In 1799, a French Army officer was rebuilding the defenses of a fort on the banks of the Nile when he discovered an ancient stele fragment bearing a decree inscribed in three different scripts. So begins one of the most familiar tales in Egyptology—that of the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This book draws on fresh archival evidence to provide a major new account of how the English polymath Thomas Young and the French philologist Jean-François Champollion vied to be the first to solve the riddle of the Rosetta.
Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz bring to life a bygone age of intellectual adventure. Much more than a decoding exercise centered on a single artifact, the race to decipher the Rosetta Stone reflected broader disputes about language, historical evidence, biblical truth, and the value of classical learning. Buchwald and Josefowicz paint compelling portraits of Young and Champollion, two gifted intellects with altogether different motivations. Young disdained Egyptian culture and saw Egyptian writing as a means to greater knowledge about Greco-Roman antiquity. Champollion, swept up in the political chaos of Restoration France and fiercely opposed to the scholars aligned with throne and altar, admired ancient Egypt and was prepared to upend conventional wisdom to solve the mystery of the hieroglyphs.
Taking readers from the hushed lecture rooms of the Institut de France to the windswept monuments of the Valley of the Kings, The Riddle of the Rosetta reveals the untold story behind one of the nineteenth century’s most thrilling discoveries.
"Combining exhaustive excavation of British and French archives with eclectic biographical elements, [this] valuable new book explains in unique detail . . . the twists and turns behind the perpetually fascinating decipherment."—Andrew Robinson, British Museum Magazine
"Rarely have I seen the false starts and blind alleys, firm beliefs and 180-degree recalibrations, exhilaration and loneliness of pioneering thought captured so well. . . . If The Riddle of the Rosetta won’t be coming to screens anytime soon, its achievement is no less admirable."—Maxwell Carter, Wall Street Journal
"Arguably the most meticulous and thoroughgoing account of the work of Young and Champollion. . . . The dazzling scholarly nimbleness of Champollion and Young is richly illustrated throughout the book — that is no myth, but it emerges as something a little more human."—Elizabeth Frood, The Spectator
"Buchwald, a historian at California Institute of Technology, and writer Josefowicz put a decade’s worth of work into this book, and it shows. . . . Buchwald and Josefowicz deliver an account that sometimes seems as if in real time, describing the blind alleys, intuitions, and thorny debates that surrounded the scholars’ investigations. . . . Fans of Egyptology, cryptography, and languages will enjoy this exploration of the ancient past."—Kirkus Reviews
"A gloriously detailed reconstruction . . . this past intellectual world is dazzlingly brought to life by Buchwald and Josefowicz."—Dmitri Levitin, Times Literary Supplement
"This volume is a tour de force of scholarly research and thorough analysis."—Hilary Forrest, Ancient Egypt
"The story of the Stone and its role in the translation of the hieroglyphs has been told many times, but never so well as in Buchwald and Josefowicz’s new book. . . . [The Riddle of the Rosetta is] a sophisticated, exciting, and polished piece of scholarship.”"—Anthony Ossa-Richardson, Erudition and the Republic of Letters
"Elegantly written and dazzlingly erudite. . . . [The Riddle of the Rosetta] offers a fascinating account of an often told story that never loses its allure."—Cecilia Hurley, History of Humanities
"Buchwald and Josefowicz bring together vast amounts of evidence that have not been used in conjunction before, providing novel insights into how the centuries-old mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs was unlocked."—Theresa Levitt, author of A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse
"This is one of the most impressive, carefully researched, and beautifully written books I have read in a long time. No one else working in the history of philology has described what it means to decipher a lost language so fully or so well as Buchwald and Josefowicz."—Suzanne L. Marchand, author of German Orientalism in the Age of Empire
"This extraordinary book is the first to place the decipherment of hieroglyphs firmly in its wider intellectual context of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European thought, bringing to the subject new sources and a scholarly breadth not found elsewhere. The Riddle of the Rosetta is a great pleasure to read."—T. G. Wilfong, author of Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt