By Charles Tanford & Jacqueline Reynolds

British Museum, Bloomsbury

This is one of greatest museums of the world, but mainly dedicated to the arts and civilizations of past ages.

One science-related item is the Rosetta stone, displayed in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery on the ground floor. It contains the trilingual text – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek – of a decree issued on the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V, King of Egypt. The text, finely chiselled on a slab of black basalt, is still clearly legible except where the surface itself has been damaged. Posters mounted beside the stone give an account of its history and the Angle-French rivalry that was part of it. Officers of the French army made the discovery and recognized its importance, but the stone came to England as one of the spoils of war. Thomas Young, the great polymath of British science around 1800, vied with the Frenchman Jean Champollion in the decipherment of the hieroglyphics. Young was the first to recognize that some hieroglyphics were alphabetical characters in spite of their pictorial appearance. He published all his evidence for this conclusion, but Champollion stuck for some time with the more conventional view that they were all pictographs. Young, in turn, was wrong in many of his specific assignments and Champollion, eventually won over to the alphabetical theory, is credited with the definitive transliteration of the text. (However, it took a new bilingual text, discovered later in another place, to convince Champollion and set him off in the right direction-he never acknowledged Young’s priority for the basic underlying idea.)

The British Museum is open seven days a week.