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The most important of Egyptian artifacts

“Discovery at Rosetta” (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc. 288 pages. $22.95), by Jonathan Downs: It's the most important Egyptian artifact ever discovered — the key to the tale of the astonishing ancient civilization and its many accomplishments.

Egypt has always intrigued. The civilization with its pyramids, monuments, burial practices, pharaohs and deities was a mystery for generations. People wondered at the marvels left behind, but could only guess at the meanings they held.

Already ancient when Greece and Rome flourished, time had blotted out many of the facts about the Egyptian empire in its heyday. So different from the societies that came after it, even the later Egyptian societies, mysteries about the bygone kingdom abounded.

An “antiquary,” a dedicated collector of antiquities, had become more of a professional historical detective by the end of the 1700s, Jonathan Downs points out in “Discovery at Rosetta.” It was a big change from the collection of “curiosities” by earlier Egyptian enthusiasts.

But despite the avid interest, understanding the collections and the strange symbols on them remained only speculation. That changed in 1799, when a unit of French army engineers made a discovery that allowed historians to decipher the ancient writing. The engineers found a chunk of debris that had the key to Egyptian writing chiseled on it — the Rosetta Stone.

Downs has written a straightforward history of Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt, and how that led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, rather than an in-depth study of the stone itself.

As Lt. Pierre Bouchard and his men were working to renovate the outer wall of a 15th-century Ottoman fort, the discovery was made. There are no records of the actual discovery or the exact day, Downs writes. It would be over a month later when a Cairo newspaper would make the first public announcement of the discovery.

But well detailed is the struggle the stone engendered and the many characters connected to it.

The story of how the 1,500-pound Rosetta Stone fell into British hands, the battle over who would be the first to successfully decipher it and how it came to be in the British Museum — where it remains today — makes fascinating reading.