British Museum shines new light on the Rosetta Stone of pharaohs and gods

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For almost two centuries, visitors to the British Museum have followed a pilgrim's path: left at the entrance, right at the first door. That route took them to the "the most famous piece of rock in the world", the Rosetta Stone, the single most popular object amid the treasures in the museum.

For almost two centuries, visitors to the British Museum have followed a pilgrim's path: left at the entrance, right at the first door. That route took them to the "the most famous piece of rock in the world", the Rosetta Stone, the single most popular object amid the treasures in the museum.

Now visitors will have to establish a path to a new destination: the stone is to take pride of place in the Great Court entrance to the Egyptian sculpture gallery. As they enter, their gaze will fall first on the instantly recognisable craggy outline of the Stone - and the first clear outline of its back, with lighting set up to simulate the hot Egyptian sun that once beat down on it.

Planning for the new display has been going on since 1999, and has involved complete rethinking about its nature. No longer is it being "Occidentalised" as though it were a printed sheet of paper, but instead it is being presented in as close to its original conditions as possible, and in a position that reflects its importance.

The 11mm reinforced glass case is barely visible, so visitors will have a better view of the Stone than ever before. It will sit on a carefully chosen solid plinth of York stone. Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, said: "It came out perfectly; a beautiful pale sandy colour, the warmth of Egypt, which will highlight the grey and pink in the stone."

The designer, Paul Tansey, of the museum's department of presentation, said that the Stone would be aligned with the front of the plinth, so that the fibre-optic lights shining from the case floor would throw the inscribed text into relief. The mirrored top of the case would reflect that sharp stream, as though the bright sunlight of Egypt was again shining on the Stone, he added.

The display will be a fitting introduction to the ancient world galleries, covering Egypt, Greece and the Near East, that fill the west wing, said Dr Parkinson. "This is ancient Egypt as a multicultural society, a melting pot."

The museum, which took possession of the Stone in 1802, chose to display it in the Egyptian sculpture galleries in a metal cradle, laid nearly flat. The characters were filled with white chalk and carnauba wax applied to the surface. Dr Parkinson says: "It was made to look like a black and white printed text laid out on an angled reading desk". The West had cast this "Oriental" text into a pattern with which it was comfortable.

The new display will be unveiled on Wednesday, but not quite in its final form, for over the next week or so after that final cleaning will be done. In 1999 the left bottom corner was left untouched when the 19th-century wax and finger grease was removed, in case there were future concerns about information being lost. With those laid to rest, the cleaning will be completed, with work going on overnight, for visitor demand means that the Stone cannot be taken off display, even for a moment.

The text, carved in Egypt, carries a decree issued by the priests of Memphis on 27 March 196BC that the pharaoh should be worshipped as a god in recognition of his "establishing Egypt and making it perfect." Furthermore, the hieroglyph version of the Rosetta text reads, temples were directed to display the decree "on a stela of hard stone in the script of god's words [hieroglyphs], the script of documents [the cursive Demotic script of then 'modern' Egyptian] and the letters of the Aegeans", creating the trinity of the Stone that made its fame.

Yet the power struggle that had led to the decree was a sign that the great ancient civilisation was entering its final phase and soon no one could read its words. But in the muddy delta of the Nile a sturdy rock was a rare and useful item, so it was recycled as a building block, its distinct shape created by a careless builder. Eventually it came to be used in the construction of a 15th-century fortress by the latest foreign, Mamluk, ruler of Egypt.

That fort was already in ruins when Napoleon invaded Egypt, says Dr Parkinson, to "colonise, in the name of the Enlightenment, a country that was supposedly the origin of all wisdom".

One attractive characteristic of the Enlightenment was its thirst for knowledge, however, and the savants who had come with Napoleon were looking for a magic door into Egyptian culture. When the Stone was uncovered it was immediately recognised as such. But the French were not to keep their prize, and with the victory of the British army it was despatched to London.

It came to the British Museum in June 1802, its journey recorded, then as now, by the painted words on its sides: "captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801" and "presented by King George III". It was also marked by French hands, in the form of the printers' ink that is still embedded in the incised characters.

Yet the 19th century was an important time in the Stone's history, so the display has been recreated in the museum's new Enlightenment Gallery, using a high-quality replica. There, for the first time legitimately, visitors can run their fingers over the shape of each hieroglyph, exploring the textures of smooth stone and broken edges.

While the Stone was being fixed in place, copies of its text were streaming around the world, and a new imperialistic race was on to decipher their meaning. It was the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion who won, in 1822, although with the help of the work of the British scholar Thomas Young. Champollion was well aware of the importance of his feat; according to his nephew after announcing "Je tiens mon affaire!" (I've done it) he collapsed in a five-day faint.

It is not an artistically or physically spectacular object, but visitors, even those with the scantest knowledge of the ancient world, feel the power of its history. Then the visitor will see this Egyptian monument, in the midst of the pharaohs and gods, fully cleaned and brightly lit, in conditions as close as possible to those of the Temple of Sais in 196BC. Dr Parkinson said: "It has turned from the booty of conflict into a symbol of cross-cultural understanding. Broken and slightly battered, it remains a symbol of the enduring power of human understanding."


By Dan Frank

The Rosetta Stone, carved in 196BC was found in 1799 by a French officer, Pierre-Francois Bouchard, in the village of Rosette (Raschid), in the western Nile delta.

¿ It is carved from black basalt and measures 114cm x 72cm x 28cm.

¿ It is written in three scripts: hieroglyphics were used for official and religious documents, Demotic was the common script, and Greek was the language of the Ptolemic pharaohs.

¿ Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) was the first to decode the writings. He is said to have learnt Greek and Latin by the time he was nine. He studied Persian, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Pahlevi and Arabic.

¿ Hieroglyphsš can be written left to right and right to left. You can tell which way to read because people and animals always face the start of the line.