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the Complete Review
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The Keys of Egypt

Lesley and Roy Adkins

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To purchase The Keys of Egypt

Title: The Keys of Egypt
Author: Lesley and Roy Adkins
Genre: History
Written: 2000
Length: 309 pages
Availability: The Keys of Egypt - US
The Keys of Egypt - UK
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Der Code der Pharaonen - Deutschland
Le chiavi dell'Egitto - Italia
Las claves de Egipto - España
  • The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code

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Our Assessment:

B : adequate retelling of a fascinating story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Telegraph A 3/9/2000 Simon Singh

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Adkins duo succeed in providing a fascinating and elegantly written biography of Champollion, doing justice to one of the great stories of academic heroism." - Simon Singh, Sunday Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Keys of Egypt tells, as its subtitle suggests, the story of The Race to Crack the Hieroglyph Code. It is also effectively a biography of Jean-François Champollion, who can be said to have won the race.
       The authors begin with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, which set the race in motion. At that time Egypt and its archaeological riches were almost completely unknown to European scholars. Napoleon's expedition included many French scholars, and while his colonial ambitions were largely thwarted a tremendous amount of data and archaeological material was collected.
       Egyptian hieroglyphics -- not completely unknown (as they could also be found among Roman antiquities), but now available in far greater amounts -- attracted considerable attention. The Rosetta Stone, which seemed to offer a key to deciphering them (since it presented the same text in hieroglyphics and in ancient Greek), also piqued interest.
       A number of people tried to figure out how the Egyptian hieroglyphic system worked. The most notable are at the center of this book: the gifted French linguist Jean-François Champollion and the English polymath Thomas Young.
       The authors describe the "race" quite well -- though in many respects it was more of a stumbling, bumbling affair. Lesley and Roy Adkins focus especially of Champollion, following his entire (and quite interesting) life. (Young is also dealt with at greater length, but this equally fascinating character is given significantly less attention.)
       The "race" is dealt with quite well. The authors explain the various significant jumps that were made as the system was slowly unravelled. Hieroglyphs also figure usefully in the text, the authors giving many examples (while managing not to bog down the text too much with them). Certainly, the book makes a fine popular introduction to the subject of hieroglyphics.
       The authors provide a great deal of often very colourful background too. They were heady times. Napoleon's Egyptian adventures are recounted (in perhaps the most entertaining section of the book), and Champollion's difficult life in revolutionary and Napoleonic France is quite well described. It is, however, a lot of material, and some of it competes too strongly with the supposed subject matter (hieroglyphics).
       Thomas Young sits a bit uneasily on the periphery of the book, seen mostly in relation to Champollion. He does get most of his due, but seems worthy of more attention.
       The Adkinss present their material fairly well. The book reads quite well -- and the subject matter is fascinating. The authors do, however, seem to try to do too much, as they are unable to resist the rich historical material around the "race", which too often detracts from the race itself.

       The Keys of Egypt offers a fine overview of the characters and events of the time. It is not meant to be a scholarly work: there are no footnotes, and (unfortunately) no citations for quotes. A list of Further Reading is vaguely helpful. But The Keys of Egypt is certainly adequate as an introductory overview for the layman.

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The Keys of Egypt: Reviews: Jean-François Champollion: Rosetta Stone: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Lesley and Roy Adkins are wife and husband and have written numerous books on archaeology.

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