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The Rosetta Stone: Bringing Ancient Egypt Back to Life

In 1799, French soldiers discovered something that would end up changing humanity’s view of the past and finally unlocked the history of Ancient Egypt. Its discovery made Egyptology a thing and its very name is now used as a term to mean something that can decode the previously incomprehensible. We’re talking of course, about the Rosetta Stone. 

Carved out of a large slab or “stele” of granodiorite in 196 BC, the Rosetta Stone would originally have been about 149cm (58 inches) high. The surviving piece found by the French measures 114cm (45 inches) at its highest point and is 72cm (28 inches) wide. If you’re wondering how its name came about, it was found at a site in Rosetta or modern-day Rashid, in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Napoleon’s army was campaiging in Egypt at the end of the 18th century but it was not going particularly well. While they were working on strengthening a fort in Rosetta, soldiers came upon the piece of stone within the walls, seemingly just having been used as general building material. Spotting the intriguing carvings, Lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard realised that this could be of historical value and the stone was carefully excavated. The French soldiers could immediately see that this was something unusual as the inscriptions were clearly in three different languages.

The first section contained 14 lines of Ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics. The second, most complete, section contained 32 lines of Egyptian demotic script although it was originally thought to be Syriac. The last section was made up of 53 lines of Ancient Greek. It was assumed, correctly, that the three sections were translations of the same text. This is the crux of how the Rosetta Stone became synonymous with translation and unlocking new knowledge as, at that point at the very end of the 18th Century, heiroglyphics were a complete mystery and had not been understood for over a thousand years. Prior to the end of the Pharoanic period, heiroglyphics had been in use for over two thousand years but they gradually became more associated with the rulers and elite of the country so fell out of common usage. After Egypt fell to Rome, the Roman alphabet gradually took over and after a few centuries, knowledge of heiroglyphics had been totally lost. Here, finally, was a chance of working out what all those symbols meant. The stone was sent to Cairo where copies of the text were made and passed around the biggest linguistic brains in Europe to see who could be the first to crack the heiroglyphic code. 

In 1801 and totally going against form, the French finally surrendered to the British and as well as a lot of other loot they’d found in Egypt, they also gave up possession of what was then already known as The Rosetta Stone. By 1802, the Rosetta Stone was in the British Museum where you can still see it today, and more copies of the text had been sent to scholars in Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin. 

Translating the Stone

The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone by Hans Hillewaert
is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The Rosetta Stone had a nice big chunk of Ancient Greek at the bottom which was translatable by nineteenth century scholars. It did take a while for a decent translation to come about, however, as the source text itself was pretty dense and formal and there weren’t many other contemporary sources that had been found yet for comparison. So what was revealed once this section was translated? Well, it was pretty boring, actually. Say the word “decree” and you know you’re going to be in for a world of offical language and legalese. In essence, the text refers to King Ptolemy the Fifth and talks about all the great things he’d done since his coronation the year before. At the end, it also goes on to say that the decree should be disseminated every year and written in “sacred characters” i.e. heiroglyphics that were only really used by the Pharoahs, priests and Egyptian nobility, “native characters” which refers to the Egyptian demotic script in the middle which was a more general usage language at the time, and “Greek characters” which is what the scholars managed to translate first. These decrees were supposed to be set up in temples across the land, meaning that the Rosetta Stone is one of possibly thousands of copies. Other examples of similar decrees have since been found, giving the impression that these stela were the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of a multilingual flyer you would probably put straight in the recycling bin. According to the British Museum, an earlier prototype of the text of the stone has also been found, the only difference between them being the names of the ruler and the dates. This makes it much easier to understand why the stone was found propping up the fort walls: on its own at the time it was not an important object and was of far more use being recycled as building materials.

Translating the Translations

The next step for historians and scholars was to understand the rest of the text on the stone. They knew what it was supposed to say, they just needed to work out how it was saying it. Concurrent with the translation of the Greek text, Johan David Åkerblad and Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy were working on the demotic section. They did fairly well on this, working out a few names and a 29-letter alphabet although not all of the letters turned out to be correct. The rest of the symbols had them stumped, however, and they ended up giving up. Now, enter Thomas Young who, while not managing to crack the code entirely, at least began fashioning the key to the lock. In 1814, he worked out that the demotic script wasn’t totally alphabetical and that some of the characters were symbols, meaning that the text was a mixture of sounds and images. He then turned his attention to the heiroglyphic section of the stone but in a move that almost sent him straight into historical obscurity, he did not twig that the heiroglyphics might also be a mixture of phonetic and symbolic characters. It was not entirely his fault, however. Historians had accepted the fact that heiroglyphics were almost totally symbolic, due to a book by Horapollo from about the 5th century AD. No other evidence had ever contradicted this so using this incorrect assumption as a base for their translations didn’t get anybody very far. Thomas Young did manage to figure out some names from the heiroglyphic section due to them being in “cartouches” or ovals enclosing a set of symbols. He worked out that these were phonetic spellings of, for example, “Ptolemy”. Once again, his brain just failed to make that final leap and he thought that phonetics were only used for names. After that, he couldn’t make any more progress and eventually gave up. 

Finally, after corresponding with Young, comparing texts from other Egyptian sources and noting similarities between Greek names and the same names in heiroglyphics, Egyptophile Jean-Francois Champollion worked out that heiroglyphics were not, in fact, purely symbolic. In a letter to a friend in 1822, he wrote “It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word.” This revelation spurred him on and in about 1824, 25 years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered, scholars finally had a working knowledge of Ancient Egyptian heiroglyphics. Champollion set off to read the inscriptions on the ancient tombs first hand in 1828, confirming and building on his knowledge of heiroglyphics. Although he damaged some tombs himself and even carved his own name onto a pillar in the Karnak complex, the light he shed on the past was enough that he became known as the founding father of Egyptology. 

Rosetta Home

British Museum
British Museum

Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has been kept in the British Museum in London. The museum had to build a whole new gallery to display it since the combined weight of the stone and assorted other Egyptian loot nearly caused the original display room’s floors to collapse. 

The Rosetta Stone has only been moved once since then and that was in 1917 during the First World War. Due to fears about being bombed, the British Museum moved the stone and other assorted important bits and bobs to an underground tube station and it stayed there for two years before being put back on display.

You may also have heard that the stone is a basalt slab. This came about because the museum wanted the public to see and actually touch the stone. The inscriptions were chalked over to really make them pop and a layer of dark wax was put over the stone to protect it. This made it look darker than the granodiorite that it actually was underneath. This coating was eventually cleaned off and the Rosetta Stone now sits in a glass case in the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery alongside sculptures of King Ramesses the Second and King Amenhotep the Third.

Understandably, Egypt has asked for the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone, or at least the chance to borrow it, for many years. The British Museum has given these requests an unequivocal “no”, citing vague reasons such as the worldwide appeal of objects such as this and the fact that it’s basically had it for ages and isn’t going to give it up now. They did send a lovely fibreglass replica to the Rashid National Museum in 2005 but it seems that’s as good as it’s going to get. 

Living up to the idioms it spawned, the Rosetta Stone was what enabled a whole civilization to be rediscovered and understood in its own language, which is not too shabby for what is, in essence, a mass-produced piece of jargon.

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