cover image The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone

The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone

Edward Dolnick. Scribner, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-5011-9893-9

When the Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799, “the first guesses were that it might take two weeks to decipher,” according to this stimulating history of a linguistic puzzle that took 20 years to solve. Journalist Dolnick (The Seeds of Life) reveals that Thomas Young (1773–1829) and Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832), the two “rival geniuses” who “did the most to crack the code,” had both been child prodigies and possessed “an uncanny flair for languages,” but were “opposites in nearly every other regard.” Polymath Young made contributions to the fields of physics, medicine, and linguistics, while Champollion “cared about Egypt and only about Egypt.” Though Champollion was the first to truly “read” the language of hieroglyphs, in the 1820s, Young made a key breakthrough in 1816, when he proposed that one grouping on the Rosetta Stone spelled out the name Ptolemy (Champollion insisted that he had come to the same conclusion independently). Dolnick lucidly explains the complex steps taken to decipher the relic, and offers brisk and enlightening history lessons on the first appearances of written language, Roman emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, the Scientific Revolution, and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The result is an immersive and knowledgeable introduction to one of archaeology’s greatest breakthroughs. Illus. Agent: Flip Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Oct.)