Enfilade

Exhibition | Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on January 4, 2023

Mummy bandage of Aberuait, linen, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period 332–30 BC (Paris: Musée du Louvre / photo: Georges Poncet). This bandage was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the late seventeenth century, where attendees would witness a mummy’s unwrapping and receive a piece of the wrapping linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs. 

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From the press release (July 2022) for the exhibition:

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt
The British Museum, London, 13 October 2022 — 19 February 2023

Curated by Ilona Regulski

Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt, a major exhibition at the British Museum, marks one of the most important moments in our understanding of ancient history: the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The exhibition explores the inscriptions and objects that helped scholars unlock one of the world’s oldest civilisations 200 years ago.

At the exhibition’s heart is the Rosetta Stone, amongst the world’s most famous ancient objects and one of the British Museum’s most popular exhibits. Before hieroglyphs could be deciphered, life in ancient Egypt had been a mystery for centuries with only tantalising glimpses into this forgotten world. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, with its decree written in hieroglyphs, demotic, and the known language of ancient Greek, provided the key to decoding hieroglyphs in 1822—a breakthrough that expanded the modern world’s knowledge of Egypt’s history by some 3,000 years.

Book coverThis immersive exhibition brings together over 240 objects, including loans from national and international collections, many of which will be shown for the first time. It will chart the race to decipherment, from initial efforts by medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars to more focussed progress by French scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) and England’s Thomas Young (1773–1829). The Rosetta Stone is on view alongside the very inscriptions that Champollion and other scholars studied in their quest to understand the ancient past. The exhibition also features stunning objects that highlight the impact of that breakthrough.

Star objects include ‘the Enchanted Basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BCE, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. The hieroglyphs were believed to have magical powers and that bathing in the basin could offer relief from the torments of love. The reused ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud—‘the enchanted basin’. It has since been identified as the sarcophagus of Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Rarely on public display, the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word, with ritual spells there to be pronounced. The papyrus is presented alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Among the exceptional loans to the exhibition is the mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, which has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs. The exhibition also brings together personal notes by Champollion from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, and by Young from the British Library. A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

The striking cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25–30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

From love poetry and international treaties, to shopping lists and tax returns, the exhibition reveals fascinating stories of life in ancient Egypt. As well as an unshakeable belief in the power of the pharaohs and the promise of the afterlife, ancient Egyptians enjoyed good food, writing letters, and making jokes.

Many people in ancient Egypt could not read or write so language was enjoyed through readings, recitations, and performances. The exhibition includes digital media and audio to bring the language to life alongside the objects on display. As part of the interpretation, the British Museum has worked with Egyptian colleagues and citizens from Rashid (modern day Rosetta), with their voices featured throughout the exhibition.

Ilona Regulski, Curator of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum, said: “The decipherment of hieroglyphs marked the turning point in a study that continues today to reveal secrets of the past. The field of Egyptology is as active as ever in providing access to the ancient world. Building on 200 years of continuous work by scholars around the globe, the exhibition celebrates new research and shows how Egyptologists continue to shape our dialogue with the past.”

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said: “Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt marks 200 years since the remarkable breakthrough to decipher a long-lost language. For the first time in millennia the ancient Egyptians could speak directly to us. By breaking the code, our understanding of this incredible civilisation has given us an unprecedented window onto the people of the past and their way of life. I would like to express my gratitude to our long-term exhibition partner BP. Without their support, the British Museum would not be able to present such exhibitions, allowing visitors to discover the art, culture and language of ancient Egypt through the eyes of the pioneering scholars who unlocked those ancient secrets.”

Ilona Regulski, Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt (London: The British Museum, 2022), 272 pages, ISBN: 978-0714191287 (hardback), £35 / ISBN: 978-0714191294 (paperback), £20.

Institutional Membership, New York Society Library

Posted in resources by Editor on January 4, 2023

From the SHARP-L listserv (14 December 2022) . . .

The New York Society Library offers e-memberships for those interested in access to its collection of 20+ electronic resources, including JSTOR, Project Muse, the America Founding Era Collection (papers and correspondence from several 18th-and early 19th-century figures), back issue archives for The TLS, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books, various Oxford University Press databases (including the The Grove Dictionary of Art and the Oxford DNB), American National Biography, and many more. For leisure reading, the Library also offers databases of popular e-books and magazines (The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, thousands more). Assistance with research questions is available by emailing the Reference Desk.

The E-membership costs $100 / year.

E-memberships also include 10 building visits annually, with access to the quiet study spaces and reading rooms in our beautiful, landmark Italianate building. (The membership does not include circulating privileges for the print collection or access to individual study rooms.)

The New York Society Library was founded in 1754 as a membership library. Various membership options provide circulating privileges from our collection of 300,000 volumes in open stacks, electronic resources, reading and study spaces, member-only events, and more. The Library is open to all for reading, reference, and many events. More information on e-memberships is available here: https://www.nysoclib.org/members/e-memberships.

 

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