Review: British Museum Unlocks The Hieroglyphic Code In A Fascinating Exhibition

Hieroglyphs, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 20 months ago

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Last Updated 17 October 2022

Review: British Museum Unlocks The Hieroglyphic Code In A Fascinating Exhibition Hieroglyphs, The British Museum 4
A section of the beautifully illustrated Book of the Dead. © The Trustees of the British Museum

No trip to the British Museum is complete without a stop at the Rosetta Stone, the slab of granodiorite that unlocked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

But how did it come to exist? And how did a French and English scholar figure out how to crack the code? It's this millennia long story that's told through The British Museum's densely curated Hieroglyphs exhibition.

One of the first items I spy is a chunky black granite sarcophagus; it's in remarkably good nick for an item over 2,600 years old. It was said to have magical powers and — as it positively shimmers under the lights — I can believe it. The hieroglyphs on this stunning artefact are remarkably well defined, and can still be read by those in the know.

The stunning 'enchanted basin' made from black granite. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition does a great job showing us how language evolved in Ancient Egypt. Conquered by Alexander the Great, Greek became integrated into the Egyptian language of the time, while the introduction of reeds and pen and ink paved the way for a move to writing in script, rather than the pictorial approach of hieroglyphs.

We learn how the Rosetta stone was re-used as a foundation stone for a fortress; a recreation of what it would have looked like had it still retained its top half is truly magnificent.

Things get bogged down a little in the middle third of the show, with a focus on the efforts of Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young to crack the hieroglyphic code. The story itself is interesting, but the presentation involves a lot of poring over their notes and drawings — not anywhere near as exciting as the ancient artefacts on offer.

One highlight from this section is an example of fake hieroglyphs, which could comfortably fool the untrained eye. The rapid increase in demand for genuine artefacts led to the creation of objects like this. We like to think this one was crafted by a streetwise huckster cashing in on the opportunity to con some rich collectors.

An installation view of the exhibition. © The Trustees of the British Museum

There's a strong finish to the show, with a four-metre-long beautifully illustrated excerpt from The Book of the Dead, featuring the Gods passing judgement on souls entering the afterlife, a remarkably well preserved cartonnage with mummy inside, and a monumental plaster cast of King Seti I of Egypt slaughtering the Libyan chief in battle and trampling his people under his chariot. Like all the best shows, Hieroglyphs brings its subject matter to vivid life.

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt at The British Museum. 13 October-19 February, £18-£20