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The Riddle of the Rosetta

How an English Polymath and a French Polyglot Discovered the Meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphs...

Jed Z. Buchwald Diane Greco Josefowicz



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Princeton University Pres
01 December 2020
In 1799, a French Army officer was rebuilding the defenses of a fort on the banks of the Nile when he discovered an ancient stele fragment bearing a decree inscribed in three different scripts. So begins one of the most familiar tales in Egyptology - that of the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. This book draws on fresh archival evidence to provide a major new account of how the English polymath Thomas Young and the French philologist Jean-Francois Champollion vied to be the first to solve the riddle of the Rosetta.

Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz bring to life a bygone age of intellectual adventure. Much more than a decoding exercise centered on a single artifact, the race to decipher the Rosetta Stone reflected broader disputes about language, historical evidence, biblical truth, and the value of classical learning. Buchwald and Josefowicz paint compelling portraits of Young and Champollion, two gifted intellects with altogether different motivations. Young disdained Egyptian culture and saw Egyptian writing as a means to greater knowledge about Greco-Roman antiquity. Champollion, swept up in the political chaos of Restoration France and fiercely opposed to the scholars aligned with throne and altar, admired ancient Egypt and was prepared to upend conventional wisdom to solve the mystery of the hieroglyphs.

Taking readers from the hushed lecture rooms of the Institut de France to the windswept monuments of the Valley of the Kings, The Riddle of the Rosetta reveals the untold story behind one of the nineteenth century's most thrilling discoveries.

'Buchwald and Josefowicz bring together vast amounts of evidence that have not been used in conjunction before, providing novel insights into how the centuries-old mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs was unlocked.' - Theresa Levitt, author of A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse 'This is one of the most impressive, carefully researched, and beautifully written books I have read in a long time. No one else working in the history of philology has described what it means to decipher a lost language so fully or so well as Buchwald and Josefowicz.' - Suzanne L. Marchand, author of German Orientalism in the Age of Empire 'This extraordinary book is the first to place the decipherment of hieroglyphs firmly in its wider intellectual context of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European thought, bringing to the subject new sources and a scholarly breadth not found elsewhere. The Riddle of the Rosetta is a great pleasure to read.' - T. G. Wilfong, author of Death Dogs: The Jackal Gods of Ancient Egypt
By:   Jed Z. Buchwald, Diane Greco Josefowicz
Imprint:   Princeton University Pres
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 235mm,  Width: 156mm, 
ISBN:   9780691200903
ISBN 10:   0691200904
Pages:   576
Publication Date:   01 December 2020
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Jed Z. Buchwald is the Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History at the California Institute of Technology. He lives in Altadena, California. Diane Greco Josefowicz is a writer, editor, and activist. She has served for more than a decade as science and technology editor for the Victorian Web ( She lives in Providence, Rhode Island. Buchwald and Josefowicz are the authors of The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbable Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate between Religion and Science (Princeton). Twitter @dianegreco

Reviews for The Riddle of the Rosetta: How an English Polymath and a French Polyglot Discovered the Meaning of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Buchwald, a historian at California Institute of Technology, and writer Josefowicz put a decade's worth of work into this book, and it shows. . . . Buchwald and Josefowicz deliver an account that sometimes seems as if in real time, describing the blind alleys, intuitions, and thorny debates that surrounded the scholars' investigations. . . . Fans of Egyptology, cryptography, and languages will enjoy this exploration of the ancient past. * Kirkus Reviews * This valuable analysis . . . combines exhaustive excavation of archives with eclectic biographical elements on the decoders. ---Andrew Robinson, Nature Rarely have I seen the false starts and blind alleys, firm beliefs and 180-degree recalibrations, exhilaration and loneliness of pioneering thought captured so well. . . . If The Riddle of the Rosetta won't be coming to screens anytime soon, its achievement is no less admirable. ---Maxwell Carter, Wall Street Journal

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