Drink and walk like an Egyptian

Matthew Sweet on hieroglyphs telling new tales of antiquity
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The Independent Culture
We like to think of the Ancient Egyptians as a literate, cultured race. We also like to think of them as a people involved in a mist of esoterica - issuing curses, offering up invocations, resuscitating mummies with the juice of sacred Tana leaves, that kind of bafflegab. It's a campy orientalism that persists in the most recent appropriations of Egyptian history, from Rachel Weisz fleeing the beat of the cloth-wrapped feet in Universal's blockbuster The Mummy, to that ruffled ponce Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen transmogrifying a Penge dining room into a tomb of the 19th Dynasty on last week's Fantasy Rooms.

Richard Parkinson's exhibition uses the Rosetta Stone - the trilingual stela that offered 19th-century Egyptologists a key to unlock the secrets of the hieroglyphs - to deconstruct these assumptions. Highly literate? Nope. Less than one per cent of the population of Pharaonic Egypt were capable of putting pen to papyrus, and that figure included barely any women.

Esoteric? Well, some of the time. But not every line of pictograms was some high-flown Book-of-the-Deadism. Take a look at one of this show's most impressive artefacts, a wall painting from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, which depicts a group of figures prostrating themselves before the divine occupant. You'd think the textual elements were all arcane apostrophes to the deities. In fact, they're stroppy little exclamations like "Sit, and don't talk!" and "Do not hurry your feet, carrying these geese". Further on, there are texts offering more eye-opening bathos. A woman complains that her mother's affair with a married man is making her life a misery. Another writer gripes: "I know what a stepmother can be like: are you following your wife's wishes in killing my household?" A register of attendance from some ancient building site lists navvies' excuses for missing shifts: "His mother was ill" or "Drinking with Khonsu". It's often asserted - by archaeologists such as Mark Lehner and Zahi Hawass, for instance - that the Pyramids could never have been constructed by slaves, because projects of this sort demand absolute belief and commitment from a labour force. That the Pyramids were built by men with stinking hangovers adds a new twist to the theory.

But I think I may be making this sound more coherent than it actually is. There is no forceful narrative to this exhibition, and its eclecticism gives rise to some contradiction. First, we're offered the Stone itself - which was brought to Europe by Napoleon in 1799 - as a kind of Enigma Machine, the centrepiece of a room ordered around the efforts of French and British Egyptologists to crack the code of Egyptian script. Then, we're invited to reject this notion of abstract problem-solving to see hieroglyphs in their proper cultural context. In the concluding room, just before we're offered the chance to buy Rosetta Stone-shaped chocolate bars, we go on a quick trot around the Ancient World's untranslated scripts, which pushes us back to seeing textual archaeologists as Alan Turing clones in sunhats.

The middle section is by far the richest and most instructive stretch of the show. Linger long enough, and you'll get a very clear sense of the ordinary human life conducted around many of these apparently mysterious, portentous objects. It doesn't provide the exotic thrill of a glowing Eye of Horus or George Pastell tugging on Peter Cushing's linen suit and imploring, "I beg you, Effendi, do not desecrate the tombs of my ancestors!" But it does something for the dignity of the Ancient Egyptians; and that, I think, is more important than leaving our taste for Grand Guignol unsatisfied.

`Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment': British Museum, WC1 (0171 636 1555) to 16 January