MONMOUTH, Ill. — During the 1950s, a Monmouth College custodian showed Bible professor Charles Speel chunks of plaster inscribed with Greek letters, located under the basement stairs in Austin Hall. After taking the fragments to his classroom, where students helped piece them together, Speel also noticed Egyptian hieroglyphics on the relic, and contacted Harold Ralston of the classics department. Together they found a notation in an 1882 Monmouth Collegian that a cast of the Stone of Canopus had been presented to Monmouth College a decade earlier.
An article in an 1873 Scribner’s Magazine told the story. Created during the reign of Ptolemy III in 238 B.C., the stone contained a decree by high priests in two languages that among other things specified a correction to the Egyptian calendar. The decree called for the addition of a leap year every four years — an idea that wouldn’t be practically embraced until 200 years later under Augustus Caesar.
Carved in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and — on its side — a script used by Egyptian priests called Demotic text, the stone was discovered in 1866 by a team of German archaeologists on a temple wall at Tanis, an ancient city which dated to the reign of Rameses II. Engraved 40 years prior to the celebrated Rosetta Stone (which had been discovered 38 years previously), the Canopus Stone contained a complete and far more extensive comparison of ancient languages, and thus became the real key to unlocking the mysterious hieroglyphic alphabet.
The original “Stele of Canopus” or “Tanis Stone,” 7-feet-4-inches in height, was retained by the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, but casts of it were made for the Royal Museum of Berlin, the British Museum and Monmouth College. The latter cast was made at the request of the Egyptian khedive, Ismael Pasha, on behalf of the Rev. Gulian Lansing, a well-known American missionary in Egypt. Lansing had come to Cairo in 1857 and established a large Presbyterian mission, where he successfully taught peasant children to read and write. This feat so impressed the khedive that he invited Lansing to be his assistant in developing a nationwide system of public education. The two became good friends.
Also assisting in arranging for Monmouth’s cast was Col. George H. Butler, America’s consul general to Egypt.
But why a copy for Monmouth College? In 1865, the Rev. John B. Dales of Philadelphia, who served as corresponding secretary for the Presbyterian Board of Missions, had nominated Lansing to receive an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Monmouth College. Dales was the brother of Sarah B. Dales, the first unmarried female Presbyterian missionary in the Middle East, who had begun her work in Syria before transferring to Cairo, where she worked with Lansing at the mission.
The Monmouth College Senate concurred with Dales’ recommendation and the college awarded Lansing the degree, in absentia, at the 1865 commencement exercises. As fate would have it, Lansing’s wife and missionary partner, Maria, died of cholera that same year. The following year, Lansing married Sarah Dales, the sister of his nominator.
The plaster cast for Monmouth was originally shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, which had received permission from college president David A. Wallace to make its own copy, as well as a matrix that could be used for additional copies. However, when it arrived in early 1871 it was broken due to improper packing, and museum modelers repaired it the best they could. Although the Smithsonian ordered and received a new, pristine cast in 1873, it appears that Monmouth received the original, repaired version, as it was already listed as being on display in Monmouth’s 1871 catalog.
Lansing and his second wife visited Monmouth in November 1873, where they spoke to classes at Monmouth College, and delivered missionary addresses at Second U.P. Church, Sugar Tree Grove Church and the U.P. Church of Little York. It’s possible that they also presented to Monmouth College at that time an 18th-century handwritten copy of the Koran copied by a monk in Cairo. The book is currently in the collection of the college’s Hewes Library.
The Tanis stone was placed in a museum on the third floor of the Monmouth’s “Old Main.” Known as the College Cabinet, the museum was a collection of curiosities that included ancient coins, manuscripts, a rhinoceros horn, an ostrich egg, a banyan root and Chinese artifacts.
When Old Main burned in 1907, the plaster slab fell three stories to the basement and shattered. These were the pieces found by Professor Speel in the 1950s. The twice-broken and twice-repaired cast remained on a table in Speel’s classroom for several years. After students carelessly placed books and coats on top of it, Speel sought out physical plant director Dean St. Ledger, who had a wooden case made with a lockable glass door.
In 1997, the case was moved to Hewes Library, where in 2001 a previously unidentified piece of the Canopus Stone was also discovered. A missing upper section containing most of the hieroglyphs has yet to be located.
Before his death in 2000, Speel made attempts to contact the Smithsonian about Monmouth obtaining a new cast of the stone. Perhaps one day that can be accomplished and the favor granted to the Smithsonian by President Wallace in 1871 can be returned.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.