In a nutshell: Rosetta Stone

When it was discovered in 1799, the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets to the mysterious and unreadable hieroglyphs.

In a nutshell: Rosetta Stone © Getty Images

What is it?

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The Rosetta Stone is a large block of black granite, over 2,000 years old, that was rediscovered in Egypt in 1799. It was a remarkable find as it contains inscriptions that enabled scholars to learn how to read hieroglyphs that were previously indecipherable.

What were its origins?

The Rosetta Stone can be traced back to 332 BC, when the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great conquered Egypt. From then on, Egypt was ruled by a Greek dynasty, the majority of whom – confusingly – were called Ptolemy. In 205 BC, Ptolemy V succeeded to the throne while still a young child. The dynasty’s grip on power was fragile, following the troubled reign of his ineffective father, Ptolemy IV.

Ptolemy V, in order to maintain his rule, had to strike a bargain with Egypt’s priests, who still held a lot of influence in the country. The result of this was a proclamation in 196 BC, written by the priests, that supported the young king’s rule but included several concessions to the priestly class. Versions of this proclamation were installed in several Egyptian temple complexes, one of which survives today as the Rosetta Stone.

Where does the name ‘Rosetta’ come from?
The name relates to its discovery in the Egyptian town of Rosetta (el-Rashid in Arabic) in 1799. A year earlier, Napoleon’s French forces had invaded Egypt, then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, and while working on fortifications, French soldiers discovered the large granite slab covered in inscriptions. As it happened, Napoleon had brought several scholars with him on his Egyptian campaign and they soon realised that the stone was a thing of great value to historians.

They didn’t, however, get a chance to take it back to France as Napoleon’s armies were defeated by British and Ottoman forces in 1801. As a consequence of the French surrender, the Rosetta Stone was transferred to British ownership. The following year, it was moved to the British Museum, where it still remains.

The notebook of Jean-Francois Champollion, one of the chief translators of the Rosetta Stone © Getty Images
The notebook of Jean-Francois Champollion, one of the chief translators of the Rosetta Stone © Getty Images

Why is it such an important artefact?

The text on the Rosetta Stone is fairly dry and bureaucratic but, crucially, it is written in three separate scripts – Classical Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and another written version of Egyptian called demotic. Scholars couldn’t read the mysterious hieroglyphs but by comparing the symbols to the Classical Greek words, which were understood, it became possible to translate the previously unknown languages.

What exactly are hieroglyphs?

Greek for ‘sacred carving’, hieroglyphs – which appear in the form of a series of pictures – are used in an Ancient Egyptian form of writing that originated in around 3000 BC. As they were most often inscribed in Egyptian temples and on monuments, these characters were only really understood by the country’s priests by the time of the Rosetta Stone.

As Christianity began to replace the Egyptian religion from the second century AD, knowledge of hieroglyphics faded until their last use in about AD 400. For the next 1,400 years, nobody knew how to decipher the symbols – until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

How long did it take to understand hieroglyphics?

The Rosetta Stone was the vital key to the puzzle, but not the complete solution. It still took many years, and hours of hard work, before the hieroglyphs could be deciphered. An early breakthrough was made by the English physicist Thomas Young, who established that one group of characters on the stone made up the name Ptolemy.

Young’s work was carried on by the French linguist Jean-François Champollion, who showed that many hieroglyphs represented sounds (like the English alphabet) and were not pictorial versions of words, as had previously been assumed.

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Armed with this knowledge, Champollion made great strides and was able to publish papers from 1822, explaining how hieroglyphics could be read. He had cracked the code that opened a new window into the world of Ancient Egypt.

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of History Revealed.