There are all kinds of arguments to be made about the imperial history that saw Britain amass the huge treasure trove housed in the British Museum, and whether ‘finders keepers’ should actually be a valid point of international law. Unarguably though, this collection is one of the most glorious and inspiring concentrations of culturally significant historical artifacts in the world. And amongst all this splendour, the most visited antiquity is not some golden treasure or grand architectural marvel – but a simple carved slab of rock – the Rosetta Stone.
This artifact has been displayed behind protective glass since 2000, but when I first visited the museum in the simpler (or perhaps more naive) days of the previous century, the stone was tantalisingly exposed to the world, lying in a steel cradle where I could have reached out to gently touch its ancient surface, had I been so inclined.
The stone itself is a slab of dark, fairly fine-grained granodiorite, a broken fragment of a previously larger tablet inscribed with a decree issued by Ptolemy V in 196 BC, commemorating his ascension to the Egyptian throne. Neither the elegant solidity of the stone though, nor the content of the inscription, explain why this piece is so inspirational and universally recognised.
Instead, the Rosetta Stone has entered our lexicon as the ultimate cypher – the key to breaking the deepest of codes – reviving a dead language.
The Ancient Egyptians were a famously literate society. We’re not talking the mass literacy of the modern world of course, with only around 1% of the population – at a generous estimate – able to read and write. This is a rate put to shame by even modern laggard states like Burkina Faso, where literacy extends to 21.8% of the population – the lowest rate in the world by current UN reckoning. Egypt’s 1% though stand out through the mists of history for having produced, among other milestones in the development of civilization, one of the earliest true traditions of narrative literature, recorded in an array of letters, poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts celebrating the careers of prominent officials. Beyond these temple walls and epic monumental writings of storied fame though, the Egyptians also left a record of the day-to-day function of their highly ordered society – of harvests and recipes, contracts and legal disputes – on papyri and tablets that have withstood the ravages of time in the hot dry climate of the Nile valley and its surrounding deserts to preserve a historical record of the ancient world unique in its depth and completeness.
The important element for our story though is that when first re-discovered by the explorers and enquirers of an enlightened Europe intent on understanding and controlling (and returning to our opening discussion of the British Museum, often exporting) the mysteries of the world, this treasured store of information was locked away – hidden, denied to the hopeful scholars – behind the apparently impenetrable barrier of lost language – with understanding of both hieroglyphic (the famed pictographic writing of Pharonic tombs and Hollywood blockbusters) and the simpler written version of Ancient Egyptian erased by the shifting sands of time.
Where the Rosetta Stone enters the picture is that it’s message of glory and divine rule is inscribed not once, but three times, in three different languages – those two lost Egyptian scripts and, crucially, the very much alive (at least for upper class educated Europeans of the 19th century who had been to the right schools) ancient Greek – for which we can thank the fact that the Ptolemaic Dynasty was actually founded by Macedonian general Ptolemy Soter, who installed himself as ruler of Egypt in the carve-up of Alexander the Great’s empire in 323BC. Even in its broken state (none of the three versions of the inscription is complete), this combination provided a starter kit for the eventual translation of the previously lost Egyptian languages. The Rosetta Stone, in essence, provided a single example of spectacular clarity that made sense of a much larger array of other information, unlocking that vast catalogue of previously indecipherable records.
The concept of a cypher along these lines is not uncommon in observational science. We often look to sites and specimens where relationships or natural processes seem expressed with unusual clarity or simplicity in order to illustrate our ideas or to use as the basis of discussion.
This is certainly not a new idea when it comes to theories regarding the nature of geological systems – indeed, it’s as old as the science of Geology itself. James Hutton – the 18th century Scottish polymath who surely boasts a claim as strong as any to be the intellectual father of this field – didn’t try to explain his ideas on the dynamics of the world by picking up the nearest pebble. On the contrary – he was renowned for taking friends and dignitaries on field trips to view exceptional exposures he had located that seemed to present particularly clear examples of the phenomena he was discussing. His Rosetta Stones.
Even today, we look to such unusual examples where the complexity and vagaries of natural history seem momentarily brushed aside to reveal unambiguous evidence of a physical process in action.
The corollary to the importance of such examples though is the critical question – where should we look for our Rosetta Stones? To give away the ending here, the smart money is on “anywhere and everywhere”…but this measured insight often proves surprisingly difficult to impart. Rather, there is a persistent belief among many in the profession that the importance of an outcrop is (or at least, with a plaintive appeal to cosmic justice, should be) in inverse proportion to the ease with which it can be accessed.
Release a group of Geology students into the wild on a mapping exercise – especially, it should be said, young male students, and their first reaction usually isn’t to sit down and plan an efficient programme of work. It’s to decamp to the highest, most rugged, least accessible area of the field.
At the heart of this challenge lies some pretty fundamental human psychology. We love stories – and whatever we might tell ourselves, we spend much of our lives with an ear half tuned to an internal narrative of how our actions stack up. “I had to ford the river in spate, vanquish the dragon, then climb to the highest room in the tallest tower” is simply more appealing than “well, I just poked about under the bush and there it was.”
Which leads me to the rugged man maxim – an empirical law derived from observation of generations of young Earth Science students in action. In its purest form, this represents a belief that the most important outcrop in a district – the most informative, the most significant to unravelling the ambiguous twists and turns of geological history – will be found at its pole of inaccessibility: the hardest point to reach.
Besides giving rise to a host of sore and sun-burnt students though, does the Rugged Man Maxim stack up when it comes to results? All those trips I took as field trip leader to Andalucian Accident and Emergency departments trying to help testosterone-fuelled young men explain in broken Spanish just where the thorns were lodged – were they actually associated with greater understanding on the part of the bandaged apprentice geologists, and higher marks in their mapping projects?
I think we all already know the answer to that question.
Certainly, physically and logistically challenging fieldwork can produce results of great significance and enrich our understanding of fundamental questions. But the importance of a locality does not derive from its accessibility or spectacular grandeur – it is incidental to it.
The Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 by paleontologist Charles Dolittle Walcott in a remote mountain pass, high in the Canadian Rockies. The exquisitely preserved 505 million year old fossils extracted from this spectacular wilderness setting – as far from the Madding Crowd as you could hope to find yourself – provided a new window on life in the ancient Cambrian oceans – a Rosetta Stone that changed and enhanced our understanding of a host of other, less complete and more poorly preserved fossil fauna.
At the other end of the scale, you can get to the La Brea Tar Pits in urban Los Angeles on the Metro Rail – but that doesn’t stop the Pleistocene fossil fauna preserved in the tar being any less inspiring and scientifically significant in its own way, as the best known and most exquisitely preserved record of the extinct mammalian megafauna of North America.
Neither methodical and thorough investigation nor boundless investment are guarantees of significant discovery, and equally, sometimes it really is simply enough to be in the right place at the right time – as in 1928 when William P. “Punch” Jones and his father were playing horseshoes in Peterstown, West Virginia, and happened to turn up a 34.48 carat alluvial diamond, the largest such gem found in the United States to date.
Fundamentally, there is no justice in the layout of the world and its geological treasures. The key exposure that will lay clear the mysteries of a study area and lead to a bankable discovery may well sit under a poisonous thorn bush atop the windswept peak of the highest mountain in the district. But it’s just as likely to be right beside the trail where you stopped the 4WD for the night in the shade of a beautiful old acacia tree, so don’t discount your good fortune on those occasions when you do get lucky.