This is a past event. For more events from the Ri, check out What's on

Cracking ancient codes: understanding early writing

Explore how scholars first deciphered the most ancient of scripts with Irving Finkel and Andrew Robinson.

Nicolas Vollmer via Flickr

Event description

Writing is generally agreed to be among the greatest inventions in human history, perhaps the greatest invention, since it made history possible. It seems to have been invented in the late fourth millennium BC in Mesopotamia in the form of wedge-shaped marks pressed into soft clay with a reed stylus: the script known as cuneiform. Very soon afterwards, ancient Egypt developed its own writing: the hieroglyphic script, immortalised in the Rosetta Stone kept in the British Museum, which consists of a single royal edict, dated 196 BC, written in the hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek alphabetic scripts. But although cuneiform and hieroglyphic can today be read by scholars, many of the early inscriptions remain mysterious. How did scholars first decipher these most ancient of scripts? Join Irving Finkel from the British Museum, who through his work on cuneiform has uncovered amazing secrets from over five thousand years ago, including the story behind Noah’s ark. Andrew Robinson will then present the revolutionary life of Jean-François Champollion, the volatile French scholar who decoded Egyptian hieroglyphs using the Rosetta Stone and thereby doubled the historical timespan of Egypt, with crucial help (not always acknowledged by Champollion!) from the researches of a former professor of physics at the Royal Institution: the polymathic Thomas Young, sometimes known as ‘The Last Man Who Knew Everything’.

About the speakers

Irving Finkel is the curator in charge of cuneiform inscriptions on tablets of clay from ancient Mesopotamia, of which the Middle East Department has the largest collection- some 130,000 pieces – of any modern museum. This work involves reading and translating all sorts of inscriptions, sometimes working on ancient archives to identify manuscripts that belong together, or even join to one another. He is the author of The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood.

Andrew Robinson is the author of more than twenty-five books, issued by leading general and academic publishers. They include Cracking the Egyptian Code (a biography of Jean-François Champollion), The Last Man Who Knew Everything (a biography of Thomas Young), and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. A former literary editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, he also writes reviews and features for newspapers, magazines and journals, in both the arts and sciences.


The doors will open at approximately 6.30pm, with a prompt start at 7.00pm.

Latecomers will be admitted to the gallery.


This event will be filmed and on the Ri's YouTube channel within a few months. Subscribe for free to hear when new videos are released.


The theatre is on the first floor and there is step-free access from the street via lift.

The closest underground station is Green Park, which is step-free.

There is space at floor level in the theatre for wheelchair users.

Seating is usually unreserved for our events. If you and your group require seating reservations, please do let us know by email and we’ll be more than happy to help. Email:

Carers can receive a free ticket to an event by emailing

Our theatre is equipped with an Audio Induction Loop.