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The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone

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The surprising and compelling story of two rival geniuses in an all-out race to decode one of the world’s most famous documents—the Rosetta Stone—and their twenty-year-long battle to solve the mystery of ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous objects in the world, attracting millions of visitors to the British museum ever year, and yet most The surprising and compelling story of two rival geniuses in an all-out race to decode one of the world’s most famous documents—the Rosetta Stone—and their twenty-year-long battle to solve the mystery of ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous objects in the world, attracting millions of visitors to the British museum ever year, and yet most people don’t really know what it is. Discovered in a pile of rubble in 1799, this slab of stone proved to be the key to unlocking a lost language that baffled scholars for centuries. Carved in ancient Egypt, the Rosetta Stone carried the same message in different languages—in Greek using Greek letters, and in Egyptian using picture-writing called hieroglyphs. Until its discovery, no one in the world knew how to read the hieroglyphs that covered every temple and text and statue in Egypt. Dominating the world for thirty centuries, ancient Egypt was the mightiest empire the world had ever known, yet everything about it—the pyramids, mummies, the Sphinx—was shrouded in mystery. Whoever was able to decipher the Rosetta Stone, and learn how to read hieroglyphs, would solve that mystery and fling open a door that had been locked for two thousand years. Two brilliant rivals set out to win that prize. One was English, the other French, at a time when England and France were enemies and the world’s two great superpowers. The Writing of the Gods chronicles this high-stakes intellectual race in which the winner would win glory for both himself and his nation. A riveting portrait of empires both ancient and modern, this is an unparalleled look at the culture and history of ancient Egypt and a fascinating, fast-paced story of human folly and discovery unlike any other.


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The surprising and compelling story of two rival geniuses in an all-out race to decode one of the world’s most famous documents—the Rosetta Stone—and their twenty-year-long battle to solve the mystery of ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous objects in the world, attracting millions of visitors to the British museum ever year, and yet most The surprising and compelling story of two rival geniuses in an all-out race to decode one of the world’s most famous documents—the Rosetta Stone—and their twenty-year-long battle to solve the mystery of ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous objects in the world, attracting millions of visitors to the British museum ever year, and yet most people don’t really know what it is. Discovered in a pile of rubble in 1799, this slab of stone proved to be the key to unlocking a lost language that baffled scholars for centuries. Carved in ancient Egypt, the Rosetta Stone carried the same message in different languages—in Greek using Greek letters, and in Egyptian using picture-writing called hieroglyphs. Until its discovery, no one in the world knew how to read the hieroglyphs that covered every temple and text and statue in Egypt. Dominating the world for thirty centuries, ancient Egypt was the mightiest empire the world had ever known, yet everything about it—the pyramids, mummies, the Sphinx—was shrouded in mystery. Whoever was able to decipher the Rosetta Stone, and learn how to read hieroglyphs, would solve that mystery and fling open a door that had been locked for two thousand years. Two brilliant rivals set out to win that prize. One was English, the other French, at a time when England and France were enemies and the world’s two great superpowers. The Writing of the Gods chronicles this high-stakes intellectual race in which the winner would win glory for both himself and his nation. A riveting portrait of empires both ancient and modern, this is an unparalleled look at the culture and history of ancient Egypt and a fascinating, fast-paced story of human folly and discovery unlike any other.

30 review for The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone

  1. 4 out of 5

    Shahin Keusch

    I saw the Rosetta Stone a few times while I was living in London. It was always impressive as I knew that this Stone was the reason we knew anything about ancient Egypt. And it is all so much more impressive now that I know what it took and how long it took to actually decode the hieroglyphs.  This book was such an entertaining and easy read. It just flew by and was very hard to put down. I would recommend this to anyone. 

  2. 5 out of 5

    Evelina | AvalinahsBooks

    How I read this: Free ebook copy received through Edelweiss 3.5 stars, rounded to 4 The Writing of the Gods is incredibly easily readable and instantly draws you in. It’s very easy to jump into even if you have never read anything of the like before. This is a great thing for nonfiction, because quite a few nonfiction authors fail to make their books accessible to non-academics. In fact, I may have not noticed this, if I wasn’t reading another nonfiction book at the same time as this one (Kindred: How I read this: Free ebook copy received through Edelweiss 3.5 stars, rounded to 4 The Writing of the Gods is incredibly easily readable and instantly draws you in. It’s very easy to jump into even if you have never read anything of the like before. This is a great thing for nonfiction, because quite a few nonfiction authors fail to make their books accessible to non-academics. In fact, I may have not noticed this, if I wasn’t reading another nonfiction book at the same time as this one (Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art – a book about Neanderthals), and found them in stark difference of accessibility. Where Kindred fails to explain cryptic terms, The Writing of the Gods doesn’t even use them where it can be avoided, therefore making your reading experience natural and accessible. That said, one thing I noticed was that this book was a little repetitive. It sometimes comes back to the same bits of history and glances over them again, almost as if there was not enough material and it’s trying to fill out the book? Then again, at the end the details on furthering the efforts of decoding after Champollion and Young’s deaths were nearly glossed over in just a couple of pages, and I found that odd as well, so maybe it’s just the chosen pacing, which I wasn’t sure I liked so much. There’s also not a whole lot about the deciphering of the script in general, at least not until the very end. Anyway, if this was the only book I’d read about deciphering, then maybe I wouldn’t be saying it – but my bar is set extremely high, as a year or two ago I read The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code – the story of deciphering Linear B. It seems you can’t write a thrilling story about that sort of thing, but you totally can, and the author of The Riddle of the Labyrinth proved this – I was glued to the pages, reading it like some high-stakes adventure novel. The Writing of the Gods is a great book, but it’s nowhere near The Riddle of the Labyrinth. Anyway, I had more thoughts about this book, you can read them here in the full review: https://avalinahsbooks.space/writing-... I thank the publisher for giving me a free copy of the ebook in exchange to my honest review. This has not affected my opinion. Book Blog | Bookstagram | Bookish Twitter

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    This book has so much going for it, it’s hard to say what I enjoyed most! The story of the Egyptian civilization which lasted 30,000 years? How Bonaparte brought not only an army of warriors, but an army of savants to Egypt? How ancient Egypt spurred the imagination of Europeans, with collectors and amateur Egyptologists scrambling to discover and buy up ancient artifacts? The story of the Rosetta stone with its three sections of ancient languages, and how brilliant, eccentric scholars vied to be This book has so much going for it, it’s hard to say what I enjoyed most! The story of the Egyptian civilization which lasted 30,000 years? How Bonaparte brought not only an army of warriors, but an army of savants to Egypt? How ancient Egypt spurred the imagination of Europeans, with collectors and amateur Egyptologists scrambling to discover and buy up ancient artifacts? The story of the Rosetta stone with its three sections of ancient languages, and how brilliant, eccentric scholars vied to be the first to decode it? The history of writing, from mercantile records to historic records to literature, and from symbols to the alphabet? The history of decoding? The Writing of the Gods by Edward Dolnick covers it all, wrapped in an engaging and accessible book. Ancient Egyptian was a dead language when the Rosetta stone was found. The writing on the stone included Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek, and an unknown section which turned out to be an ancient Egyptian shorthand for the hieroglyphics. Ancient Egypt had been a stable society with few changes. The hieroglyphics did not change, unlike, say English. I can’t pick up Beowulf (circa 1000 AD) and read it without translation. The Egyptians knew about the wheel, but were not inspired to create a cart. All those pyramids were built without wheels! They made ramps of sand and pushed those stones into place! Christianity and the Mamelukes and the bubonic plague came along, and Egypt became a has-been. By the time Bonaparte arrived, magnificent temples were used for garbage dumps and sand buried the Sphinx up to her chin. Dolnick leads readers step by step to understand how the hieroglyphics were decoded. It had long been believed that they were symbols not representative of spoken language. Two scholars with different backgrounds and approaches took up the challenge of decoding the stone. First, the cartouches were considered, believing they were the names of the pharaohs seen in the Greek section of the Rosetta stone. These pharaohs were Greek, for Greece had conquered Egypt. Perhaps the symbols stood for sounds of the Greek names. The symbols were connected to sounds; the lion symbol stood for the sound “l’ in Ptolemy and Cleopatra, for instance. One scholar believed that Coptic was born out of ancient Egyptian and he determined to learn it although it was nearly a dead language, only surviving in the Coptic Church. This aided in understanding how the letters were pronounced. Cracking the names of the pharaohs in the cartouches was just the beginning of the long process of decoding hieroglyphics. Utterly fascinating and always engaging, I much enjoyed this book. I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Susan Tunis

    Lately, I've been reading full books on subjects I belatedly realize I only have the barest and most superficial knowledge of. The Rosetta Stone definitely falls under that category. What was great about this book was, that not only did it provide a thorough lesson in the decades-long struggle to decipher an important archeological mystery, it also got seriously down and dirty into the mechanics of language. I can't honestly say it's a page-turner, but for a word nerd like me,it was pretty fasci Lately, I've been reading full books on subjects I belatedly realize I only have the barest and most superficial knowledge of. The Rosetta Stone definitely falls under that category. What was great about this book was, that not only did it provide a thorough lesson in the decades-long struggle to decipher an important archeological mystery, it also got seriously down and dirty into the mechanics of language. I can't honestly say it's a page-turner, but for a word nerd like me,it was pretty fascinating. In the end, this important and hard-won knowledge was obtained by far more than two men. And in the wake of reading this book, I find myself wondering what the modern world would be like if they had not succeeded. An interesting though experiment. I don't know that every reader will have enough interest to read a book that goes into this level of minutiae, but I'm delighted to have a deeper understanding of an artifact that changed our view of the ancient world.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    This one ticked all the boxes of a great read for me: Nonfiction, languages, travel, translation. Will be reading again soon.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    Another fascinating story of decoding a script, like Margalit Fox's "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" on Linear B. > Egyptians knew about wheels, which had been in use in neighboring empires for five centuries. They chose not to use them. (About a thousand years after the pyramid era, they began building war chariots.) We might think we understand the appeal of tradition and the fear of change, but Egyptian culture was conservative to a degree we can scarcely fathom. Art highlights the point. The sa Another fascinating story of decoding a script, like Margalit Fox's "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" on Linear B. > Egyptians knew about wheels, which had been in use in neighboring empires for five centuries. They chose not to use them. (About a thousand years after the pyramid era, they began building war chariots.) We might think we understand the appeal of tradition and the fear of change, but Egyptian culture was conservative to a degree we can scarcely fathom. Art highlights the point. The same drawings turn up again and again in temples built two thousand years apart. Here the pharaoh grabs his enemies by the hair with one hand and raises the other to strike a mighty blow, and there—a thousand miles and a thousand years away—the identical image recurs. … “When you go into a museum,” Brier continues, “you can look at a statue from 2500 BC, and 1500 BC, and 500 BC, and they’re not really different. And that’s why you can recognize Egyptian art at a glance, because it didn’t change.” > Some archaeologists believe that we overestimate how much thought Egyptians gave to death. In ancient Egypt, towns typically rose up on wet, fertile ground, while tombs and cemeteries were relegated to the desert’s edge. As a result, the most abundant and best-preserved relics are those associated with death. “This has given us a very distorted view of the culture,” writes the Egyptologist Richard Parkinson. “Imagine if only municipal cemeteries were preserved from Victorian Britain.” > Most of the trouble arose from a single root: the ruling family were outsiders. They were not Egyptian but Greek. Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 BC; after his death, one of his generals became pharaoh, and Ptolemy was a descendant of that general. … None of the rulers in the Ptolemaic line bothered to learn the local language. On the evening before one battle, Ptolemy IV (the father of the Rosetta Stone’s Ptolemy) delivered a speech meant to rally the troops in “band of brothers” fashion. But the speech fell flat because an interpreter had to translate the pharaoh’s Greek into Egyptian. > The heyday of Coptic dated from around the third century AD until shortly after the Arabs conquered Egypt in 642 AD. Within the following few centuries, Islam would displace Christianity and Arabic would displace Coptic. By the 1600s, a once-thriving language had become a relic. … Coptic had one crucial feature that set it apart from Egyptian. It was written not with hieroglyphs but using the Greek alphabet, augmented by half a dozen symbols for sounds not found in Greek. > A decade later, after Napoleon had been defeated and the looted texts returned to the Vatican, one scholar found Champollion’s scribbled notes in the margins. “ I think there are few Coptic books in Europe he has not examined… There is no book in the Vatican in that language that has not remarks of Champollion in almost every page, which he made when the manuscripts were at Paris.” > Demotic looks like “row upon row of agitated commas,” one modern Egyptologist observes. “It is perfectly dreadful stuff to read.” > Nowadays starting with names is standard practice for decipherers. … Young had made a conceptual breakthrough. By deciphering Ptolemy on the Rosetta Stone, he had shown that hieroglyphs sometimes stood for sounds. > According to the myth, Minos’s daughter Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of string—a clewe, in Middle English—so that, after he had slain the Minotaur, he could follow the string and find his way back out of the labyrinth. Eventually the word clewe became clue, still retaining its original sense of a hint to unraveling a mystery. The usage is so deeply embedded in the language that to this day we talk about “following the thread” of a difficult explanation. > During World War II he served as a navigator for the Royal Air Force. When he flew back to base from bombing raids over Germany, one journalist wrote, “Ventris would set course and then, clearing a space on the navigator’s table, happily set to work on his Linear B documents, while the aircraft groaned its way home, searchlights stretched up their probing fingers, and bursts of flak shook the bomber.” > "Hieroglyphics" was not discovered until 1419, a thousand years after Horapollo’s death, when an Italian monk happened on a Greek translation. Where the book had been in the meantime and how it had come to be translated in the first place, no one knows. But as soon as it was unearthed, the work was hailed as the key to hieroglyphs, and it retained that status for four centuries. … Horapollo hammered home his central theme—hieroglyphs were emblems and allegories, and they conveyed symbolic messages. “When [Egyptians] wish to symbolize a god, or something sublime,” he wrote, “… they draw a hawk.” Why a hawk in particular? Because “other birds, when they wish to fly, proceed on a slant, it being impossible for them to rise directly. Only the hawk flies straight upwards.” > A Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus had visited Egypt in the first century BC and reported that Egyptian writing was different from all others; it was not based on letters or syllables but on pictures that carried metaphoric meaning. A crocodile stood for evil, for instance, and an eye for justice. In around 120 AD Plutarch, a Greek historian far more prominent than Diodorus, had explained that a hieroglyph of a fish symbolized hatred because the sea, which teems with fish, devours the Nile, which provides life. A hippopotamus stood for violence and immorality because male hippos kill their fathers and mate with their mothers. > Like ciphers in wartime, the experts insisted, hieroglyphs were designed to be difficult. That belief, all but universal until the 1800s, sent would-be decipherers in the wrong direction. Rather than burrow into the ground in search of mundane meanings behind the cryptic symbols, they sailed aloft into ever more far-fetched realms of hot air and learned silliness. With hindsight, it seems bewildering that deep thinkers insisted even into the Age of Science that hieroglyphs concealed mystic truths behind elaborate masks. The trouble began with misplaced faith. Plutarch and Horapollo and the others were names to reckon with > in the 1950s, when scholars were still wrestling futilely with Mayan glyphs. That New World picture-writing was finally deciphered in the 1970s, in one of the great linguistic and archaeological triumphs of modern times. The story is told thrillingly (by one of the participants) in Michael Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code. The story has uncanny echoes of the Egyptian tale, although there was no Mayan counterpart of the Rosetta Stone. > Isaac Newton, who lived more than a thousand years after Horapollo, fervently believed that ancient Egyptians had grasped all the secrets of nature’s cosmic choreography. The task of modern thinkers, Newton and his peers believed, was not to break new ground but to recover those ancient insights. … he insisted that the ancient Egyptians had made all his most important discoveries thousands of years before him. They had known the law of gravitation and all the other secrets of the cosmos; the point of hieroglyphs was to hide that knowledge from the unworthy. “The Egyptians,” Newton wrote, “concealed mysteries that were above the capacity of the common herd under the veil of religious rites and hieroglyphic symbols.” … The view that thinkers who lived thousands of years ago knew more than we do, even about scientific matters, upends everything that we believe today. But in the 1600s and 1700s, it was common sense. The doctrine was called “the wisdom of the ancients.” In ancient days thinkers had been privy to nature’s secrets, scholars proclaimed, but then corrupt and sinning humankind had fumbled away those divine gifts. As the world decayed intellectually and morally, countless truths vanished. > The key bit of good fortune was that Ptolemy and Cleopatra contained several letters in common, namely P, T, O, and L. Young had guessed years before that the Rosetta cartouches spelled out Ptolemy (actually the Greek form of the name, Ptolemaios) in hieroglyphs. Now Champollion did the same. > The Cleopatra cartouche had helped speed Champollion on his way. For Young, the same cartouche represented an enormous missed chance. Bankes had sent him his obelisk inscriptions, too, and Young had immediately spotted something odd. He knew, from the Greek inscription, that Bankes’s second cartouche likely spelled out Cleopatra. (The first cartouche spelled out Ptolemy, which Young recognized from the Rosetta Stone.) But the copyist who had recorded the hieroglyphs had made a mistake—the first symbol in Cleopatra’s name should have been a hieroglyph that stood for the sound k, but instead the copyist had written the hieroglyph for t. Young had frowned and put the inscriptions aside. “As I had not leisure at the time to enter into a very minute comparison of the name with other authorities, I suffered myself to be discouraged with respect to the application of my alphabet to its analysis.” Young had tripped over a typo. > It was fire, the destroyer of libraries ever since Alexandria, that saved the texts from the earliest libraries, which were written not on paper or papyrus but on clay. “When in wars and invasions the great Mesopotamian cities were burned down,” writes the historian Stephen Greenblatt, “the sun-dried tablets in the libraries and royal archives were in effect baked into durable form. In their death agonies, the palace and the temples had become kilns.” > sometimes there were errors in the originals, because the craftsmen who carved hieroglyphs into stone or painted them on walls and monuments were seldom literate; they worked from texts written by scribes, but they could not read what they were copying. In contrast, texts on papyrus were written by the scribes themselves and therefore far less likely to contain mistakes. > The Incas were the exception to the rule—the only known example of an empire that made no use of a writing system. The knotted cords the Incas called quipu did provide a sophisticated way of recording numbers (but apparently not words). > In Assyria, for instance, thousands upon thousands of inscriptions and carvings depict tortures and massacres in careful detail. This royal reminiscence, from a king named Sennacherib who ruled around 700 BC, is typical: “I cut their throats like lambs… With the bodies of their warriors, I filled the plain, like grass. Their testicles I cut off, and tore out their privates like the seeds of cucumbers.” > Each pharaoh had several names, including a birth name and a throne name chosen when the king’s reign began. Ozymandias was a Greek version of Ramesses’s throne name > As a teenager Champollion had boasted, “I give myself up entirely to Coptic,” and “I dream in Coptic.” By 1822 he had been steeping in Coptic for more than a decade. Now, it seems likely, Champollion rolled the pharaohs’ names across his tongue, drawing out the syllables. Ra-mes-ses. Toth-mes. And he thought of the Coptic word mise (pronounced me-say), which meant birth. So Ramesses and Tothmes were not merely names, but names with meanings. Born of Ra, the Sun God. Born of Toth, the God of Writing. > The Bible never specifies just what kind of fruit grew on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Genesis refers only to a generic fruit. The apple didn’t come along until around 400 AD, when Saint Jerome produced a new Latin translation of the Bible. Because the Latin word malum happens to mean both apple and evil, Jerome had the bright idea of placing a pun at the heart of one of the Western world’s founding myths. > a given hieroglyph could change roles without warning. A duck might mean son in one context; in another setting it might mean an ordinary, quacking duck, such as you might see on any pond; and still elsewhere it could mean the sound sa, the sound of the Egyptian word for duck. > Champollion’s task was to find every hieroglyphic text he could lay his hands on and read it aloud while listening intently for words that sounded like Coptic. > Roughly speaking, it was as if English were written with consonants only and scholars had to decide whether crt meant carrot or create. For Champollion, the lack of vowels brought an unexpected difficulty in its wake. In ancient Egypt, the notion of “homonym” was broader than it is for us—so long as the consonants in two words matched, that would do. You could draw a picture of one to stand for the other. The words might have sounded the same, but they might not have. A scribe might have drawn a pear to mean pair, but a pear could equally well have meant any of a host of words with the consonants pr—it might have meant pier or peer or poor or pour or pore or pry or even pyre. > Characters in old novels were always wandering into pubs with names like Ye Fox and Hounds. In past eras, ye was pronounced the. The use of Y for Th was just a typographical convention (like f for s in we hold these truths to be felf-evident). > One of the most familiar verses in the Bible—Give us this day our daily bread—contains a word that has tormented writers and translators since ancient times. The Greek word epiousios, which is customarily translated as daily, occurs in the Lord’s Prayer and nowhere else in the Bible or in Greek literature. (The original language of the New Testament was Greek.) No one knows for sure what it meant, and Greek had a perfectly ordinary word for daily > Shakespeare in vented thousands of words, including many that are now familiar, such as horrid, vast, and lonely. But some words occur only once, and in phrases where context does not come to the rescue. In one of the history plays, for instance, Shakespeare refers to soldiers killed in battle and says they were “balk’d in their own blood.” No one knows what he meant. One theory is that balk’d was a typo for baked. > Little to do with Egyptian determinatives was simple. Determinatives for verbs were often harder to decode than those for nouns, for instance, because actions were hard to capture in pictures. A determinative that showed a pair of walking legs meant hunt and go and hurry (and also linger and even stop). Ideas were harder still. Even so, there was a determinative—a picture—for things that cannot be pictured. A drawing of a rolled-up papyrus scroll signaled an abstraction, like writing. … A hieroglyph might look exactly like any other hieroglyph but function solely as a silent guide to the meaning of other hieroglyphs. And, if Champollion had it right, determinatives were not exotic features that turned up only in rare settings. They were everywhere, and until you had made sense of them, every text you looked at would trip you up. > Another eighty-odd hieroglyphs stand for two consonants. A hieroglyph that looks like a bowl, for instance, stands for the letters nb (pronounced, by convention, as neb). That is decidedly odd, because the alphabet already has perfectly fine hieroglyphs for n and b … Some hieroglyphs stand for three consonants. (The ankh symbol— —is one. > The word snake in hieroglyphs. The first four signs stand for sounds. The long, bent snake represents the sound j (as in jail), the hand is d, the horned viper is f, and the half-loaf of bread stands for t. (The word was pronounced, roughly, djedfet.) The third, wriggly snake is a determinative, a silent reminder that the entire string of symbols represents snake. > the complexity of the hieroglyphic system never counted against it in the minds of its Egyptian users. The reason was that ease was never the point. Reading and writing were specialized skills in ancient Egypt, and those who had mastered those arts saw no reason to hand down a ladder so that others might climb to the same heights. The difficulty of the hieroglyphic script was a feature, not a bug. > Young’s problem was partly that he had run out of ideas, and partly that so many subjects fascinated him. In the winter of 1816, he sent a note to the editor of theEncyclopedia Britannica, who had asked Young if he would write an essay on acoustics. Young took that assignment and added some ideas of his own. “I would also suggest Alphabet, Annuities, Attraction, Capillary Action, Cohesion, Colour, Dew, Egypt, Forms, Friction, Halo, Hieroglyphic, Hydraulics, Motion, Resistance, Ship, Strength, Tides, and Waves,” and “anything of a medical nature.” Over the next half-dozen years, Young wrote sixty-three articles for the Britannica, including his groundbreaking “Egypt” essay. > In the ruins of the ancient city of Tanis, near Alexandria—Tanis was the sand-buried city in Raiders of the Lost Ark—Lepsius discovered a counterpart of the Rosetta Stone. Until Lepsius unearthed it, no one had any idea that it existed. This new stone contained a long passage in Greek and the same passage written out in demotic and in hieroglyphs. The message, which was composed a few decades earlier than the Rosetta Stone, is nothing special—it praises the pharaoh and talks about fixing glitches in the calendar. But the message wasn’t the point. The point of the Canopus Stone (it was named for the city where it was written) was that its text differed from that of the Rosetta Stone. > Napoleon brought artists and scientists with him to Egypt. When they returned home in the early 1800s, their accounts of the wonders they had seen triggered a craze for all things Egyptian. The frenzy, called Egyptomania, lasted for decades and extended to America as well as Europe. (That is why the Washington Monument is an obelisk.)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This book provides an historical accounts of the efforts to decode the meaning of the Rosetta Stone. The story is styled as a “race” between an Englishman, Thomas Young, and a Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champoillion, to attempt a translation and explanation of the hieroglyphs in the Rosetta Stone - and of hieroglyphics in general. I have known of the Rosetta Stone for a long time and actually saw it at the British Museum. It never occurred to me the challenge faced by early archaeologists in trying This book provides an historical accounts of the efforts to decode the meaning of the Rosetta Stone. The story is styled as a “race” between an Englishman, Thomas Young, and a Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champoillion, to attempt a translation and explanation of the hieroglyphs in the Rosetta Stone - and of hieroglyphics in general. I have known of the Rosetta Stone for a long time and actually saw it at the British Museum. It never occurred to me the challenge faced by early archaeologists in trying to interpret the hieroglyphs on the stone. How to come to grips with a totally foreign language that had been dead for a millennium? Edward Dolnick is a fine writer and has framed the decoding process as a race between national champions, with both making critical contributions but perhaps with the Frenchman winning out. Given the way that modern archaeology developed out of initial treasure hunting, along with changes in global politics, as well as changes in technology and methods, it is a wonder that the decoding process was successful at all. Dolnick seems on target by presenting his story in terms of coed breakers such as were involved in the Ultra decryptions in WW2. The story is engaging and well told. There are lots of illustrations and graphics. It is fun book and well worth the time. This will be good pre-reading for my next trip to the British Museum.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Adam Morris

    OMG could this man describe anything without following it with an analogy, simile, metaphor or occasionally bizarre example? Although there was much of interest in this book it was, for me, overshadowed by this annoying and often gratuitous use of comparisons throughout. At one point (I don’t have the exact quote) he was discussing someone straining to hold a complex series of ideas in their mind for long periods as akin to clenching your fist for a really long time. Please! I almost gave up sev OMG could this man describe anything without following it with an analogy, simile, metaphor or occasionally bizarre example? Although there was much of interest in this book it was, for me, overshadowed by this annoying and often gratuitous use of comparisons throughout. At one point (I don’t have the exact quote) he was discussing someone straining to hold a complex series of ideas in their mind for long periods as akin to clenching your fist for a really long time. Please! I almost gave up several times but there was a good story in amongst all the extraneous crap. Additionally, the subtitle of the book “the race to decode the Rosetta Stone” is somewhat misleading. There really was no race and the competition between the two principal protagonists feels like it was exaggerated to try to spice things up. The Englishman proposed that the hieroglyphs were more than just a bunch of pictures and the Frenchman figured out what they actually meant. As the author himself finally admits, neither would have been successful without the other. The author also all but dismisses the ancient Egyptian civilization as rather backward, ritualistic and superstitious. He asserts that the long-standing belief that they made important discoveries in the fields of science and medicine are wrong. I am not an expert on ancient civilizations but the impression I have from other sources is that there were a number of areas where they were quite knowledgeable about the world and it’s operation. As always, I am satisfied with reading that teaches me something new. Just a bit disappointed in the way it was presented.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Br. Thanasi (Thomas) Stama

    Fascinating account on how the the Rosetta Stone and two scientists solved how to read the hieroglyphics. Also some fascinating things to about written languages. Gave me a lot of food for thought.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lacy Phillips

    Felt like it got a slow start to me, but once the "main characters" were introduced, I got stuck in. I appreciated how closely the narrative followed the chronology of the historical events. Felt like it got a slow start to me, but once the "main characters" were introduced, I got stuck in. I appreciated how closely the narrative followed the chronology of the historical events.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    Interesting and very detailed.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Perry

    The decoding story of the Rosette Stone is surprisingly gripping. The author allows enough discursive rope to illustrate interesting points, but does not lose the main thread. There is even some evidence for hedgehog (Champollion) over fox (Young) thinking.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Paul Cochrun

    I was very lucky to have friends living in London several years back. Steve and Megan had moved there for a couple years with plans to move back to the States when they had kids. It was my opportunity to stay with them for a week and see the sights. Off they would go to work and I’d head out to a museum or two and then meet them at a pub in the evening. One of my first stops was The British Museum. I was very lucky to have the room holding The Rosetta Stone to myself for a good fifteen minutes. I was very lucky to have friends living in London several years back. Steve and Megan had moved there for a couple years with plans to move back to the States when they had kids. It was my opportunity to stay with them for a week and see the sights. Off they would go to work and I’d head out to a museum or two and then meet them at a pub in the evening. One of my first stops was The British Museum. I was very lucky to have the room holding The Rosetta Stone to myself for a good fifteen minutes. It’s an incredible artifact. I sat down and thought about all the people who used to speak those languages… and the Egyptian pharaohs, and linguists who finally deciphered the text. After only reading the museum’s description and a tiny bit of my own research, The Writing of the Gods was a very welcomed and thorough explanation of the history of the stone. The book describes the discovery in Rosetta, the politics of the find, and the eventual translation. The history is told with humor and an ear towards helping a modern audience understand the world BC… People who read my blog know that while I mostly read SFF, I also dabble in nonfiction reviews. A few select book on sports, history, and even a memoir or two a year, but I try to vet these books very carefully. When I saw this book, I knew it was something I would like, especially the section where the two scholars are trying to decode the sections of The Stone. Having a little knowledge of languages helps. My very limited knowledge of Spanish (two yrs in HS) gave me some insight into how the translation worked. I would recommend The Writing of the Gods to anyone who has an interest in the ancient world, languages, or history in general. My imagination was definitely spurred on Dolnick’s writing. He gave the reader the stepping stones to follow into the sands of the ancient Egyptian world. 4.5 out of 5 stars Thank you to NetGalley, Scribner, and the author for an advanced copy for review.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Liz

    When I was much younger, I found a book called “Egyptian Language: Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics” by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. With it, I was able to read Tutankhamun’s name in his cartouche. I had assumed that deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was easy-peasy with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that contained three inscriptions: Greek, demotic, hieroglyphics. It was just a matter of comparing the known Greek with the hieroglyphics to figure out what the picture writing meant. When I was much younger, I found a book called “Egyptian Language: Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphics” by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge. With it, I was able to read Tutankhamun’s name in his cartouche. I had assumed that deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was easy-peasy with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that contained three inscriptions: Greek, demotic, hieroglyphics. It was just a matter of comparing the known Greek with the hieroglyphics to figure out what the picture writing meant. “The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone” by Edward Dolnick clearly shows how wrong my assumption was. A science writer, Dolnick takes advantage of his background to write in clear, fact-filled, highly readable prose. I appreciated his use of analogies to get across things that were difficult to visualize. For example, to emphasize the enormity of the Ramesses statues (67 feet) at Abu Simble, Dolnick compares them to the statue of Abe (19 feet) in the Lincoln Memorial. I learned so much not only about the twists and turns of deciphering hieroglyphics but also about the two people—Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion–who were in the decoding race, and the many others who helped them. There is one drawback to this excellent book: too many digressions. It is clear that Dolnick did a vast amount of research, and it often feels like he was hell bent on getting every bit of what he learned into this book. His digressions could be a couple of paragraphs or several pages, and are at times irritating. Much of this background material could easily have been pulled out and moved into a supplement at the book’s end. Digressions aside, I highly recommend this book.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Anmiryam

    My father told me the tale of the Rosetta Stone when I was maybe ten or so. He didn't share details and I'm not sure he knew them, though he knew a great many things so perhaps he simplified the story for my sake. All I knew was that because of the stone scholars had been able to finally unravel the meanings of hieroglyphs that had been a mystery since before the fall of Rome. In my interpretation, this was a simple task. Read the Greek, now it's easy to read the Egyptian. Hardly. It took nearly My father told me the tale of the Rosetta Stone when I was maybe ten or so. He didn't share details and I'm not sure he knew them, though he knew a great many things so perhaps he simplified the story for my sake. All I knew was that because of the stone scholars had been able to finally unravel the meanings of hieroglyphs that had been a mystery since before the fall of Rome. In my interpretation, this was a simple task. Read the Greek, now it's easy to read the Egyptian. Hardly. It took nearly three decades before Thomas Young made some initial discoveries which Jean-Francois Champollion used to finally decipher the strange pictograms that had so fascinated explorers for centuries. Edward Dolnick's recounting of the saga of the stone and the men who were entranced by it is a short book, chock full of interesting tidbits, but it is often repetitive as if he was looking for a way to make the book longer. He tries to create suspense, but in doing so he muddies his narrative and relies on clumsy cliff hangers. Then, in the final third, we get to the meat of the story and the book takes off. Dolnick's explication of how hieroglyphs work and what it took to discover their meaning is fascinating, clear and will make anyone with the slightest interest in language and puzzles turn pages anxious to learn more. Made me wish I had the dedication and energy to learn Ancient Egyptian, and while that may never be, I am very glad that others spent their lives looking to bring a lost civilization into the history books with greater clarity.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Christopher

    Too elementary, Dolnick spent a lot of time on trivia and making far-flung connections to help the novice reader understand the story, but the stimulating bits were glossed over in the best of times but generally absent altogether. It takes more than half the book for the first sounds to be divined, and in the end we barely learn anything more than that. We learn that Champollion figured out that the writing outside of cartouches is also phonetic, though with some determinatives and whatnot, but Too elementary, Dolnick spent a lot of time on trivia and making far-flung connections to help the novice reader understand the story, but the stimulating bits were glossed over in the best of times but generally absent altogether. It takes more than half the book for the first sounds to be divined, and in the end we barely learn anything more than that. We learn that Champollion figured out that the writing outside of cartouches is also phonetic, though with some determinatives and whatnot, but besides "mise" for "to be born", we learn nothing more about how that was figured out and applied. And most disappointing was the total lack of discussion around grammar, how it was deciphered and tested. I suppose it really does, in the end, keep to the title - it's about decoding the Rosetta Stone, and not much beyond that. I'm disappointed in the abruptness of the ending because I really did enjoy the beginning of the book, but it felt like an incredibly abbreviated climax resulted from such a long buildup, a climax that could never have satisfied without a great expansion of the terms of the investigation. I had hoped this would be a five star, by the 75% mark I was down to a four, but after that ending a three is the best I can do.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    Well-written and engaging. The book's strength, but also its weakness (at least in my eyes) is that it spends a lot of real estate on framing the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the historical context - not just Egyptian history, but more specifically Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Egypt, and the convoy of scientists that accompanied his soldiers. There are savants, explorers and rogues, Europeans who choose to spend years or decades roaming around the Arabic world and fussy professors in Well-written and engaging. The book's strength, but also its weakness (at least in my eyes) is that it spends a lot of real estate on framing the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphs in the historical context - not just Egyptian history, but more specifically Napoleon's ill-fated invasion of Egypt, and the convoy of scientists that accompanied his soldiers. There are savants, explorers and rogues, Europeans who choose to spend years or decades roaming around the Arabic world and fussy professors in dusty rooms, and more than a few megalomaniacs (Ramesses and Napoleon, to name just a few). This made the book interesting, and easy to read. But I had hoped for a little more linguistic detail, a little more along the lines of "Breaking the Maya Code" or "The Decipherment of Linear B". Still, this light touch as far as the actual mechanics of the deciphering are concerned, which made the book slightly disappointing to me, is probably what will make it attractive to other readers.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Darren Nelson

    This account of the story behind the discovery and decoding of the Rosetta Stone is multi-faceted- discussing the development and features of writing and alphabets in general, including biographical background on the British and French scholars (Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion) cracking the code in the 19th century and their rivalry, and covering background considerations on Ancient Egyptian culture and language. The author is fond of explaining hieroglyphic principles of evoking soun This account of the story behind the discovery and decoding of the Rosetta Stone is multi-faceted- discussing the development and features of writing and alphabets in general, including biographical background on the British and French scholars (Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion) cracking the code in the 19th century and their rivalry, and covering background considerations on Ancient Egyptian culture and language. The author is fond of explaining hieroglyphic principles of evoking sounds, ideas, and meaning by using apt contemporary comparisons, which is both enjoyable and clarifying. Emphasized points include the importance of Young and Champollion's knowledge of Coptic, an also nearly lost descendant language of Ancient Egyptian, and the understandable factors that mired them in entrenched errors and false leads. Fascinating and one of my favorite books concerning language.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Carmen212

    Fascinating read. When the Rosetta Stone was found (and even the finding of it was a fluke--it was in a pile of rubble found in 1799) ancient Egyptian was a dead language. The stone had 3 sections with the hieroglyphs on a damaged upper part of the stone, another language which turned out to be a kind of shorthand for the Eqyptian and readable Greek. Two men were in fierce competition to be the first. No spoilers here, just to say that the ancient Egyptians devised a cunning written language. Twi Fascinating read. When the Rosetta Stone was found (and even the finding of it was a fluke--it was in a pile of rubble found in 1799) ancient Egyptian was a dead language. The stone had 3 sections with the hieroglyphs on a damaged upper part of the stone, another language which turned out to be a kind of shorthand for the Eqyptian and readable Greek. Two men were in fierce competition to be the first. No spoilers here, just to say that the ancient Egyptians devised a cunning written language. Twice I've read The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox about cracking Linear B. In the book under review, Alice Kober, who got exactly 2 words in the Dolnick book, her name!, made the decipherment possible. She labored for decades and had card systems for categorizing. Ventris gets all the credit by Alice was the real detective. 4.5 stars because Labyrinth is 5 stars.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Wikstrom

    A fascinating true life race to learn how to read the dead language of the ancient Egyptians. Two brilliant rival geniuses worked over twenty years to break the code so to speak. The author makes what could be rather dull history fairly exciting and writes with a novelist’s flair. The Englishman, Thomas Young, publicly proclaimed his early accomplishments the breakthrough moments in the endeavor but although he had a couple significant discoveries in the beginning he basically gave up and pursue A fascinating true life race to learn how to read the dead language of the ancient Egyptians. Two brilliant rival geniuses worked over twenty years to break the code so to speak. The author makes what could be rather dull history fairly exciting and writes with a novelist’s flair. The Englishman, Thomas Young, publicly proclaimed his early accomplishments the breakthrough moments in the endeavor but although he had a couple significant discoveries in the beginning he basically gave up and pursued other scientific concerns. It was the Frenchman, Champollion, who figured out the numerous “funny rules” that went into deciphering the pictogram like hieroglyphs into spoken words. Both aspects of ancient Egyptian had been lost over 2,000 years before. I found the book a real page turner and learned a lot.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Colleen

    Turns out, I'm not as interested in linguistics as I thought I was, at least pertaining to the quest to decipher dead languages. I'm still going to give it three stars because I think this is an "it's not you, it's me" instance, where the subject matter and I just did not jibe right now. The book was impeccably researched, it dove deep into both language and history, and the narrator had a good voice - I should have lapped it up. But instead I found myself glazing over and missing huge chunks of Turns out, I'm not as interested in linguistics as I thought I was, at least pertaining to the quest to decipher dead languages. I'm still going to give it three stars because I think this is an "it's not you, it's me" instance, where the subject matter and I just did not jibe right now. The book was impeccably researched, it dove deep into both language and history, and the narrator had a good voice - I should have lapped it up. But instead I found myself glazing over and missing huge chunks of what was being said. It got to the point where, once I realized I had no idea what the reader was talking about and hadn't for quite some time, I didn't even bother rewinding because I just didn't care enough. I'm sure others will think it's absolutely fascinating and maybe I would have too if I'd been in the right frame of mind, but it didn't do anything for me.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Don’t go grabbing this book for a quick understanding of the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. No, sir. This is deep and wide. It’s a 400-level linguistics class sprinkled throughout a comprehensive history lesson. (There is no way to overstate that. Com-pre-hen-sive.) I did not know all that I did not know. Also, I knew damn little. This, more than anything else, was a very humbling read. There is so much we take for granted — what we understand about history and culture and commu Don’t go grabbing this book for a quick understanding of the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. No, sir. This is deep and wide. It’s a 400-level linguistics class sprinkled throughout a comprehensive history lesson. (There is no way to overstate that. Com-pre-hen-sive.) I did not know all that I did not know. Also, I knew damn little. This, more than anything else, was a very humbling read. There is so much we take for granted — what we understand about history and culture and communication. There is so much we take for granted about the concept of equivalents! Now, try to un-know all of that and rewind back to a time when drawings and alphabets were mysteries. The gravity of this finding and the incredible work to deconstruct and understand its meaning has roughly the same impact as seeing the first photograph of the Earth from the Moon. I’m in awe.

  23. 4 out of 5

    David

    A nicely written history of how the Rosetta Stone was used to translate hieroglyphics into English and French by an Englishman and a Frenchman in the early 1800s. Dolnick does a nice job of making what could have been a dry story into something enjoyable by referencing difficulties we have in deciphering meanings in current languages and in peppering the story with references to modern culture, even including The Simpsons. Seems he’s having fun while educating us.

  24. 5 out of 5

    DC Palter

    A great story of how the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's army made it possible (but not easy) to finally be able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. A well-written story of the race to decode Egyptian by two polymaths in the 1800's together with just enough context of ancient Egypt and linguistics to follow the story without getting bogged down in details. Highly recommended for anyone interested in history or languages. A great story of how the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's army made it possible (but not easy) to finally be able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. A well-written story of the race to decode Egyptian by two polymaths in the 1800's together with just enough context of ancient Egypt and linguistics to follow the story without getting bogged down in details. Highly recommended for anyone interested in history or languages.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jocelyn Mel

    Good writing style - gives fun asides about history while pulling you through each stage of the mystery of decoding the Rosetta. I like how he gives lots of examples of points that he's making regarding linguistics or other challenges that Champollion faced. The history of writing and the magnificent accomplishment it provides for civilization is profound. Good writing style - gives fun asides about history while pulling you through each stage of the mystery of decoding the Rosetta. I like how he gives lots of examples of points that he's making regarding linguistics or other challenges that Champollion faced. The history of writing and the magnificent accomplishment it provides for civilization is profound.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Ed Simnett

    Fun and very approachable. 3.6 rounded up. Not as good as The Riddle of the Labyrinth on Linear B (perhaps because the actual process was not quite as involved). Probably had one too many historical asides for a book most people will buy for the deciphering...

  27. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Thyne

    I am not a huge non fiction reader, but really loved this book. Reads a lot like fiction at times and is filled with amazing information. The author does repeat himself, but it serves a purpose as languages are quite complex. Highly recommend.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Robert Mead

  29. 5 out of 5

    Erin

  30. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

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