Ancient Egypt exerts a powerful pull on the imagination of every generation, refusing to stay buried in the past.

But much of what we now take for granted about this world of mummies, pyramids and tombs had for centuries remained shrouded in silence until French soldiers stumbled upon a broken slab of an inscribed stone in 1799.

The artifact depicted three different ancient scripts. Found while Napoleon’s army was digging the foundations of a fort in Rosetta, now El-Rashid, Egypt, the stone provided the key to decoding hieroglyphics — the ancient Egyptian writing system — and unleashed the secrets of one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

Back then, no one could read the neat pictures and symbols carved into stone and painted on papyrus scrolls discovered in temples along the Nile — although medieval Arab scholars and Renaissance-era travelers had long found them a source of fascination.

The importance of the engraved slab was immediately recognized, even by the soldiers, Egyptologist Ilona Regulski said. She’s the curator of a new exhibition at The British Museum in London that explores the race to decode the Rosetta stone and celebrates the 200-year anniversary of the breakthrough.