The Rosetta Stone

rosetta stone
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By WALNICE NOGUEIRA GALVÃO*

According to the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone, now claimed by the Egyptians, is the most visited object of the illustrious house in its entire history.

Who said a good example doesn't bear fruit? Decolonization progresses: after the return of the dinosaur Ubirajara to its payments, Denmark returned a tupinambá ceremonial mantle of red guará feathers, the same one that dazzled the 500 Years Exhibition, in Ibirapuera.

Let's go to other cases in the sights of decolonization.

Hiram Bingham, the American “discoverer” of Machu Picchu, stripped the citadel and took away everything that moved, a total of 40 pieces. Some for Yale University, where they remain today, but many more for private individuals who funded their expeditions. Peru has long sought to recover its treasures.

According to the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone, now claimed by the Egyptians, is the most visited object of the illustrious house in its entire history. And that despite the fact that the Elgin Marbles, extracted from the Parthenon with a handsaw, are right next to it, with around 200 life-size statues. Enough to fill 22 ships. It has been the subject of requests for a return for some time.

The Rosetta Stone was found in the eponymous port city in the Nile delta. Who found it were the French of the Napoleonic invasion, soon defeated by the English, who ended up with the booty of victory. It bears a triple inscription, in hieroglyphics, in Demotic Egyptian and in Greek: “Open yourself. Sesame” for decryption.

It was based on these inscriptions that the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion, today buried in the Panthéon and considered the Father of Egyptology, carried out the mission, as he intuited that hieroglyphs were a mixture of ideograms with phonetic alphabet – an undertaking of gigantic importance. It was only from there that the millennial history of Egypt began to be compiled, as only what foreign travelers and chroniclers said was known. And it's a story that goes beyond 5 years. Other decipherments followed, such as the Mayan script, taking one of the most remarkable civilizations in the world out of oblivion. The Mayans were so advanced in astronomy and mathematics that they invented zero, a feat unique to only two peoples, them and the Hindus.

The report that Champollion, polyglot of ancient languages, wrote in the form of Letter to M. Dacier, thoroughly scrutinizing the entire process, luckily for us it's online.

When one thinks of so many ongoing returns, and so much discussed at the moment, the word “nostalgia” comes to mind., invented in 1688 by a Swiss physician. “Artificial” word, that is, invented with a certain purpose, and that “stuck”. Many do not catch on, like those that, in an attempt to promote a pure language, free of foreign stains, led Brazilian grammarians and philologists to create several words, which were generally horrible and which did not take off.

But foreign expressions spread to the point that they became legitimately Brazilian words and expelled patriotic neologisms. Monteiro Lobato liked to mock the undertaking – see Emília in the Land of Grammar – because he knew very well that the language is unpredictable, there was no point in imposing standards on it. Among these neologisms was ludopédio to replace football, which at the time was still written in italics and in English (football). Or else lucivelo, to replace the French lampshade, but what caught was lampshade.

The word nostalgia, which is brand new but we would swear to be Greek from the classical period, has its entry in the Portuguese lexicon dated 1838 by the Houaiss Dictionary. The word is a neologism that joined Nostos (= return, or return journey) to algos (=dor), resulting more or less in “the pain of the return”. Nostos, of which few have come down to us, but are attested in antiquity, was a literary genre dedicated to the many homecomings of the heroes of the Greek coalition who fought in the Trojan War, a major event that marked all literature and other arts in Greece. The great example, of course, is the Odyssey, narrating everything that happened in the 10 years that Ulysses' trip back to Ithaca lasted – ten years in mythical reckoning, of course.

But decolonization has its unpredictable consequences. During these days, the king of the Bamum people of the Republic of Cameroon, surrounded by his retinue, entered the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and sat down conspicuously on the throne that had been stolen from his great-grandfather more than a century ago. Witnessed and photographed, the lofty gesture was performed by the king in all the majesty of his royal regalia.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at FFLCH at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Reading and rereading (Sesc\Ouro over Blue).


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