Friday, June 14, 2013

There's A Reason Why It's Called That

14 June...continued...visiting my favorite thing on earth.

Exhausted and still stiff-necked, I debated heading back to the hostel to recharge as my train from Salisbury pulled into London's Waterloo. The hostel was so close, I reasoned, a little rest couldn't hurt. But, oh, it can hurt, I contradicted. What if I let the tired set in and never make it back out, wasting a half a day in London!?! Deciding without making a decision, I boarded the tube and headed out in another adventure.

There wasn't time left in the day to tour an entire museum, but I didn't need to. This was the perfect time to visit my favorite historical artifact in London, and maybe the world: the Rosetta Stone. It can be hard to comprehend the age or significance of a piece of art, or a historical monument, but the the first time I laid my eyes on the Rosetta Stone my mind was blown [insert hilarious visual of trendy "mind blown" gesture here]. This stone, which is actually a small portion broken off of a larger tablet, or Stella, contains a message from Ptolemy IV to the people of Memphis, Egypt in 196BC. It was discovered in 1799 many miles away from its original location. Scholars maintain that it was likely transported to be used in building - being a nice solid stone with some scribble on it- since it had outlived its original use, the way you write your list of bills to pay this month on the back of an unpaid parking ticket. The story of the creation, age and discovery of this ancient stone is cool enough on its own, but what historians were able to do with it takes the fricken cake.

At this time, the late 18th century, the brits were pretty enamored with the mysteries of Egypt. It was foreign and new, so different from their own world. The only problem was that no one had any idea at all what all those little signs and pictures on tombs and artwork were talking about. A lot of experts assumed that hieroglyphs weren't a language at all. Just a primitive communication tool - look, a picture of a bird! That means there were birds! But the Rosetta Stone changed everything. The message I mentioned that was carved on the stone? It was more complex than just a message. In the section of the stone that was found, the same message was written 3 times - to make sure everyone in town understood it (think "Caution Wet Floor! Cuidado Piso Mojado!" - it saves a ton of money on lawsuits). The three languages used were Greek, the language of government, Demotic, and hieroglyphs, which were pretty much out of style by then, but like I said, these folks were playing it safe.

What this means is that historians had a key, a legend for reading the hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone could only do so much on its own, it took supremely talented scientists 25 years to learn to read the language of the hieroglyphs, and then modern folks began to understand the mysteries of ancient Egypt, and to learn that the society had been an advanced culture, experienced in math and science.

This stone, this piece of carved rock that has been in the British museum for over two hundred years (I wonder what the gift shop was like then!) changed history, and we can see it, Up close (if you push through the "eh? A rock? I don't get it?) touch it (well, the perfect replica across the hall that's for geeks who really want to touch it!) and begin the understand that every day we are unlocking history - that's why we keep looking for keys.

Revisiting my old friend, the Rosetta Stone was a moving experience. It reminded me why I seek so many answers- because they are there if we look hard enough.

After the closest thing I can have to a religious experience, I was ready to take a break. The cafe looked lively and the sandwiches decent, so I parked myself on a bench on the museum's beautiful main floor and enjoyed dinner. It was nearing dark, and I had already accidentally purchased a Rosetta Stone laptop sleeve (oh the multiple levels of meaning!!) so it was time to head home. I happily returned to the hostel to enjoy a pint, and think about all the history I had lived that day.

*does it make more sense why the wildly popular language software is called Rosetta Stone now?

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