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Editor's Note, January/February 1999

Voices of the Past

By Mary Lou Beatty | HUMANITIES, January/February 1999 | Volume 20, Number 1

Cleopatra. . . Ptolemy. . . For centuries the world of the Pharaohs lay tantalizingly beyond our reach, offering magnificent but mute images of a vanished world.

Then, two hundred years ago, a Frenchman on Napoleon's expedition to Egypt chanced upon a curious stone, a two-by- four-foot shard of black basalt inscribed in hieroglyphics, demotic script, and Greek. The basalt came to be known as the Rosetta Stone, named for the village near Alexandria where it was found. The fortunes of empire took it to England, where it languished for two decades; in one of life's ironies, it was another Frenchman who unlocked its mysteries. Building on the attempts of earlier scholars, Jean-François Champollion took the cartouches of Cleopatra and Ptolemy, added the hieroglyphic for Rameses, and predicated from their juxtaposition that the hieroglyphs were not fixed picture-symbols but a phonetic writing system. In that moment he had penetrated the silence of the ancient world.

This issue of Humanities revisits that period by way of two NEH-supported projects. They are a new exhibition, "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen," and Letters from Ancient Egypt, a book of letters that gives us a glimpse into everyday Egyptian lives -- about the selling of a house, the hire of a donkey, the desolation of a widow.

Just as the bas reliefs and ceremonies give clues to a long-gone society, modern representations can tell us about our own. We visit an exhibition of twentieth-century Irish painting which shows how the lyrical influence of the British gave way as Irish society became more nationalistic. The impetus carried over into Irish theater, where one hundred years ago William Butler Yeats and his colleagues began staging their own native-oriented plays. Their direct descendant is Dublin's Abbey Theatre of today.

And last, we look at the state of our own society through a new twenty-four volume epic. January marks the unveiling of the new American National Biography, ten years in the making, the successor to the Dictionary of American Biography. The ANB offers a portrait of a different kind. Historian Barnard Bailyn calls it "a significant event in American cultural history. It is the collective biography of the American people."

In a conversation with Endowment Chairman William R. Ferris, one of the ANB's general editors, John A. Garraty, explains how the selection of the 17,500 people to be profiled tells us about the society itself. He offers as an example the Ku Klux Klan, which may have been regarded as respectable at the time of Reconstruction, but no more. "You can see the changes that have occurred in the way we look at historical movements and events." He adds: "The obvious cases there were blacks and women. There is a huge amount of modern material. . . . There are people the DAB missed, such as Sojourner Truth."

The new NEH-supported Biography goes online later in the year, enabling the editors to update it more easily and to add people. One requisite is that the person be dead (for the print version, as of 1995.)

"Our current book is the way American history looks today," comments Garraty. "In the year 2020 or 2030, there will be different ways of looking at the past."