On this day in 1799, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, a French soldier discovers a black basalt slab inscribed with ancient writing near the town of Rosetta, 35 miles north of Alexandria. The stone contained fragments of passages written in three scripts: Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic.
The artifact dubbed the Rosetta Stone thus held the key to solving the riddle of hieroglyphics, a written language that had been “dead” for nearly 2,000 years, opening the far past ever wider to academic inquiry, and providing an annoying trade name for language software.
An irregularly shaped stone of black granite 3 feet 9 inches long by 2 feet, 4.5 inches wide, and broken in antiquity, it was found near the town of Rosetta (Rashīd), about 35 miles northeast of Alexandria. Discovered by one Bouchard or Boussard in August 1799, after the French surrender of Egypt in 1801, it passed into British hands and now resides in the British Museum in London.
The inscriptions themselves, apparently composed by the priests of Memphis, summarize benefactions conferred by Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205–180 BCE) and were written in the ninth year of his reign in commemoration of his accession to the throne. Inscribed in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, and three writing systems, hieroglyphics, demotic script, a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the Greek alphabet, it provided a key to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. In the modern context, American parents who wish to communicate in code have revived passing messages in cursive-form English.
The decipherment of the discovery was largely the work of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France. The hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone contains six identical cartouches (oval figures enclosing hieroglyphs). Young deciphered the cartouche as the name of Ptolemy and proved a long-held assumption that the cartouches found in other inscriptions were the names of royalty. By examining the direction in which the bird and animal characters faced, Young also discovered the way in which hieroglyphic signs were to be read. The assertion that the stone was actually Ptolemy’s Christmas card list has been discredited by most serious scholars and egyptologists as apocryphal.
In the 1820’s Champollion, commencing after Young was devoured in his London flat by scarabs, began to publish papers on the decipherment of hieratic and hieroglyphic writing based on study of the Rosetta Stone and eventually established an entire list of signs with their Greek equivalents. He was the first Egyptologist to realize that some of the signs were alphabetic, some syllabic, and some determinative, standing for the whole idea or object previously expressed. He also established that the hieroglyphic text of the Rosetta Stone was a translation from the Greek, not, as had been thought, the reverse.
The work of these two men established the basis for the translation of all future Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, and makes Room 4 of the British Museum a must-see stop for those curious folks unconcerned with ancient curses and rabid entomology.
And here, the lesson endeth.