The Dendera zodiac is an ancient bas-relief temple ceiling carved with mysterious symbols of stars and planets. During Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (1798-1801), French scientists discovered the zodiac in the ceiling of a small chapel atop a temple outside the town of Dendera, near Thebes. Made of sandstone and weighing many tons, the zodiac excited immense wonder and admiration, for it seemed to open a window onto a civilization of almost immeasurable antiquity.
Vivant Denon, one of the expedition's accompanying artists, sketched the ceiling in situ. He included this sketch in his massively popular 1802 account of the campaign, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte, inflaming the public imagination and attracting as well the suspicions of the Vatican and the French authorities concerning the artifact's religious implications. Heated arguments developed between those who wanted to believe that the ceiling was literally a picture of the sky at the time of the temple's construction and others keen to find a mythological, though not necessarily chronological, significance in the zodiac's symbols. Soon enough, scientists and anti-clerical writers began to claim that the zodiac might have been carved many thousands of years before the Biblical date for the creation of the world.
Although Napoleon never attained his military objectives in Egypt, his scientific project, to catalogue and describe the flora, fauna, and treasures of the country, was more successful. This project culminated with the eventual publication, in twenty-three volumes, of the monumental Description de L'Égypte, a collective effort of hundreds of scholars, editors, engravers, and printers which formed the basis for modern Egyptology. A decade and a half later, in the years following Napoleon's fall, the volumes were finally printed. They contained the many beautiful plates produced using entirely new techniques for color reproduction -- including an elaborate and reputedly highly accurate drawing of the Dendera zodiac.
The drawing was certainly intriguing. But as mere ink on paper, it had only limited power to transform entrenched modes of thinking about matters of such immense religious consequence as ancient chronology. So things stood until 1821, when Jean Lelorrain, engineer and archaeological bounty hunter, traveled up the Nile from Alexandria with orders to remove the zodiac as part of a carefully planned archaeological heist.
On the ground, virtually nothing went according to plan, and Lelorrain was forced to organize an unscheduled archaeological shopping spree in the hopes of throwing his pursuers off the scent. When Lelorrain at last settled in to work, unseating the ceiling proved so difficult that he was obliged to resort to high explosives. The return journey was no less arduous. Lelorrain persevered, however, and the zodiac arrived in Paris in the summer of 1822. Lelorrain's patron, Sebastian Saulnier, a police commissioner under Napoleon who found himself out of work during the Restoration, had hired Lelorrain to remove the zodiac and convey it back to France, where Saulnier hoped to peddle it for a large sum. In his promotional literature, Saulnier presented the Dendera ceiling as another Rosetta Stone, a crowd-pleasing nationalist positioning that played on still-festering anger at the British seizure of the artifact in the aftermath of France's final defeat on the beach at Aboukir.
The ceiling arrived amidst a flurry of publicity that, while largely orchestrated by Saulnier, was further heightened the general French mania for all things Egyptian. The frenzy, which included the staging of a popular vaudeville act about the ceiling, culminated with Louis XVIII's payment of 150,000 francs, an unprecedented sum, for the artifact, which was installed in the Royal Library. Later that summer, the Marquis de Laplace hosted a dinner party attended by many of the brightest stars in the French scientific firmament, including François Arago, Jean-Baptiste Biot, Claude Louise Berthollet, and Joseph Fourier, as well as the English chemist and atomic theorist, John Dalton. Unusually, the evening's conversation had little to do with science; Laplace and his guests talked excitedly about the zodiac instead, discussing various astronomical and mathematical ways to determine its age. Because the restored monarchy was saturated with revived Royalist sentiment and Catholic pageantry, the issue became even more controversial than it had been under Napoleon who, apart from seeking to dampen inconvenient sectarian difficulties, was uninterested in religion.
As arguments about the zodiac's antiquity increased in number and ferocity, a third line of Egyptological discussion was developing, one that focused on the inscriptions found on the Rosetta Stone. At the time of Laplace's dinner party, the hieroglyphic code had not yet been broken, although both the English polymath, physician and Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, Thomas Young, and the young French firebrand Champollion were getting close, each fighting the other in the race to the finish. From the point of view of the debate over the age of the Dendera ceiling, a decipherment could not come fast enough. Without a way to read hieroglyphics, everyone, whether savant or mystic, was free to interpret the arcane symbols, including those found on the Dendera ceiling, in whatever way they wished.
Later that year, the Dendera ceiling provided Champollion with a clue. He decided that the symbols on the ceiling were neither astronomical nor astrological, but referred rather to the nature of the graphic itself. For the symbols on the ceiling were, in Champollion's new word, determinatives -- unvoiced signs that specify what a text or image is about. In the specific case of the Dendera zodiac, the symbols were there to indicate the purpose of the figure, which was to tell the viewer that celestial events guided human destiny. Freed from the obligation to worry about the ceiling's inscriptions, Champollion turned to its surroundings. The drawing published in the Description included the cartouches that had surrounded the ceiling in situ, though Lelorrain's saws and explosives had left them behind. Champollion zeroed in on one of these cartouches, in which he read a Greek word, autocrator, which suggested that the ceiling likely dated to the period of Greco-Roman domination of the 1st century BCE. The ceiling, in other words, was not especially old, and its existence posed no problems for Mosaic chronology. Scientists were not overjoyed to hear this news. The Pope, however, was so grateful to Champollion for saving traditional Biblical chronology that he offered to make the Republican, nonreligious, and very married Champollion a cardinal.
Buchwald, Jed Z. and Diane Greco Josefowicz. The Zodiac of Paris: How an Improbably Controversy over an Ancient Egyptian Artifact Provoked a Modern Debate Between Science and Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.