It was on 19th July in 1799 that the Rosetta Stonewas discovered near Cairo in Egypt. It soon fell from the hands of the French to the English and was brought to the British Museum in 1802. The stone bears an inscription written in three alphabets: hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek. Many scholars attempted to unravel the hieroglyphs over many years before Champollion succeeded, helped in part by the work of Thomas Young.
My story, April and May, deals with an eccentric couple who devote their lives to Egyptian archaeology, while their niece, Rose, tries to keep the family in good order. In the following excerpt, they put on an exhibition of treasures they have brought back from Egypt at the British Museum. Rose, bored by the event, looks at the Rosetta Stone and wonders what the ancient language sounded like.
The exhibition was a success. Visitors had crowded in from the moment it opened. Two hours later, Rose could see her aunt and Helena still talking busily to a crowd gathered round the table where they had set out the papyri, together with sheets of paper showing some of the symbols. Judging by the noise in that part of the hall, everyone was excited by this ancient writing.
She glanced over to where her uncle and Max were escorting a group of gentlemen round the vast hall. She could hear animated talk and much laughter so it seemed they were enjoying their tour. All the artefacts found by the expedition had been set out, together with a number of statues and stone plaques brought back a few years earlier.
Rose’s task was to explain facts about the pots and figurines. She had a constant stream of young ladies and their mamas attracted to these fascinating items. She also kept an eye on the table where all her drawings of the pyramids at Giza were displayed. It made her smile to hear the exclamations of wonder at the grand scale of these buildings. To Rose’s secret surprise, Ancient Egyptian civilisation seemed set to become a fashion.
When at last there was a lull in the crowd, Rose wandered over to the Rosetta Stone with its perfectly chiselled lines of text in three languages. One day, perhaps, her aunt and Helena would work out the meaning of the hieroglyphs. She stroked a finger over the carved symbols, smiling a little as she wondered what that language would sound like.
Then a voice spoke behind her. She went rigid with shock, her finger still on the line of hieroglyphic text. Surely it was not possible… and yet, she knew that deep and mellow tone. Her heart began to beat faster.