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The Rosetta Stone: And the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt

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The Rosetta Stone is the most famous object in the British Museum. According to the museum’s own fi gures, it is the most visited item in the entire display, and perhaps the most lingered over, although a similar claim is sometimes made for the unwrapped mummy of a ginger tomcat which also forms part of the Egyptian collections. The stone is one of the world’s wonders, although it does not feature in the conventional lists of Wonders of the World. It is not a monumental building, but it attracts pilgrims in the way that imposing ruins do. In mundane reality it was part of a mass-produced series of stelae, a technical term for slabs of stone designed to perpetuate the offi cial records of the Egyptian state. What it records is a decree, the text of an agreement issued jointly by a king and a synod of ancient Egyptian clergy. Its purpose was to witness to the Pharaoh’s benevolence towards his people and his piety towards the gods. It was the sort of thing a good king was expected to do, and to go on doing.

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