Not that long ago deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics was proving to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. It seemed to be a challenge of epic proportions. Then along came a fellow, Pierre-François Bouchard, of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1799, who spotted a stone with three different types of writing: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. He was intrigued enough to save the stone, so it was removed from its site near Rashid (Rosetta), becoming French property. A very short time later, in 1801, British troops defeated the French in Egypt, so the stone became British property. It was transported to London and has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802. It turns out that the Rosetta Stone, a big chunk of black rock, inscribed with a decree issued in three languages in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V is the key to unlocking the meaning of the hieroglyphics.
Fast-forward almost two hundred years from that first public showing in London and you’ll find me in the British Museum standing beside the stone and having a gut reaction. The kind I always get when I happen across ancient artefacts. There is only a red velvet rope between me and the stone. I reach out and touch it. Its black surface is cool and hard beneath my hand and I feel my heart rate increase and my breathing pick up as I run my fingers across the 1800-year-old writing. The world moves on around me as if something amazing hasn’t just happened. I am time traveling.
My daughter looks at me and looks at the stone and is indifferent and unaffected. She hasn’t heard of the Rosetta Stone; it means nothing to her. Even so, I make her touch it and tell her that perhaps one day she will be grateful that I made her do so. One day it will be behind glass to protect it from the same kinds of hands which shaped it.
The other day as I stood staring out across the waters of the Atlantic I thought about this feeling I get when I wander through the ruins of the Acropolis, or run my hands over the bricks in the Coliseum, or walk along the paths beside Hadrian’s Wall. We are here for such a brief time. Yet we can still be connected across such great voids. Over the years I’ve found that my reaction isn’t restricted to only those things which have been touched by human hands. I feel the same when I see a great chasm cut into the earth over the millennia by the fast flowing waters of a river. Or hoodoos carved inch by inch with just the movement of air. Or lava fields, hardened and seemingly permanent, waiting only for the elements to transform it into something new.
The amazing part is that long after mankind becomes dust, this world will still be here. New life and possibly new civilizations will appear and disappear before this blue planet itself turns to dust. But even then I know that there will still be some part of me floating on the universal winds until once again the whole thing starts again. And perhaps one day, someone on a brand new world will place her hands on a stone and touch history and we will time-travel together.
“The Rosetta Stone,” by Christopher Chan. www.flickr.com. Some rights reserved.