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The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt (Wonders of the World) Hardcover – July 27, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
A wonderful introduction not only to the Rosetta Stone and its story, but also to the growth and development of modern Egyptology, this slim book begins with Cambridge professor Ray's childhood encounter with the stone in the British Museum in 1958. From there, Ray traces the history of the stone from the time of its discovery in 1799 to its deciphering in 1822 by Jean-François Champollion, a journey populated with big personalities and world events. Balancing the stone's present-day life with its ancient one, Ray gives readers enough information about the world of Ptolemy Epiphanes-during whose reign the stone was forged-to understand the larger context, but doesn't slow the narrative with extraneous details. Ray also offers an illuminating overview of dead language studies and the colorful figures who devote their lives to it. Like the rest of editor Mary Beard's Wonders of the World series (Richard Jenkyns's Westminster Abbey, Robert Irwin's The Alhambra, etc.), this informative text has an appealing, conversational tone that non-specialists should find especially welcoming.
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The renowned key to Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Rosetta Stone is an awe-inspiring object; seeing it inspired Ray to pursue a career in Egyptology. Ray balances his acumen with accessibility in presenting the stele's history, which takes several forms. From a historical perspective, the text, a 196 BCE agreement between the Ptolemaic pharaoh and the Egyptian priesthood, opens a window on a culture and polity in distress. Another history is intellectual, that of the Rosetta Stone's spectacular role in the decipherment of hieroglyphics. Because this can be a technical topic, Ray imparts more information on the deciphererFrench linguist Jean-François Champollion (17901832)than on the thought process behind his achievement. His genius, short life, and interaction with British scholar Thomas Young, who made progress in decipherment before Champollion, attach yet another history to the Rosetta Stone. Finally, ruminating on whether it, or antiquities generally, should be repatriated, Ray underscores that its history continues. Concise and informative. Taylor, Gilbert
Top customer reviews
Part of what makes this book so compulsively readable is Ray's dry sense of humor. He sneaks in wry comments in the most unexpected places and I found myself chuckling frequently. The book, intended for the general reader, is never guilty of talking down and for that one can be thankful.
As for the mechanics of the text itself, there certainly is a kind of authenticity in how the author chooses to present his findings. One gets the sense that he is not merely a broad-field historian with a cursory interest in Egyptology and the Rosetta Stone. Ray is clearly a devout disciple of ancient lore, Egyptian religion and archaeology, etc. He's also not just another dry lecturer bent on presenting the facts in the most straightforward and dull manner imaginable; he is quite witty and frequently takes academically correct jibes at popular culture for its general antipathy to ancient civilizations and their importance to our present affairs. Each chapter begins with some kind of quote relating to the content that follows. These are usually composed of scraps of correspondence between historical figures with some relationship to the Stone, others may be thoughtful poems by the likes of Lord Byron among others. Invariably, each chapter begins with a redundancy from the last before moving on into new waters. If one is reading the book in a single sitting (not unlikely given that it's a slim volume of 200 pages), this may seem somewhat like the author needed a recap himself, but if it is read in installments the recaps would probably be quite helpful. On the whole The Rosetta Stone advances fluidly and the language, while fraught with arcane historical allusions, is easily understood and free from trifles of jargon.
So what exactly is the Rosetta Stone and why is it so important to human history? It is a decree set down by Ptolemy V Epiphanes and members of the synod of Memphis, who collaborated with the house of Ptolemy, consisting of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic (shorthand of hieroglyphic), and ancient Greek. The actual text concerns the removal of a tax on temple priests. This amnesty was awarded during a time of turmoil within Egypt and the desired result was to insure the trust of the majority to the Pharaoh's motives so as to ultimately gain more taxes for the use of the temples; because the people needed their religion, which is interlocked with political affairs and so the more the people exalted their gods with gold and other offerings the more the state profited and was able to keep up the veil of security over the war torn nation. The priesthood was put in a position to deliver loyalty to the Pharaoh, and consequently the Ptolemaic dynasty, but there then came a revolt.
Amidst the wars with neighboring lands, civil wars broke out as well. There was a great disputation on behalf of native born Egyptians and the Greeks. Class distinctions under the Ptolemaic rule were almost invisible and many began to question who they owed loyalty. Ptolemy V Epiphanes was at this point the ruler of Egypt in title only. Much of the country was outside the Pharaoh's control; he needed the native temples to effectively placate this rebellion. So he needed to tap the temples' wealth and also their considerable control over public opinion. Allegiances to the Pharoah, however, started to dwindle and divisions of leadership began to sprout throughout Upper, Middle, and Lower Egypt. Even with his synod of priests who continually propagated adornments to the Pharaoh and built many altars to him which were to be commonplace throughout the whole land, the youngest Ptolemy's powers still waned. Thus, the text of the Rosetta Stone inaccurately portrays the Pharaoh as the ideal example of what a ruler should be, a flattery concocted by the highest clergy in the land to preserve the Pharaoh's image as a generous philanthropist, which he was, but also inexperienced and mediocre compared to his predecessors. The Rosetta Stone's inscription describes this pivotal part of ancient history.
Over the centuries a debate has raged over who is the rightful owner of the Stone and who was the first to decipher it. In the course of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain edged France out of Egypt and was free to loot the land as they wished. Certainly one of their greatest spoils was the Rosetta Stone. However, this was truly looted. Napoleon's gang of savants had officially "discovered" the stone on an earlier expedition, but as his troupes got pushed back and forced into armistice their remained a settlement issue over loot plucked from the sands of the desert. The Stone itself has found its way through much of Europe, but the question remains of who its rightful owner is. Are the French for finding it in one of their designated forts in Egypt and beginning investigation into its origins, or the British for having "earned" it as a spoil of war? Ray attempts to settle this age old debate by arguing that the Rosetta Stone belongs not to France, or Britain, or even Egypt itself, but rather to the entire world, since the curiosity it has inspired has touched nearly every country on earth. He claims that it is not only the responsibility of the British Museum (where the Stone is currently housed), but the responsibility of the global academic community. The Stone is, after all, the very key to our understanding of ancient times as well as the development of language in general. Many people may be surprised to find that their own language, which perhaps they'd taken for granted, finds its roots in the pictorial writings of the Egyptians.
Ray leaves no room for confusion on who made the greatest breakthroughs in deciphering the texts of the Stone. The Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion is known as the godfather of Egyptology for good reason. He committed his life to the translation of the hieroglyphs and the study of the ancient world. Every scholar of Egyptology since owes to Champollion's code-cracking abilities. That's not to say he did it all alone. He drew from the work that the British polymath genius Thomas Young had amassed during his stint as a decipherer. Young's contributions to every branch of the natural sciences were profound, and while his work on the Stone was groundbreaking, it was his rival Frenchman who really took things to the next level and changed the face of history with his discoveries. Here again, a feud exists over who is the "true" arbiter of the Stone's deciphering. Clearly, Champollion made the greatest advancements on the translation but not without a leg up from Young. Given Young's successes in other fields, the two are traditionally billed as equals in the academic arena, but, as John Ray asserts, the Frenchman's role in the evolution of Egyptology is unparalleled.
Overall, John Ray's The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt is an informative, engrossing read. I found his language to be very precise: there were no dangling paraphrases in search of meaning; the language fluidly describes this controversial subject, and even with the occasional subtle quip to lighten things up a bit. This book is an excellent introduction to Rosetta and Egyptology and would make an effective primer for advanced studies in archaeology.
Very readable and enjoyable. Good section on the repatriation of historical objects.