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British Museum

The Rosetta Stone and the Royal Game of Ur

Probably the most famous object in the British Museum in London is the Rosetta Stone, which provided the key to unlock Egyptian hieroglyphs. It was found by Napoleon’s army in 1799 near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta, and it came to the museum in 1802 after the French had willingly bestowed the stone on the British, along with other antiquities that they had found. On this stone is a decree about King Ptolemy V, written in hieroglyphs, Demotic, and ancient Greek. In the early years of the 19th century, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription as a key to decipher the hieroglyphs. Thomas Young was the first to show that some of them represented the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy, but it was Jean-François Champollion who in the end deciphered all the hieroglyphs and became the ‘Father of Egyptology’. Nowadays the stone mainly serves as a background object for taking selfies.

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum
Almost as cool as the Royal Game of Ur: the Rosetta Stone

My father, who is an Assyriologist, claims that hieroglyphs are fake: everybody can see that they are just silly drawings and not a real script. If you’re interested in the earliest systems of writing, cuneiform is the real thing. When we were at the British Museum last year, we therefore took only a brief look at the famous drawings and then went straight to the upper floor to see the Royal Game of Ur, which is one of the world’s oldest gaming boards. Fortunately the museum has more than just the board; curator Irving Finkel, who is quite a character, also found the game’s rule book on one of the museum’s 130,000 cuneiform clay tablets. Sadly, one cannot play the game because it’s on display in a locked showcase and all the replicas are sold out, but just looking at it is pretty cool, too. The Standard of Ur, in the same room, is one of my personal favourites at the British Museum. (If you’re into board games, be sure to also have a look at the Lewis Chessmen, at the front side of the building.)

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‘Nowadays the stone mainly serves as a background object for taking selfies.’ Ouch. Accurate, but ouch.