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(Eric Jaffe)

Romancing the Stone

An Egyptologist explains the Rosetta stone's lasting allure

Yes and no. The real decipherment was done by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion. Now Champollion, he lived in France after it had lost [the first] world war. If you are on the losing side of a world war, the whole of that society is going to be split with enemies, people distrusting you. So Champollion had a lot of enemies and a lot of people who were simply jealous of him. So it was really a generation before anybody was certain that Champollion had got it right.

The one that knew that he got it right was Champollion himself. Towards the end of his life, he went to Egypt and he went into tombs and temples, and suddenly, he could read those inscriptions—they started to make sense.

And of course, he rushes up and down Egypt going from one temple, one tomb to another and he collapses from overwork. So the trip to Egypt did two things for him. One is that it convinced him that he was right, even if his enemies weren't convinced, and the other thing is it wrecked his health, and it eventually killed him. He died [at age 41, on March 4, 1832] after a string of heart of attacks.

Can you think of any modern-day equivalent of the stone? Has any other encryption had such a powerful effect?

One is the decipherment of Linear B, the script from Crete. That was done by a man called Michael Ventris in the 1950s. Ventris didn't have a Rosetta stone. All he had were the inscriptions themselves. They were short. They were written in a language nobody knew and a script that nobody could read. But bit-by-bit, painstakingly, Ventris cracked the code. The text [was] largely an inventory of agriculture—sheep and goats and things like that. But it's the most amazing decipherment.

Are there other languages that have yet to be translated? Are we still seeking a Rosetta stone for any other culture?

Yes we are. There are three of them. One is the Indus, which are inscriptions from the Punjab in Pakistan, and they haven't been deciphered at all.

The next one is Etruscan, and Etruscan comes from central Italy.

The third one comes from the Sudan and it is called Meroitic. We can read that, as well, because it is written in a kind of Egyptian script. But again we can't identify the language. Now in the last couple of months a Frenchman has published a study reckoning that there, in fact, is a descendent of that language still being spoken in the Nile and the Saharan region somewhere. If he's right, he could be our next Rosetta stone.

If you could imagine it: what if our civilization went the way of the Ancient Egyptians, and our language was lost to future generations, our alphabet rendered indecipherable and our literature unreadable? What do you suppose would turn out to be the Rosetta stone that would decode the 21st Century?

About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering the Smithsonian Institution in both print and online. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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