6-7pm (UK) / 7-8pm (Egypt) | This lecture will be recorded, register to be sent a video link

Image: Watercolour of a scene in the tomb of Sety I showing the king seated before a table of bread, by Henry William Beechey (1788/89–1862). Egypt, 19th century. British Museum, AESAr.278. Paper, 73 x 55.3 x 2.5 cm.

In trying to reconstruct the history of writing, we often turn to sources from ancient Egypt. Every aspect of ancient Egyptian culture, its religious practice, monumental buildings and bureaucratic minutiae, relied on a system of writing developed around 3250 BCE. The spoken language was used until the 15th century CE, making it one of history’s longest-surviving recorded languages. But following the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, the ancient scripts slowly fell out of use in Egypt and a new alphabet to record the spoken language became more widespread. Roman and Greek authors, who could not read hieroglyphs, believed them to be symbolic rather than linked to the sound of spoken language, a belief that went unquestioned and effectively obstructed decipherment for centuries. In the Middle Ages and early modern times, Arab and European scholars attempted to explain Egyptian hieroglyphs, acknowledging that they may have had a phonetic component (that is, reflected the sounds of speech, at least in part). But the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 provided the decisive key to unlocking the meaning of the mysterious characters.

Image: List of Egyptian monuments to be conveyed to England by the articles of the capitulation, drawn up by Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner. Alexandria, 1801. British Museum, AESAr.312. Paper, 39.8 x 54 x 0.4 cm.

The decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822 is often acclaimed as the most important event in the history of Egyptology. There had been no proper understanding of the ancient Egyptian language and script until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its eventual decryption. But the history of the Rosetta Stone is also linked to the story of collecting on the Eastern frontier of European imperialism. The Egyptian objects seized from Napoleon’s legion by the British army were effectively the first large-scale collection to be given to the British Museum in 1802. Today it is the Museum’s most visited object and an icon for all attempts to unlock the ancient past. The lecture will address this multi-layered story of the Rosetta Stone’s life from composing, distributing and inscribing an ancient decree to its impact for modern Egyptology and the British Museum.


As the Curator of Egyptian Written Culture at the British Museum, Ilona Regulski is responsible for the papyrus collection and other inscribed material in the collection, including the Rosetta Stone. Her areas of expertise include epigraphy and palaeography from the Early Dynastic period through the New Kingdom (~3200-1000 BC) with a (recent) focus on Middle Kingdom material culture and ritual narrative. She is the director of a research project investigating the deep history of the Asyut Region, which includes community archaeology and heritage communication.

Image: Sculptor's trial piece depicting an owl-hieroglyph. The owl is one of the most common hieroglyphs representing the one-letter sign ‘m’. Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 BCE. British Museum, EA38276. Limestone, 16 x 13.5 x 2.3 cm.

Ilona studied Egyptology at the University of Leuven in Belgium and the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany. She was a research fellow at the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels (2002-2004) and assistant-director of the Dutch-Flemish Institute in Cairo (2005-2010). She received a PhD in Near Eastern Studies from Leuven University in 2007 examining the Origins of Writing in Egypt. Ilona continued her career as guest-lecturer at Yale University (2011) and Humboldt post-doctoral fellow at the Free University in Berlin (2012-2014) before moving to the British Museum in 2015. From June 2019 until May 2021, she represented the British Museum in the EU funded project ‘Transforming the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’. She is currently the lead curator for the exhibition Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt (13 October 2022 - 19 February 2023).

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