Archive for August, 2010

Egyptian statueWhen you walk through the British Museum and decide to look for “Egyptian stuff”, it’s hard not to be struck by the large proportion of funerary artifacts in the collection. From cat mummies to kingly sarcophagi to the remains of an actual human tied in the fetal position in a wicker basket, if you’re going just by what’s in the museum cases, so much of Ancient Egyptian culture seems to be about living fast, dying young, and leaving a leathery, heavily salted corpse.

The cynic in me is prepared to think that all the focus on tomb artifacts is just down to what sells tickets: shiny things and dead people (not that the British Museum charges an entry fee, but most American museums do). But it’s hard to deny the weird allure of the Ancient Egyptian way of death: the rituals were so elaborate, and the many people involved took such pains to do it properly, to ensure the dead person would be granted immortality.

The Book of The Dead has the same attraction, even though, like the instruction manual in Beetlejuice, it reads like stereo instructions. Sometimes it’s actually worse..



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The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

I’ve been sitting on my hands vis-a-vis this blog lately because I learned a few weeks back that a friend would be coming in to London, giving us an excuse to pop round to the British Museum, where I’d be able to get a look at the Papyrus of Hunefer with my own eyeballs. I went down on the 26th.


We took a mosey through artifacts most closely related to the three cultures I’ve been reading about so far: the Ancient Mesopotamians, the Ancient Egyptians, and (coming soon) the Ancient Greeks.  What interested me, in addition to the art, was getting up close and personal with the letters and words, whether they were on stone, in clay, or on papyrus or a sarcophagus. What is it that first drove us to write?


Cuneiform tablet

Cuneiform tablet approx 2000 BC.

Our stories just got too big to keep in our heads, I suppose, or too good to only be shared in person. Or perhaps, as some have suggested, we just wanted to write about how terrific beer is.

“Written language was the product of an agrarian society.  These societies were centered around the cultivation of grain.  A natural result of the cultivation and storage of grain is the production of beer.  It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the very oldest written inscriptions concern the celebration of beer and the daily ration alotted to each citizen. It’s tempting to claim that the development of a writing system was necessitated by the need to keep track of beer, but perhaps we can be satisfied that it was just part of it.”

Interesting. We’ve gone from a daily ration of beer to a very stern warning not to drink more than 2 units a day. But I digress.

Writing seems to have emerged in four different civilizations: the ancient Chinese, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Mesoamericans all came up with phonetic writing independent of one another.  As far as we can tell, all four systems began as ideograms– pictures representing the object displayed– and gradually developed into glyphs that represented syllables and then into smaller individual sounds (but no vowels, in Egyptian).


eyes of horus

You may not buy a vowel.

I have heard people declare at various times that humans are unique because they use tools. I don’t really agree with this: crows and dolphins and chimps use tools, too, albeit primitive ones. We’re unique, as far as I can tell, because we use symbols. We tell stories, we keep accounts. We have to offload our memories and ideas onto something that will outlast us.



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