knowledge of reading them was completely lost some 1500 years ago. The world had to wait until the time of Napoleon to regain that expertise. Under the pretext of protecting the French interests in Egypt, he sent his Armée d’Orient on expedition to Egypt in 1798. Pierre-François Bouchard, one of Napoleon’s officers, found in 1799 near Rosetta, a city in the Nile Delta, a stone slab bearing inscriptions in three different scripts. The stone would lead to a breakthrough in deciphering hieroglyphics.

Fayoum Light Railways Company Société Anonyme. 4% GBP 20 Sterling Bearer Bond, Cairo, 1899, printed by Charles Skipper East. The symbols printed in the bond’s upper and lower border look like hieroglyphs.

Also the hieroglyphs on the Fayoum Light Railways bond are total nonsense. But a share from the Electric Light and Power Supply Company was more interesting. Marleen De Meyer explains:

  • The inscriptions on the pylon, the temple gateway, are (also) nonsense.
  • The inscriptions below both sphinxes are legible hieroghlyphs. They are derived from the titulature of Ramses II, though not without faults.

I am pleased. Finally, we’re getting somewhere!

Electric Light and Power Supply Co. Société Anonymous, dividend share, Cairo, issued 1933. The inscriptions below both sphinxes are legible hieroghlyphs but those on the pylon, the temple gateway, are not.

When Pierre-François Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone there was nobody who could translate the stone’s inscriptions. The same text was written in three languages: Greek, Demotic, and Ancient Egyptian (hieroglyphs). At this time, no one had been able to decipher the latter two scripts, but Greek was of course known. Bouchard told his superiors and his commanding officer Nicolas-Jacques Conté, that he had found something of importance. Before they joined Napoleon’s army in Egypt, Bouchard and Conté were already friends. Both had lost an eye during one of Conté’s experiments with hydrogen gas.

The Rosetta Stone, measuring 112cm high, 75cm wide, 28cm thick, and weighing about 760 kilograms, was brought to Cairo. Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt included many scientists who described and drew ancient monuments and antiquities. Eager to inform their colleagues in France, they tried to copy the Rosetta Stone’s texts by hand.

That proved to be an error-prone process. Nicolas-Jacques Conté suggested to use the Rosetta Stone itself as a printing block to reproduce the inscription. They applied ink to the surface, including the incisions, and then cleaned off the ink from the raised surface. The resulting print, in reverse text, could be read from the back side, or in a mirror. Copies of the stone’s texts reached Paris in 1801.

Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, specimen dividend share, 1924. The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. The drawing of the share is made by James Pouchet, an engineer working for de Lesseps. Pouchet designed several buildings along the Suez Canal. (L’Illustration: Journal Universel, 16 Oct 1869).

For many years now, Marleen De Meyer has been researching the field of funerary culture from Egypt’s Old and Middle Kingdom. Since 2002 she is a permanent team member of the Dayr al-Barsha Project directed by the Egyptology research group at KU Leuven. Dayr al-Barsha is located in Middle Egypt, where in 2014, De Meyer discovered in the area of the Old Kingdom rock tombs (2300-2200 BC), an extraordinary and well preserved plaster funerary mask.

Details from the Suez Canal share, see above. The inscriptions have been identified by Egyptologist De Meyer. The hieroglyphs refer to Cleopatra and Necho II.

A five hour drive from Dayr al-Barsha takes you to Suez, which brings us to the next item to discuss. Marleen could easily identify the meaning of the symbols on the Suez Canal share because these are genuine hieroglyphs. James Pouchet, a Suez Canal engineer who made the drawing for the Suez Canal share, had accurately copied the writings. Marleen clarifies:

  • The one on the left says: “Lord of The Two Lands, Cleopatra”, dating to the Ptolemaic Period
  • The column on the right reads: “King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of The Two Lands, Necho II”, 26th Dynasty (610-595 BCE)

Earlier I told you that paper copies of the Rosetta stone’s inscriptions arrived in Paris in 1801. All this time, the French army was frequently under attack from British and Ottoman troops. In August 1801, the French general Menou had to surrender. Together with Arabian manuscripts, ancient statues and other antiquities collected by the French, the Stone of Rosetta came into British possession. It was transported to London where it became a top attraction in the British Museum ever since.

Société Belge-Egyptienne de l’Ezbékieh. 500 Francs bond, Brussels, 1905. Founded in 1899 with Belgian capital, the company was a real estate developer in and around Cairo. Hieroglyphs can be found on this certificate along all borders of the design.

A bond from 1905 issued by the Société Belge-Egyptiènne de l’Ezbékieh counts no less than 14 hieroglyphic inscriptions. This was “le plat principal” for Marleen De Meyer. In clockwise order and starting at the top, she identifies the names of several Egyptian rulers written in cartouches:

1. Arsinoe II (Ptolemaic Period)
2. Amenirdis I or II (25th Dyn.)
3. Snefru (4th Dyn.) with an error
4. not a legible name
5. The designer was likely inspired by the titulature of Seti I (19th Dyn.), but the writing shows several errors.
6. Ramses II (19th Dyn.)
7. Merneptah (19th Dyn.)
8. Ramses II (19th Dyn.)
9. Ptolemaios II Philadelphos (Ptolemaic Period)
10. Horemheb (18th Dyn.)
11. [mAa-xrw] “true of voice”, the name of a pharaoh is missing
12. Amenemhat (12th Dyn.), with an error
13. Probably based on the titulature of Takelot (22nd Dyn.), but the writing has several errors.
14. Seti I (19th Dyn.)

Société Belge-Egyptiènne de l’Ezbékieh, layout of the fourteen hieroglyphic inscriptions.

To locate the hieroglyphs more easily on the certificate, I prepared a somewhat compressed version of the certificate’s border.

By the beard of the pharaoh, what an amazing find! Unfortunately, I have no idea which illustrator has so thoroughly copied these royal names into this work, as there is no author mentioned on the certificate. If you want more information, you can check the standard work of Jürgen von Beckerath: Handbuch der Ägyptischen Königsnamen, 1999.

So far in my story of the Rosetta Stone, you learned that France lost the Rosetta Stone in Egypt to the British in 1801. However, another race was on: who would be the first to decipher hieroglyphs? The British brought the stone to England aboard the captured French frigate HMS Egyptienne. The ship arrived in Portsmouth in February 1802. But the French had already sent from Egypt several printed copies of the stone’s inscriptions to scholars in France the year before.

The deciphering of hieroglyphs did not come as a single achievement from one person. Several scientists have made their contribution. The two most important ones are Thomas Young (1773-1829) from Great Britain and the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) and, like the political climate between their countries, both were each other’s rival.

It was Champollion who was the first to understand that hieroglyphs were a combination of phonograms (such as letters in alphabet), logograms (similar to Chinese characters) and ideograms (symbols representing a concept). He also realized that the hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone was translated from Greek, not the other way around. In 1822 Champollion presented the way in which he had cracked the code.

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. The three fragments of writing on it say the same thing in three different languages: Demotic, Ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian (hieroglyphs). The text is a royal decree from the Hellenistic Period about the taxes of temple priests. Image: Olaf Herrmann, Wikimedia Commons.

During the last two hundred years, illustrators of bond and share certificates successfully used design elements like pyramids, sphinxes, and both pseudo-hieroglyphs and genuine hieroglyphs to attract potential investors.

There is still one question that remains unsolved in Egyptian scripophily. Has anyone of you seen a share certificate bearing a vignette of the Rosetta Stone? The stone’s discovery triggered a tremendous amount of interest all over the world for many decades. I have no doubt that a share certificate like that exists, and it is just waiting to be discovered by collectors like you.

The author Franky Leeuwerck also publishes articles on his blog and maintains a Internet Scripophily Museum of Computing.

Again and again, Franky Leeuwerck has supported CoinsWeekly by giving us the permission to publish his wonderful articles. If you liked this, here are some others.

Twenty years of Belgas
‘At first sight it looked like a rather plain certificate. But I was puzzled because it was not mentioning the familiar Belgian Franc as its currency denomination but Belgas. Thundering typhoons, what were Belgas?’ Read Franky Leeuwerck’s intriguing article to learn about it if you don’t know yet.

Scripophily and Numismatics
An enthusiastic scripophilist informs us about the basics of his hobby and the close relation of numismatics and scripophily…

Kawasaki in the year 2889
Scripophily expert Franky Leeuwerck made a thought experiment. Living in 2889 an archaeologist, specialized in 20th century financial artefacts finds a Japanese share from 1921. How does he react, what information can he retrieve from this document?

Italian State securities on the menu
In one of his last blogs Franky Leeuwerck conducted an interview with the author of an extensive book on state bonds. You will learn a lot about the history of this means of government financing which is rooted deep in the early Renaissance period of Italy.

More information on the Rosetta Stone is available on the British Museum website and this short video published by Tom Scott.