Nobody knew how to read hieroglyphs when two 19th-century scholars set out to decipher the inscribed texts on the ancient Egyptian Rosetta Stone, one of the British Museum’s most famous treasures.
Now notes have been discovered among one of the scholars’ papers in the British Library that reveal the extent to which the translation was treated as though it was a mathematical problem.
Thomas Young, an English medical doctor, and his rival, Jean-François Champollion, a French historian and linguist, each struggled to unravel the extraordinary puzzle, which eventually revealed a lost world through its language.
Young’s notes were among his papers donated 200 years ago by his widow and show how he approached the challenge.
The Rosetta Stone was inscribed in three languages in 196BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty: hieroglyphs, the formal writing system; demotic, the Egyptian script used for daily purposes; and Ancient Greek, the language of the administration at a time when the rulers of Egypt were Greco-Macedonian after Alexander the Great’s conquest.
Young could read Ancient Greek and spent his six-week summer holiday in Worthing in 1814 cutting up individual lines into strips, attempting to match them with corresponding versions. The notes show that he was arranging and rearranging the pieces.
Jed Buchwald, a professor of history at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), came across the notes when studying Young’s archive at the British Li