The Writing of the Gods

Title: The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decide the Rosetta Stone
Publisher: Scribner
Author: Edward Dolnick
Pages: 336pp
Price: $28.00 / $14.99

Why is the ancient Egyptian word for goose also used for son? How is demotic related to ancient Egyptian, if at all? Why did the Egyptians use hieroglyphs, when alphabets were readily available? And why was some text written inside elongated ovals?

The discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone is one of the great stories, not only of archaeology, but of world history. It is filled with adventurers and thieves, madmen and geniuses, spies and Pharaohs. It covers millennia of time and extends across continents, moving from desert sands to fine aristocratic estates to marbled museums and the halls of government. It is a fascinating, fantastic tale.

In The Writing of the Gods, Dolnick recounts this complex and sometimes wild story in an accessible and highly engaging style. While Dolnick lays out the discovery and eventual translation in a fairly straightforward, chronological order, he also dives into numerous side quests (as it were); all of these in some way relate to and expand upon the main topic. Because, yes, everything is connected. Dolnick discusses geology (the stone in which the text was carved); politics and diplomacy in the ancient Mediterranean; ancient Egyptian polytheism; World War II era cryptography and the work on Minoan Linear B; colonialism and the theft of antiquities and their transportation to Western capitals and museums; British anti-homosexuality laws; the obsession of intellectuals and mystics with ancient Egyptian writing (and how very wrong their guesses were over the centuries); and so much more. Dolnick weaves each new piece of information, each new insight, into a rich and colorful tapestry.

It’s been a long time since a work of nonfiction so completely captured my attention. I have the feeling that it will also be one of the few that I return to again and again.

Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Egyptology, linguistics, cryptography, or ancient history, as well as fans of How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, The Library Book by Susan Orlean, The Darkening Age by Catherine Nixey, The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, and The Written World by Martin Puchner.

[Reviewed by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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