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The Rosetta Stone of…Actually, the Real One

The Rosetta Stone of…Actually, the Real One
by Paul McLellan on 09-29-2015 at 7:00 am

 Last week I wrote about the British Museum Algorithm in the context of simulation corners for variability. You walk everywhere. And if you don’t walk to just the right place, you miss something. Just like visiting the British Museum. Today I’m going totally off-topic to talk about something that really is in the British Museum, namely the Rosetta Stone. You are unlikely to miss it since there will almost certainly be dozens of Chinese and Japanese tourists crowding around it (you can see some of them reflected in the glass in my picture below). It is the most visited object in the whole museum. If you go in the main entrance to the museum, the Rosetta Stone is in the Egyptian Sculpture gallery to the left, the first thing you come to through the door.

I think that it is one of the more interesting artifacts in the museum. These days even Google thinks that the Rosetta Stone is a company that supplies language learning and the real Rosetta Stone has to content itself with second place in its search listings.

There is a reason that the language learning is named after the Rosetta Stone and also a reason that the phrase is used for something that is the essential key to a topic. The stone is apparently made of granidiorite (I’d never heard of it either) and it is carved with a decree from 196BC. What made it unique, at least when it was first discovered, was that it had the decree in three different languages: Egyptian hieroglyphics (not then deciphered), Demotic script (another script that was indecipherable at the time), and Ancient Greek. The stone is damaged and incomplete, so lots of the texts, especially the hieroglyphics at the top, are missing.

Ancient greek was well-known but Egyptian hieroglyphics were not really understood. The Rosetta Stone, with essentially a long hieroglyphic passage with an accompanying Greek translation, suddenly made a lot clear. I say suddenly, but it actually took more like 20 years before hieroglyphics started to be decoded.

The stone was presumably displayed in a temple but was then used as building material in a fort in Rashid/Rosetta. It was discovered there during the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1799. But the French didn’t get to keep it for long since they were defeated by the British in 1801. It was taken to the British Museum (nobody really knows quite how) and has been on display there since 1802, except during the world wars to keep it safe from bombing.

There have been demands for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. I think that was most unlikely to happen anyway (the Elgin Marbles have been demanded by Greece for much longer), but given what has just happened to the buildings in Palmyra it is clear it will remain in London, probably forever.

If you are feeling you need more of a connection between this blog and the semiconductor industry, then see also The Rosetta Stone of Lithography.

The British Museum is on Great Russell Street in London. It is not that easy to find since it is midway between several tube (subway) stations and not straight along a street from any of them: Tottenham Court Road, Holborn (pronounced hoe-burn), Goodge Street and Russell Square. An additional wrinkle is that the Central Line (red) part of Tottenham Court Road station is closed until the end of the year to build the connection to CrossRail and trains don’t stop there. British Museum website is here.

 And if you are not museumed-out after the British Museum, don’t miss nearby Sir John Soane’s Museum at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It is as small and quirky as the British Museum is large and comprehensive. The museum website is here.

Semiwiki: we visit the world’s museums so you don’t have to. Actually, the British Museum should be on your bucket list, so you do have to.

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