How Hieroglyphs Were Deciphered 200 Years Ago

Portrait of Dr Thomas Young (1773-1829), copper medal. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
[bsa_pro_ad_space id=4]

In autumn 2022 a major exhibition at the British Museum marks one of the most important moments in our understanding of ancient history: the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt will explore the inscriptions and objects that helped scholars unlock one of the world’s oldest civilisations, exactly 200 years since this pivotal moment.

The Rosetta Stone. Granodiorite; Rasid, Egypt; Ptolemaic, 196 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum.

At the exhibition’s heart is the Rosetta Stone, amongst the world’s most famous ancient objects and one of the British Museum’s most popular exhibits. Before hieroglyphs could be deciphered, life in ancient Egypt had been a mystery for centuries with only tantalising glimpses into this forgotten world. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, with its decree written in hieroglyphs, demotic and the known language of ancient Greek, provided the key to decoding hieroglyphs in 1822; a breakthrough expanding the modern world’s knowledge of Egypt’s history by some 3,000 years.

Portrait of Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), by Eugène Champollion, ink on paper, 19th century. Musée Champollion – les Écritures du Monde | Figeac.

This immersive exhibition brings together over 240 objects, including loans from national and international collections, many of which are shown for the first time. It charts the race to decipherment, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars to more focussed progress by French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) and England’s Thomas Young (1773–1829). The Rosetta Stone is viewed alongside the very inscriptions that Champollion and other scholars studied in their quest to understand the ancient past. The exhibition also features stunning objects that highlight the impact of that breakthrough.

‘The Enchanted Basin’. Sarcophagus of Hapmen, black granite. al-Hawd al-Marsud, Egypt, 26th Dynasty, 600 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Star objects include ‘the Enchanted Basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BCE, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. The hieroglyphs were believed to have magical powers and that bathing in the basin could offer relief from the torments of love. The reused ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’. It has since been identified as the sarcophagus of Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet, papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Rarely on public display, the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word, with ritual spells there to be pronounced. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased.

These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Mummy bandage of Aberuai, linen, Saqqara, Egypt, Ptolemaic period. Photo (C) Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet.

Among the exceptional loans to the exhibition is the mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, that has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs. The exhibition also brings together personal notes by Champollion from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Young from the British Library. A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor. Egypt, late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC. Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

The striking cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25–30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

From love poetry and international treaties, to shopping lists and tax returns, the exhibition reveals fascinating stories of life in ancient Egypt. As well as an unshakeable belief in the power of the pharaohs and the promise of the afterlife, ancient Egyptians enjoyed good food, writing letters and making jokes.

Many people in ancient Egypt could not read or write so language was enjoyed through readings, recitations and performances. The exhibition includes digital media and audio to bring the language to life alongside the objects on display. As part of the interpretation, the British Museum has worked with Egyptian colleagues and citizens from Rashid (modern day Rosetta), with their voices featured throughout the exhibition.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt runs from 13 October 2022 to 19 February 2023 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.

To coincide with the exhibition, a beautifully illustrated catalogue, Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, edited by Ilona Regulski, will be published by the British Museum Press in October 2022. British Museum exclusive paperback, £25, ISBN 9780714191294. Hardback, £40, ISBN 9780714191287.


For more information on the exhibition please go to the website of the British Museum.

There is even a link between collectibles and hieroglyphs! Enjoy this article by scripophily expert Franky Leeuwerck “Hieroglyphs in Scripophily Deciphered”.