Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Mystery of Hieroglyphs

It is the Emperor Napoleon, of the short stature and explosive personality, that we have to thank for unlocking the mystery of hieroglyphics. His military campaign in Egypt and Palestine at the turn of the 19th century led to the discovery of a tablet dating to 196 BC in a fortress wall in the Nile Delta that served as the key. As scholars unraveled the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone, it revealed the long-held secrets of this mysterious ancient language.

Ancient Egyptian writing, known as hieroglyphic, had long been assumed to be a pictographic script—that is, one in which the individual pictograms represent an idea, basically a rebus or picture writing. Many imaginative attempts had been made to interpret them, although one problem was that while many of the hieroglyphic characters appeared to represent a recognizable item (a falcon, a plow and so on) there remained a number of cursive notations that were impenetrable. Were they also highly stylized pictures, or were they merely punctuation marks or linking signs? Also there appeared to be no structural order to the presentation of the script: sometimes characters were presented in rows, sometimes vertically in columns. Nevertheless, at no time did the earlier scholars assume that hieroglyphic was true writing, and that it had, at root, a phonetic function.

Although these scholars did not yet realize the importance of the Rosetta Stone in terms of spoken language, this extraordinary find contained a single text in three scripts which, when read against each other, constituted a decoding manual. However, due to its damaged state many parts of the comparable texts are missing. While the Rosetta Stone made it possible to attempt to read the Greek text against fragments of the hieroglyphic text, it was not possible to reconstruct how ancient Egyptian actually worked. Luckily, amateur historians took a strong interest in the Stone, and later made the discoveries that led to the modern interpretation of ancient Egyptian culture.

The most prominent early historian was Thomas Young, a gifted linguist and polymath who was fascinated by the Rosetta Stone. Looking for a common link between the parallel texts, he noticed the appearance of several characters within loops or cartouches. Guessing (correctly) that this might be a way of emphasizing something special, he compared these characters to the only pharaoh featured in the Greek text—Ptolemy (or Ptolemaios). Since it was a proper name, he knew how it was spoken, and so began to build the beginnings of a linguistic alphabet.

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