Ancient history

11th February 2000 at 00:00
ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ANCIENT EGYPT. By Geraldine Harrisand Delia Pemberton. British Museum Press. pound;14.99. THE MYSTERY OF THE HIEROGLYPHS. By Carol Donoughue. THE ANCIENT GREEK OLYMPICS. By Richard Woff. British Museum. pound;8.99 each.

Louis Macneice's haunting lines about the ancient world - "It was all so unimaginably different And all so long ago" - are both a caution and a provocation. The British Museum has done its best to meet the challenge implicit in his scholarly disavowal.

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt uses a straightforward alphabetical format but makes paths for the reader through its sprightly and learned text by using symbols to indicate a number of broad themes. These include work, leisure and (unsurprisingly) death and the afterlife.

There are many fine pictures, including Nefertiti's beautiful painted head. There are also dozens of intriguing details within the articles: Cleopatra was sexy but not beautiful, some cats wore gold and silver earrings. Taweret, the hippopotamus-lion-crocodile goddess, fiercely guards a set of highly hospitable pages.

A book on the familiar subject of hieroglyphics manages to justify the "mystery" of its title. It does this by involving the reader in the processes of trial and errorand illumination that beset the long roll-call of decipherers. Champollion's wonderful achievements are given their due, but there is also a generous account of the work of Thomas Young, who made crucial discoveries about the relation of symbols to sounds.

The book doesn't withhold the harder details - terms like phonogram and determinative are not only used clearly but also explained in context and separately glossed - so that, by the end, understanding is based on experience as well as explanation. What was once a priestly secret can now be used for passing notes in class.

Like Sydney 2000, the Olympics three millennia ago had their controversial aspects. The dolikhos (the longest race) allowed for pushing and tripping. The pankration combined boxing and wrestling with kicking, strangling and the breaking of fingers. The Olympic ideal was equivocal long before it was compromised by global commercialism.

Richard Woff's book gives life to many storied urns and shows how the god-like aspirations of the Games were realised in all-too-human practice. False starts were punished by whipping and competitors ran naked and smeared with oil and sand. Literate sports lovers will find here plenty of informative and interesting material.

Tom Deveson

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