Voices of Our Past

By Beatty, Mary Lou | Humanities, January/February 1999 | Go to article overview

Voices of Our Past


Beatty, Mary Lou, Humanities


VOICES OF OUR PAST

Cleopatra. . Ptolemy. . . For centuries the world of the Pharaohs lay tantalizingly beyond our reach, offering magnificent but mute images of a vanished world.

Then, two hundred years ago, a Frenchman on Napoleon's expedition to Egypt chanced upon a curious stone, a two-by-four-foot shard of black basalt inscribed in hieroglyphics, demotic script, and Greek. The basalt came to be known as the Rosetta Stone, named for the village near Alexandria where it was found. The fortunes of empire took it to England, where it languished for two decades; in one of life's ironies, it was another Frenchman who unlocked its mysteries. Building on the attempts of earlier scholars, JeanFranqois Champollion took the cartouches of Cleopatra and Ptolemy, added the hieroglyphic for Rameses, and predicted from their juxtaposition that the hieroglyphs were not fixed picture-symbols but a phonetic writing system. In that moment he had penetrated the silence of the ancient world.

This issue of Humanities revisits that period by way of two NEHsupported projects. They are a new exhibition, "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen," and Letters from Ancient Egypt, a book of letters that gives us a glimpse into everyday Egyptian lives-about the selling of a house, the squabble between brothers, the desolation of a widow.

Just as the bas reliefs and ceremonies give clues to a long-gone society, modern representations can tell us about our own. We visit an exhibition of twentieth-century Irish painting that shows how the lyrical influence of the British gave way as Irish society became more nationalistic. The impetus carried over into Irish theater, where one hundred years ago William Butler Yeats and his colleagues began staging their own native-oriented plays. …

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