When I left the hotel this morning to get some tea and pastries, I wasn’t sure yet how I’d spend the day. A few hours later I was touching the Rosetta Stone.
The British Museum was on my list of things to do in London, of course, I just didn’t know which days I’d visit. The weather isn’t hot here, especially not compared to North Carolina this week, but it’s humid enough to get me sweating on long walks. It’ll turn cooler tomorrow so I declared today a museum day.
I love museums though I’m a little uncomfortable with the British Museum since a lot of their collection has been obtained through conquest. None the less, it is impressive to stand in front of the reconstructed Nereid Monument from ancient Lycia. It was the tomb of some king who died almost 2400 years old. Definitely the oldest gravestone I’ve seen, even if it has been moved quite a distance.
The star attraction of the museum is the Rosetta Stone. It’s the exhibit with a clot of humans around it. I was able to push my way to the front to get a good look through the glass but it didn’t seem polite to linger. The stone is hefty. I didn’t expect it to be as large and thick as it was. Nor did I expect the Greek text at the bottom to be as tiny. That was delicate work for someone 1800 years ago.
I asked one of the docents if there was always a crowd clustered around and she said that was sadly the case, however if I wanted to touch it, there’s an replica in another exhibit hall.
This other Rosetta Stone rests on an angled pedestal for easier study and there was nobody around. I ran my fingers along the cool black rock, caressing the etching, getting intimate with the hieroglyphic and Demotic script, feeling both the earth and the man who carved it.
In this same exhibit hall there were other objects that weren’t replicas but real things available to be touched, under the supervision of museum employees. I held little silver coins cast 2000 years ago, no bigger than a dime, upon which the Latin inscription could still be read. I touched a 6000 year old Egyptian bowl in which women would keep their eye makeup. But most impressive was a 300,000 year old flint axe head fashioned by men before the last ice age and it was still sharp.
I understand why our mothers tell us to look but don’t touch. The Rosetta Stone would be smooth from all the fingers running along its surface for all these years but there’s nothing quite like holding a piece of history in your hand.