II. EGYPTIAN SCIENCE

In the previous chapter we have purposely refrained from referring to any particular tribe or race of historical man. Now, however, we are at the beginnings of national existence, and we have to consider the accomplishments of an individual race; or rather, perhaps, of two or more races that occupied successively the same geographical territory. But even now our studies must for a time remain very general; we shall see little or nothing of the deeds of individual scientists in the course of our study of Egyptian culture. We are still, it must be understood, at the beginnings of history; indeed, we must first bridge over the gap from the prehistoric before we may find ourselves fairly on the line of march of historical science.

At the very outset we may well ask what constitutes the distinction between prehistoric and historic epochs —a distinction which has been constantly implied in much that we have said. The reply savors somewhat of vagueness. It is a distinction having to do, not so much with facts of human progress as with our interpretation of these facts. When we speak of the dawn of history we must not be understood to imply that, at the period in question, there was any sudden change in the intellectual status of the human race or in the status of any individual tribe or nation of men. What we mean is that modern knowledge has penetrated the mists of the past for the period we term historical with something more of clearness and precision than it has been able to bring to bear upon yet earlier periods. New accessions of knowledge may thus shift from time to time the bounds of the so-called historical period. The clearest illustration of this is furnished by our interpretation of Egyptian history. Until recently the biblical records of the Hebrew captivity or service, together with the similar account of Josephus, furnished about all that was known of Egyptian history even of so comparatively recent a time as that of Ramses II. (fifteenth century B.C.), and from that period on there was almost a complete gap until the story was taken up by the Greek historians Herodotus and Diodorus. It is true that the king-lists of the Alexandrian historian, Manetho, were all along accessible in somewhat garbled copies. But at best they seemed to supply unintelligible lists of names and dates which no one was disposed to take seriously. That they were, broadly speaking, true historical records, and most important historical records at that, was not recognized by modern scholars until fresh light had been thrown on the subject from altogether new sources.

These new sources of knowledge of ancient history demand a moment's consideration. They are all-important because they have been the means of extending the historical period of Egyptian history (using the word history in the way just explained) by three or four thousand years. As just suggested, that historical period carried the scholarship of the early nineteenth century scarcely beyond the fifteenth century B.C., but to-day's vision extends with tolerable clearness to about the middle of the fifth millennium B.C. This change has been brought about chiefly through study of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. These hieroglyphics constitute, as we now know, a highly developed system of writing; a system that was practised for some thousands of years, but which fell utterly into disuse in the later Roman period, and the knowledge of which passed absolutely from the mind of man. For about two thousand years no one was able to read, with any degree of explicitness, a single character of this strange script, and the idea became prevalent that it did not constitute a real system of writing, but only a more or less barbaric system of religious symbolism. The falsity of this view was shown early in the nineteenth century when Dr. Thomas Young was led, through study of the famous trilingual inscription of the Rosetta stone, to make the first successful attempt at clearing up the mysteries of the hieroglyphics.