REVIEW: Hieroglyphs: Unlocking Ancient Egypt, British Museum

A fascinating and insightful examination of how hieroglyphics were finally decoded.

A section of the illustrated The Book of The Dead (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

As a child, I was fascinated by Ancient Egypt and the world that the Egyptians lived in – but just as equally with the way in which they would write and use hieroglyphics and the way in which it came across as this mysterious and undecipherable language that only a chosen few could understand. This new British Museum exhibition aroused my curiosity once again as it delves deep into this world and the people who helped unlock how to decipher hieroglyphs to help us enhance our understanding of the ancient Egyptians.

Of course, one of the central keys of discovering the meaning behind these mysterious symbols as a language is the Rosetta Stone, which is placed in the pride of place at the centre of the exhibition. This in itself is as well as being of great importance is also fascinating to look at close up as it shows the way in which the Egyptian language developed as many of the extensive objects selected for display also highlights. Using the discovery of the Rosetta Stone as the important starting point, visitors are then taken on a fascinating journey into not only how Europeans became fascinated with ancient Egypt, but also their techniques in discovering how to decipher hieroglyphics.

An intense (and if I’m being honest slightly too heavy) section focusing on Jean-François Champollion and Thomas Young’s  methods while of course essential in understanding the importance of the discoveries that they made, requires a lot of focus and close attention. This is absolutely fine if you have plenty of time and the exhibition isn’t too busy but on the day that I was there you had to queue and wait patiently for others to finish their own examination of the various notes and drawing. It is a fascinating story but could have been displayed better.

This being said, this is still a well thought out and detailed exhibition that draws visitors in effectively – complete with some incredible ancient artefacts on display. This includes a beautifully illustrated section of the Book of the Dead, a perfectly preserved cartonnage complete with mummy and and incredibly impressive plaster cast of King Seti I of Egypt slaughtering the Libyan chief in battle and trampling his people under his chariot to name a few. It is also a display which really takes you into the heart of Egyptian life through language, with everything from poetry to shopping lists covered as well as the evolution of the language from symbols to including elements of Greek.

It has been beautifully presented throughout, I loved the use of projections to sweep us to Egypt and the use of music in background for example making this exhibition feel very much an immersive experience. This exhibition highlights just how much more to ancient Egypt than the mummies in an invigorating way.

By Emma Clarendon

Hieroglyphs; Unlocking Ancient Egypt is on display at the British Museum until the 19th February 2023.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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