Its inscriptions have been barely visible to the naked eye for more than 200 years, but the imposing Philae obelisk that stands on the south lawn at Kingston Lacy House is at last revealing some of its secrets thanks to new advanced imaging technology. And just as the Rosetta stone and the Philae obelisk were instrumental in understanding the hieroglyphic writing system of Ancient Egypt, so their spacefaring namesakes – the Rosetta Mission and its Philae landing craft – are now furthering our knowledge of the formation of the solar system and the origins of life itself.
In the middle of last month, the Philae lander successfully touched down on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, more than 500 million kilometres away, and scientists hope its analysis of the comet’s make up will provide important clues as to how the raw materials for life first arrived on Earth.
Travelling vast distances in the pursuit of learning was something Kingston Lacy’s former owner William John Bankes, the famed early Egyptologist, adventurer and explorer, knew all about.
‘He would have been effervescing to see learned people, real whizzes, gathered at Kingston Lacy to discuss the Philae obelisk and the meanings of its inscriptions,’ says National Trust regional curator James Grassby whose father Richard, an eminent stone cutter, is a research associate at Oxford University’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents.
Its scholars are now studying the findings of Reflectance Transformation Imaging, 3D and multispectral imaging scans of the 6.7 metre tall obelisk in the hope they will be able to read and understand the Greek inscriptions on its base. The writings are thought to date from around 120BC, some 20 years after the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the upper section of the obelisk that first caught the eye of the intrepid Bankes and could provide valuable insights into the relationship between the Greek and Egyptian cultures.
Having discovered a taste for travel while accompanying his student friend Lord Byron on his European tours and serving as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular War, in 1815 at the age of 28 Bankes set out on the first in a series of expeditions to Egypt and the Near East. Over the next four years he amassed a vast trove of notes, manuscripts and drawings of such accuracy that they still stand today as an invaluable record of lost monuments and antiquities.
But it was his discovery and subsequent study of a toppled obelisk at the Temple of Isis on the Isle of Philae in the River Nile during that first expedition that has assured his place in history.
In 1818 Bankes entrusted Italian engineer and former music hall giant Giovanni Belzoni with the removal of the Philae obelisk back to Kingston Lacy where it duly arrived in 1821 and was eventually erected on the south lawn in 1829, making an unusual and grand addition to the statuary in the gardens. However, for John William Bankes it was its potential as a second Rosetta stone that was its principal attraction.
Already a focus for the quest to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics the Rosetta stone had been found in 1799 by a French soldier in Egypt and taken by the British following the surrender of Napoleon’s forces at Alexandria. Like the Philae obelisk it was inscribed in both Egyptian and Greek hieroglyphs and from his knowledge of the latest studies Bankes was able to decipher the name Cleopatra in hieroglyphic form on the obelisk. It proved to be a vital breakthrough in the quest to transliterate the ancient texts that was finally announced by the French philologist Jean-François Champollion in 1822.
Greek had been the language of administration in multi-cultural Egypt since its conquest by Alexander the Great in the third century BC and the obelisk records an exemption granted by King Ptolemy VIII to the Priests of Isis from bearing the expenses of the local administration. Coupled with catering for pilgrims to the tomb of Osiris living at Philae at their expense these costs, according to the Priests’ petition, were financially ruining the temple.
‘The inscriptions on the Philae obelisk are not bilingual,’ explains Charles Crowther, assistant director of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. ‘The hieroglyphs are in pretty good shape and they make the case for tax evasion if you like. The Greek inscriptions have almost disappeared to the naked eye, but we think they are in three sections recording correspondence between the priests at the Temple of Isis and Ptolemy’s officials.
‘After Bankes’s own study of the obelisk and further examination in the 1880s this is the first detailed study of the Philae obelisk for 125 years and we are hoping it will tell us much more about the relationship between the two cultures, Egyptian and Greek, at that time.’
This autumn the obelisk was fully covered by scaffolding as Dr Crowther and his team captured Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and 3D interactive images of its entire surface. A photographic process, RTI can reveal surface information that cannot be seen with the naked eye by capturing a subject’s surface shape and colour and enabling the interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction. While the pink granite of the Philae obelisk has protected the Egyptian hieroglyphs from the extremes of the local weather, it has not been so kind to the shallower inscriptions of the Greek and for the first time since Bankes drew what he could see of them they are to be read again.
‘This is digital archaeology, using the most advanced technologies in their fields to apply to the inscriptions,’ says researcher Ben Altshuler. ‘The 3D images are interactive and can be manipulated very easily to allow us to view them in the round, but the RTI project allows for thorough digital conservation to take place. The spectacular enhancement of the surface enables unprecedented analysis so the data can be stored and shared on a single file with scholars around the world.’
There can be little doubt William John Bankes would have approved. Well educated, rich and reportedly handsome, he was lionized by intellectuals and lauded for his pioneering work in the study of Ancient Egyptian epigraphy. The science of archaeology was in its infancy and while his methods would be at odds with current practice, his passion for recording his finds and chronicling their context were ahead of their time.
However, there is a dark side to his story and in later life he would only be able to officially enjoy his acquisitions from afar following his escape to exile in Venice after a second arrest for indecency. No amount of technology will ever prove or disprove the legend that Bankes made clandestine returns to Kingston Lacy to admire his home and collections, to which he continued to add even while living in exile.
Ten years after the launch of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission to measure comets, on 12 November its Philae lander successfully made the first ever soft – if bumpy – landing on a comet.
During its decade-long journey towards comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the spacecraft passed by two asteroids, in 2008 and 2010, before entering deep-space hibernation mode in June 2011, It ‘woke up’ on 20 January this year and will remain with 67P on its orbit around the sun and back out towards the orbit of Jupiter.
Rosetta has been mapping the comet’s surface, measuring its gravity, mass and shape. From that information scientists have learned it is not spherical as previously thought, but has an irregular shape they have likened to that of a rubber duck.
‘No two comets are the same, but the technology that enables the Greek inscriptions on the Philae obelisk to be read could help us ‘read’ the comet better,’ explains cometary scientist Gerhard Schwehm. ‘By analysing the material in the comet we hope to learn about the evolution of planets in the solar system and ultimately about how life evolved on Earth. If we can understand the history of the particles on the comet, space dust if you like, we may know more about the state of the material that was necessary for life to begin that was brought to Earth four to six billion years ago.’
On board the Philae lander is the UK-led Ptolemy instrument, designed and built by researchers at the Open University, which will analyse ice and organic matter in the comet.
European Space Agency http://www.esa.int/ESA
Rosetta Mission http://sci.esa.int/rosetta/
Philae Lander http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Science/Rosetta/The_Rosetta_lander
• First published in Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine