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One Class, One Day: Reading the Language of the Pharaohs

STH prof teaches hieroglyphs


Professor Alejandro Botta instructs his Middle Egyptian students on reading hieroglyphs from the Rosetta Stone. Photos by Cydney Scott

Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

Using old textbooks is hardly unheard of, but Alejandro Botta’s class took it to an extreme. On a recent morning, his students were reading the Rosetta Stone, written, or rather inscribed, two centuries before Jesus. Discovered in Egypt in 1799, the Stone provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stele contains priestly decrees etched in three languages, including, most relevantly, hieroglyphs, the ancient picture-language Botta was teaching in his just-ended summer course Middle Egyptian.

The class labored one typical morning to translate the last line of the Stone from a poster photograph on the wall at the School of Theology, where Botta is an assistant professor of Hebrew Bible. As tiny as an elite priestly class—just four students took the course—they consulted quietly with one another while struggling to decipher the line. When they got stuck on the figures at the edge of the Stone, Botta pointed to two tiny, seemingly stray vertical lines in the corner. “That is part of the word,” he said. “Just come closer.”

Karissa Hurzeler (CAS’13) left her seat and went eyeball-to-hieroglyph with the poster. “Oh!” she exclaimed, laughing. “It’s just s written backwards” and with a part missing.

Fragmentary remains aren’t the only impediment to learning the language most of us encounter only in museums or old mummy movies. (The hieroglyph script Botta taught is of the Middle Egyptian stage, circa 2000 to 1300 BC.) There are no vowels in the writing, only consonants; the Egyptian language, in its various stages, was used for five millennia, meaning that there were more symbols when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed than there were in the script of the period covered by the course. Some signs represent one consonant, others multiple consonants or ideas, and the ordering of symbols can be freewheeling.

“Remember,” Botta told his Stone-stumped students, “they took a lot of liberties in how they arranged words. So you might find one word written above another.” After 20 minutes or so, the students had translated perhaps two inches of the arm’s-length inscription. (The line reads, “This decree on a stele of hard stone in the script of the words of god.”)

Olivia Oberndorf (CAS,'13), left, and Karissa Hurzeler (CAS'13) translating a section of the Rosetta Stone during the Middle Egyptian summer course. Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography.

Olivia Oberndorf (CAS,’13), left, and Karissa Hurzeler (CAS’13) translating a section of the Rosetta Stone during the Middle Egyptian summer course. Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography.

The labor is worth it, said Hurzeler (above, right), who has been fascinated by ancient Egypt for so long that she purchased the course’s basic textbook on her own—in the third grade. She’s entranced, she says, by the culture’s “magical beliefs and qualities—for instance, the powers they believed their spells had and the magic in their writing. The civilization itself flourished for so long and so powerfully, and it awed the cultures around it as well.”

Mummies and how they were made sparked a passion for Egyptology in Olivia Oberndorf (CAS’12) when she was 12. She took Botta’s course to prepare for a career as a museum curator and archaeologist. The work was easy, she joked, as long as she spent “every day from 12:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. making flashcards and memorizing vocabulary.” But Botta made the class “extremely enjoyable,” she said, “and hopefully it will all pay off in the end.”

Ancient Egypt’s language is dead, but as Botta noted, interest in the topic lives on. Just last winter, a new biography of Cleopatra regally climbed onto the best-seller list. “Anyone who is interested in history, especially ancient history, will find it valuable to learn the language of perhaps the most influential culture in the ancient Near East,” Botta said. “In terms of sculpture, medicine—there are so many disciplines where the Egyptians were really pioneers and were kind of the best at it.”

Knowing hieroglyphs is especially valuable to budding archaeologists who will study relics, he said. (Hurzeler is mulling such a career.) The class included a trip to view artifacts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. But you don’t have to be Indiana Jones to see the ancients’ influence. Egyptian notions crept into the Bible, said Botta, from its ideas about afterlife to the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan, when God’s voice is heard to declare, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” That declaration is similar to an Egyptian inscription from the third millennium, when “beloved” denoted a position of privilege akin to a firstborn, a formulaic expression used in the Middle East to this day, according to Botta. Elsewhere, aspects of ancient Israel’s bureaucratic organization, referenced in the Hebrew Bible, were modeled on that of Egypt.

Alejandro Botta's students translate part of the Rosetta Stone. Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography.

Alejandro Botta’s students translate part of the Rosetta Stone. Photo by Cydney Scott for Boston University Photography.

Alas, there are no native speakers around to help with pronunciation. “We are not certain how Egyptian was spoken,” Botta said, so when reading aloud in class, he and the students followed linguists’ convention, adopted purely for convenience, of sounding an “e” between almost every consonant. Yet Botta doesn’t consider this language more difficult than any other, “and actually, it’s more fun. There is so much art in it.”

But that art can bedevil a student who’s confronted by the welter of hieroglyph symbols that represent different letters, yet appear alike. “All of these look so similar,” Hurzeler said as she scanned a text. “I can’t keep the birds straight anymore.”

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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