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The writing of the gods : the race to decode the Rosetta Stone
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Library Journal Review
The year 2022 will mark the bicentennial of the modern decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, which unlocked many aspects of that ancient civilization. This new volume by journalist Dolnick (The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World) is an account of the breakthrough. He explains that its key was the 1799 discovery at Rashid (called Rosetta by Europeans) in the Nile Delta of a broken stela, by soldiers from Napoléon's army. The Rosetta Stone, as it has come to be called in the Western world, bears a trilingual text in ancient Greek and Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphic. Copies of the text were made and disseminated among European scholars to attempt to decipher the two Egyptian inscriptions. Dolnick focuses particularly on the intense rivalry between two of those savants: Englishman Thomas Young (1773--1829) and Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (1790--1832). Both compared royal names appearing in the stone's Greek and hieroglyphic texts and discovered that hieroglyphs weren't just ideograms but representations of sounds. For more on Champollion, one might seek out Andrew Robinson's outstanding biography Cracking the Egyptian Code. VERDICT Dolnick presents a fast-paced intellectual adventure for general readers that surveys the invention of writing and the processes of deciphering and decoding. Highly recommended for anyone who relishes challenging puzzles.--Edward K. Werner, formerly at St. Lucie Cty. Lib. Syst., FL
Publishers Weekly Review
When the Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799, "the first guesses were that it might take two weeks to decipher," according to this stimulating history of a linguistic puzzle that took 20 years to solve. Journalist Dolnick (The Seeds of Life) reveals that Thomas Young (1773--1829) and Jean-François Champollion (1790--1832), the two "rival geniuses" who "did the most to crack the code," had both been child prodigies and possessed "an uncanny flair for languages," but were "opposites in nearly every other regard." Polymath Young made contributions to the fields of physics, medicine, and linguistics, while Champollion "cared about Egypt and only about Egypt." Though Champollion was the first to truly "read" the language of hieroglyphs, in the 1820s, Young made a key breakthrough in 1816, when he proposed that one grouping on the Rosetta Stone spelled out the name Ptolemy (Champollion insisted that he had come to the same conclusion independently). Dolnick lucidly explains the complex steps taken to decipher the relic, and offers brisk and enlightening history lessons on the first appearances of written language, Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, the Scientific Revolution, and Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. The result is an immersive and knowledgeable introduction to one of archaeology's greatest breakthroughs. Illus. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Oct.)
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