How North East helped French scholar decipher Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs

NEW research has uncovered the role played by the North East in a critical knowledge breakthrough which unlocked 3,000 years of ancient history.

Egyptologist Margaret Maitland with letters sent to Newcastle, by Jean-Francois Champollion

NEW research has uncovered the role played by the North East in a critical knowledge breakthrough which unlocked 3,000 years of ancient history.

This year is the 190th anniversary of the first decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by French scholar Jean-Fran(TM)ois Champollion. They were inscribed on the Rosetta Stone, which has been in the British Museum since 1802 and is one of its most popular exhibits.

By cracking the Rosetta Stone code, Champollion revealed the key to ancient Egypts secrets and opened up the history of one of the worlds oldest civilisations.

Rivalry between the British and French meant that Champollions breakthrough met with a chilly reception by most scholars in this country.

But now a discovery by Egyptologist Margaret Maitland, based at the British Museum and on placement at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, has revealed the Frenchmans warm relationship with North East scholars.

Two letters from Champollion held in the archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria in the Great North Museum show that the region provided Egyptian inscriptions to Champollion which were vital to his developing understanding of hieroglyphs .

On Thursday Margaret will give a free lecture on her discoveries at the Great North Museum at 6pm.

The North East scholars sent the inscription on the Great North Museums mummy, Bakt-en-Hor, to Champollion, which was amongst the earliest hieroglyphic texts available to him.

Margaret said: When I first discovered that the Natural History Society had in its possession an incredibly rare letter written by Champollion, one of the first pioneers of Egyptology, I was astounded.

Further investigation revealed a copy of an additional letter written even earlier, just one year after Champollions initial breakthrough, when his understanding of the ancient Egyptian language was still in its infancy.

Its been exhilarating to read his faltering yet surprisingly confident early work on one of our very own objects.

Dr Sarah Glynn, manager of the Great North Museum, said: Champollions decipherment of the Rosetta Stone has become a symbol of the universal quest for knowledge and the potential for human communication across the ages.

The letters in the societys collection are a really thrilling find that brings to light a previously unknown role that the North East and our Egyptian collections played in the earliest steps of the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

June Holmes, archivist for the Natural History Society of Northumbria, said: Our archives hold lots of amazing stories and we are really pleased Margaret is able to bring the Champollion letters to life.

Margaret said: It was a race between the English and French to decipher the Rosetta stone but it was Champollions insights which really cracked it.

Champollion wrote to John Bowes Wright and Joseph Lamb, who were connected to the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle. As well as the mummy inscription, there is also mention of an inscription on a stone slab which may have come from Newcastle.

The letters are unknown to Egyptologists for whom they will be extraordinarily significant and exciting, said Margaret.

Champollion is considered to be the first Egyptologist and his work is the foundation of Egyptology. There is huge interest in his early work but in 1823, when he writes one of his letters to Newcastle, he has limited material on which he can work. He would have been grateful for the Newcastle material.

It is really fascinating to know that he was corresponding with people in Newcastle and that it was very cordial in contrast to a very hostile and frosty relationship with other English scholars because of the rivalry.

The Newcastle material would have contributed to furthering his scholarship and understanding of the ancient Egyptian language.

To book for the lecture call 0191 222 6765.

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