The Rosetta Stone: How a 2200-year-old stele was used to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script
The Rosetta Stone is an ancient artifact that played a significant role in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, one of the oldest writing systems in the world. It is a fragment of a larger stele dating back to 196 BCE during the reign of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes in ancient Egypt. The stone is named after the town of Rosetta (now Rashid) in Egypt, where it was discovered in 1799 by French soldiers during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798-1801).
The Rosetta Stone is written in three scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian Demotic script, and Greek. The significance of the stone lies in the fact that it provided a key to understanding the hieroglyphic script, which in turn allowed Egyptologists and scholars advance their existing knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture and civilization in general.
At the time of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, hieroglyphs were undecipherable, but since the Greek portion of the stone could be read, it became the key to unlocking the mystery of the Egyptian writing system.
The stone was eventually acquired by the British and has been on display at the British Museum in London since 1802. Its discovery and subsequent decipherment by scholars, most notably Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), a French philologist and Orientalist, revolutionized the field of Egyptology and opened up a wealth of knowledge about ancient Egyptian history, culture, and language.
The Rosetta Stone remains an iconic artifact and a symbol of the quest for understanding long and varied history of ancient Egyptian civilization.
Fast Facts: Rosetta Stone
Material of the stone: Granodiorite
Size: around 1,123 by 757 by 284 millimeters (44.2 in × 29.8 in × 11.2 in)
Writing: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Greek script
Created: 196 BC in honor of the Ptolemaic ruler Ptolemy V Epiphanes
Discovered by: French lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard
Present location: British Museum
Weight: 760 kilograms (1,680 Ib)
The Rosetta Stone and Fort Julien
Often times the question asked is: How did the Rosetta Stone get to be rediscovered? As stated above, the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered near Fort Julien on the bank of the Nile in 1799.
The rediscovery happened on July 15, 1799 during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt (1798-1801). The stone was found when French soldiers, led by Colonel d’Hautpoul, were busily strengthening the defences of Fort Julian, a few miles of the city of Rosetta (today’s Rashid) on the Nile Delta region. The soldiers were preparing for the land Battle of Abuqir against the Ottoman Empire.
One of the French soldiers by the name of Lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard discovered a black basalt slab with inscriptions on it, which turned out to be the Rosetta Stone.
After Bouchard and d’Hautpaul informed their superiors about their discovery, the stone was then taken to the French Institute (the Institut d’Égypte) in Cairo, where scholars and experts recognized its potential significance.
Early deciphering and analysis of the Rosetta Stone
When the Rosetta Stone was found, French general and later emperor Napoleon Bonaparte himself inspected the ancient Egyptian stele. The general inspected the stele before his return to France in August 1799. At the time, the French called the stone la Pierre de Rosette (The Rosetta Stone).
In France, the startling discovery was reported in Courrier de l’Égypte, the official newspaper of the French expedition.
The first person to correctly claim that the middle text on the Rosetta Stone was Egyptian demotic script was French linguist and engineer Jean-Joesph Marcel. Prior to that it was believed that the script was the Syriac language.
Led by French engineer Michel Ange Lancret, they realized that the stone contained inscriptions in three scripts: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script (a simplified form of Egyptian hieroglyphs used for everyday purposes), and Greek. Subsequently a number of reproductions and printings of the stone were made. Those prints were then taken to France for further deciphering and analysis of the texts on the Rosetta Stone.
This provided a unique opportunity to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had been a mystery for centuries.
Deciphering the Rosetta Stone – how the so-called “riddle of the Sphinx” was solved
It is a known fact that between the time of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in the late 18th century, there was hardly any known scholar who could read either Egyptian hieroglyphic script or Demotic script. By the 4th century AD, almost all priests in Roman Egypt had died out, and their temples had either been destroyed or converted to Christian places of worship. Scholars note that the last known hieroglyphic inscription was made in 394, and the last known demotic text was made in 452.
Therefore, the Rosetta Stone made its way to London in 1802, scholars found themselves in a very difficult situation trying to decipher the texts on the stone. They had just the 5th-century work of a priest called Horapollo – i.e. the treatise titled Hieroglyphica – which was not only scanty as it provided just 200 glyphs but also a bit misleading in a number of ways. Those were just some of the few barriers to scholars’ attempt at understanding hieroglyphics properly. The problem was even termed as the “riddle of the Sphinx” by German scholar Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).
Even when it came to translating the ancient Greek texts at the bottom of the Rosetta Stone, scholars still had problems as the Greek texts contained quite a lot of administrative and religious terms that the scholars were not familiar with.
Some of the few scholars that made headway with the translation of the Greek text were German scholar Christian Gottlob Heyne, English scholar Stephen Weston and French historians Gabriel de La Porte du Theil and Hubert-Pascal Ameilhon. Ameilhon was the first to make a publication (in 1803) of the translations of the Greek text.
Regarding the Demotic text and its translation, scholars like Swedish scolar Johan David Åkerblad and French Orientalist Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy contributed a bit to deciphering the names in the demotic texts.
For the hieroglyphic texts, British polymath Thomas Young, who was also the foreign secretary of the Royal Soceity of London, began works on the deciphering. Young found more than 76 similarities between the demotic and hieroglyphic texts on the Rosetta Stone. This led scholars to reason that the two texts were actually similar.
The biggest breakthrough came when Jean-François Champollion, a French philologist and Orientalist, began working on the task after his correspondence with Young. Champollion was able to find the phonetic characters of some of the Egyptian rulers’ names, including Cleopatra. He would go on to develop an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters and then publish the work on September 14, 1822. A few days later, on September 27, Champollion announced his findings at a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.
The sudden death of Champollion in 1832 caused progress on the decipherment to stall as many of his draft works were lost. However, it was latter found that those draft works were in the possession of Francesco Salvolini, an Egyptologist and assistant of Champollion. It turns out that Salvolini was passing off the work of his master as his own work. This revelation was made when Salvolini died in 1838 and Champollion’s draft works were found among Salvolini’s papers.
With the draft works of Champollion, French Classical scholar Antoine-Jean Letronne was able to further advance the translation of the Greek text. Letronne’s translations to French was published in 1841.
Jean-François Champollion’s Lettre à M. Dacier
Champollion’s “Lettre à M. Dacier,” also known as the “Letter to Monsieur Dacier,” is a significant document in the field of Egyptology. It was written by the French scholar Jean-François Champollion and addressed to Bon-Joseph Dacier, the Secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in France. The letter was published in 1822 and presented Champollion’s groundbreaking findings on the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In the letter, Champollion outlined his decipherment method and presented evidence that the hieroglyphic script contained both phonetic and ideographic elements. He discussed how he used the Rosetta Stone, along with other inscriptions and texts, to identify and understand the phonetic values of hieroglyphic signs. Champollion’s key breakthrough came when he successfully linked the hieroglyphs to the Coptic language, which provided him with a starting point for deciphering the ancient Egyptian script.
Champollion’s “Lettre à M. Dacier” marked a significant milestone in the study of ancient Egypt and the decipherment of hieroglyphs. It laid the foundation for future research and scholarship in Egyptology and opened up a new understanding of ancient Egyptian history, culture, and language. Champollion’s work revolutionized the field and established him as one of the pioneering figures in the decipherment of hieroglyphic writing.
Importance of the hieroglyphic texts on the Rosetta Stone
As the ancient Egyptians considered hieroglyphs the language of the gods, it is not improbable that that particular text was filled with very rich details. This point is confirmed by modern day scholars like British Egyptologist John David Ray.
The three texts on the Rosetta Stone, although talking about almost the same topics, cannot be matched word for word. This fact makes the decipherment and full understanding of the Rosetta Stone very difficult to come by.
Why hasn’t the Rosetta Stone been returned to Egypt?
Calls for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt began ramping up around the early 2000s, when Zahi Hawass, then Secretary-General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities made an appeal to the British government to return the priceless artifact back to its country of origin, Egypt.
A number of scholars, especially those from Egypt, have supported the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. It is argued that the stele symbolizes the culture and heritage of the Egyptians.
Even requests for loaning the Rosetta Stone to Egypt has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the British Museum is worried that once the stone returns to Egypt, it might never leave the shores of Egypt.
The British Museum has repeatedly argued that the artifacts in its possession are meant to serve not just Britain but the people of every nation. They also state that those artifacts must be viewed not from the lenses of the 21st century but instead from the perspective and sensitivities of the era in which they were acquired.
Thus, the Rosetta Stone is just one of many priceless cultural artifacts scattered all over world in museums. Some of those notable artifacts include: the Dendera Temple Zodiac (in the Louvre, Paris), the bust of Ankhhaf (in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.), and the bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti (in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, Germany).
Replicas of the Rosetta Stone
The British government and the British Museum have both been reluctant to solve the issue. In 2005, the British Museum, perhaps wanting to appease the Egyptians, sent a full-sized fiberglass color-matched replica of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. The replica was placed in Rashid, Egypt.
Another famous replica of the Rosetta Stone can be found in the King’s Library of the British Museum in London.
The Rosetta Stone is fragment of a larger stele
Unbeknownst to many people, the famous Rosetta Stone is just a fragment of an even larger ancient Egyptian stele. So, how do we know this?
For starters, archeologists and researchers, as of 2022, are yet to find any additional fragments of the stele at the site where the Rosetta Stone was discovered. The incomplete texts on the stone as a result of the damaged parts make us reason that the stone was part of a larger stele. None of the three texts on the stone is complete.
And of the three texts, the Egyptian hieroglyphs is the one that endured the most damage as only the last 14 lines of the original hieroglyphs survived. Making matters worse, the right side of all those 14 lines got broken off. Furthermore, only 2 of those 14 lines remain intact on the left side.
The middle part of the Rosetta Stone contains the Demotic text, which has 32 lines. Of those 32 lines, 14 suffered damage on the right side.
At the bottom, which contains the Ancient Greek script, there are 54 lines; and of those lines, only 27 are complete, with the rest having one form of damage or the other as a result of a diagonal damage at the bottom right of the stele.
Experts have compared the Rosetta Stone to its contemporaries from the Ptolemaic dynasty and come out with a possible figure for the size of the original stele. For example, the decree of Canopus, which was created in 238 BC and then discovered in 1866 at Tanis (San al-Hagar), Egypt, measures at 2190 centimeters (7.19 ft.) high and 82 centimeters (32 in) wide. That particular stele contains a total of 183 lines, including 36 lines of hieroglyphic text, 73 of Demotic text, and 74 pf Greek text.
Those figures mean that between 2-3 ft of the height of the original Rosetta Stone was damaged, while the width is missing about 63 mm of the width is missing. By comparing the Rosetta Stone to the decree of Canopus, it also means that about 83 lines are missing from the Rosetta Stone, including between 13 and 15 lines of hieroglyphic inscription at the top.
Experts have also theorized that the original stele of the Rosetta Stone probably came with some kind of depictions of the Ptolemaic ruler of the time, or even a depiction of an ancient Egyptian deity with all the usual decorations like the ankh and winged disc symbols. The Canopus Stele (from the year 238 BC) contains some of those depictions; so, it won’t be improbable that the larger stele of the Rosetta wouldn’t have contained those things.
Granodiorite – What the Rosetta Stone made from
The Rosetta Stone is made from a slab of granodiorite. Known as a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock, granodiorite has more than 20% quartz in term of volume. Between 64% and 85% of its feldspar is plagioclase. Granodiorite is often said to be similar to granite, however it contains more plagioclase feldspar than orthoclase feldspar. The material’s name is said to have come the similarities it has with two rocks – granite and diorite. As a result, it was named as an intermediate between granite and diorite.
Black granodiorite is a type of rock that belongs to the granodiorite family. Granodiorite is an intrusive igneous rock that is composed mainly of plagioclase feldspar, quartz, and a smaller amount of biotite or amphibole minerals. It is similar to granite in composition but has a higher percentage of plagioclase feldspar relative to alkali feldspar.
Black granodiorite, as the name suggests, has a predominantly black or dark gray color due to the abundance of dark-colored minerals such as biotite or amphibole. The specific mineral composition and texture of black granodiorite can vary, resulting in different patterns and appearances. It is commonly used in construction, architecture, and as a decorative stone due to its durability and attractive appearance.
Dimensions and weight of the Rosetta Stone
It is a dense and durable material, which made it suitable for inscribing texts. The stone measures approximately 114.4 centimeters (45 inches) in height, 72.3 centimeters (28.5 inches) in width, and 27.9 centimeters (11 inches) in thickness.
The weight of the Rosetta stone is about 760 kilograms (around 1,680 lb).
Nature of the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone
The inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone were carved into its surface, and it has a distinctive trilingual text in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek scripts.
The hieroglyphic scripts of the Rosetta Stone appear on top. The Demotic and ancient Greek scripts then follow at the middle and the bottom, respectively.
The number of lines of the hieroglyphic scripts is 14. The Demotic text and Greek text have 32 and 54, respectively. It means that total number of surviving lines on the Rosetta Stone is 100.
It has been found out that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone were lightly incised on the surface, whose front was polished properly.
The makers of the Rosetta Stone also had the sides of the stone smoothed, while the back of the stone was left rough.
Rosetta – where the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered in 1799
Rosetta is a city located in the Nile Delta region of Egypt. It is situated on the western bank of the Rosetta branch of the Nile River, approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Alexandria. The city is also known by its Arabic name, Rashid.
Said to have been founded around the 9th century on the site of the ancient town Bolbitine, the city of Rosetta itself has a long history dating back to ancient times, with archaeological evidence indicating human settlements as early as the Predynastic period of Egypt. Throughout history, Rosetta was a prominent center of trade and commerce, particularly during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The city’s location on the Nile River made it an important port and a gateway to the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, Rosetta is a vibrant city with a mix of modern and historical elements. It attracts visitors who are interested in exploring its rich history, visiting its museums and archaeological sites, and enjoying the picturesque views of the Nile Delta.
How did the Rosetta Stone come into the possession of the British Museum?
In late August 1801, the French surrendered Egypt to the British, and as part of the surrender agreement, the Rosetta Stone, along with a number of French archeological and scientific discoveries in Egypt, was handed over to the British forces.
At first the commander of the French expedition, General Jacques-François Menou, refused to hand those French archeological findings to the British forces. The French general insisted that those findings belonged to the Institut d’Égypte.
Therefore, British commander, General John Hely-Hutchinson, refused to end the siege of Alexandria until the French surrendered those scientific discoveries. Upon the French surrender and the subsequent agreement of the surrender (i.e. the Capitulation of Alexandria in August 1801), those items taken from the French became the property of the British Crown.
In February 1802, the stone was then transported to England by Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner aboard a captured French frigate called the HMS Égyptienne.
On the orders of then-War Secretary Lord Hobart, the stone was placed as part of the collections of the British Museum in London, where it remains on display to this day.
Under the guidance of Turner and the scholars at the Society of Antiquaries of London, a number of plaster casts of the inscriptions were made. Those casts were then distributed among European scholars in order to fast track the decipherment of the texts.
Importance of the three languages used on the Rosetta Stone
As stated above, the languages used on the Rosetta Stone were three – Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. In the Ptolemaic era, it was often seen that hieroglyphics were the “language of the gods”; Demotic were the “language of documents”; and ancient Greek was kind of the language of the Ptolemaic rulers.
Who was Ptolemy V Epiphanes?
The decree contained on the Rosetta Stone is known as the Decree of Memphis. It was issued in 196 BCE by King Ptolemy V Epiphanes Eucharistos, who ruled over Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty from 204 BC to 180 BC.
Ptolemy V succeeded to the around the age of five after both his parents – Ptolemy V Philopator (reign: 221-204 BC) and Arsinoe III Philopator (220-204 BC) – die in very bizzare circumstances in 204 BC. It is said that Ptolemy V’s parents were probably murdered in a conspiracy orchestrated by Agathoclea, a noblewoman and one of the main mistresses of his father.
His predecessor was his father Ptolemy IV. During his minority years (from 204 BC to 196 BC), he had quite a number of regents, including Agathocles, a senior minister who was very much hated by the people. Agathocles was also a sister of Agathoclea. The two siblings and their associates effectively ruled Egypt until public outrage caused a general by the name of Tlepolemus to remove Agathoclea from power. Agathocles, his sister and friends that were involved in the murder of the previous Ptolemaic rulers were condemned to death. After the purging of those conspirators, Tlepolemus was chosen as the guardian of the young Ptolemy V.
During his Ptolemy V’s reign, the Egyptian ruler had to contend with aggressive moves from other neighboring Hellenistic kingdoms and rulers – including Antiochus III the Great (reign: 222 BC – 187 BC) of the Seleucid Empire and Philip V of Macedon (reign: 221-179 BC). Those Hellenistic kingdoms were hoping to take advantage of the political turmoil in Ptolemaic Egypt as well as the minority years of Ptolemy V.
Thus, Philip V of Macedon and Antiochus III hoped to grab some of the overseas territories of the Ptolemies. The former, for example, seized Ptolemaic territories such as Caria and Thrace, while the latter helped himself to Coele-Syria after defeating the Ptolemies at the Battle of Panium (198 BC).
The young Ptolemy V also had to deal with an unpleasant situation in the south of his kingdom. A fierce revolt, which began around the later reign of Ptolemy IV, had devolved into something very difficult for the young Egyptian king do handle.
The rebellion was led by a nobleman in the south (i.e. Upper Egypt) called Horwennefer, who tried to break Upper Egypt from the rule of the Ptolemies in Lower Egypt. Horwennefer’s secession activities were continued by his successor Ankhwennefer. The rebellious reign of both Horwennefer and Ankhwennefer lasted from around 205 BC to 186 BC.
At the time that Ptolemy V was crowned (in 196 BC) king of Egypt, he was around the age of 12. The Rosetta Stele which was made that year was therefore aimed at symbolizing the end of the Egyptian ruler’s minority years.
The decree contained on the Rosetta Stone
The decree contained on the Rosetta Stone was used to commemorate the crowning of Ptolemy V in 196 BC, when the young Ptolemaic ruler came of age. The coronation ceremony was held in Memphis. 196 BC was stated as the ninth reign of Ptolemy V.
The essence of the decree was aimed at establishing the divine cult of the new Ptolemaic ruler. In the broader context of things, it was designed to re-establish the Ptolemaic dynasty’s rule over Egypt.
Issued by a panel of high-ranking priests in Memphis, the decree was written in three scripts: hieroglyphic (used for religious and formal texts), demotic (a simplified script used for everyday purposes), and Greek (the language of the ruling elite).
The decree itself is a royal proclamation affirming the divine cult of Ptolemy V and granting various privileges and honors to the priests of the Egyptian temples. It also declares tax exemptions and the cancellation of debts owed to the state. The purpose of the decree was to consolidate the king’s power and gain the support of the influential Egyptian priesthood.
Importance of the Rosetta Stone in ancient Egypt
The rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone was a pivotal moment in the study of ancient Egyptian history and language. It provided the key needed to decipher the hieroglyphic script and unlock the secrets of ancient Egypt’s written records.
The stone’s inscription (known as the “decree of Memphis and Ptolemy V”) became a valuable resource for scholars and Egyptologists in their efforts to understand and translate ancient Egyptian texts.
Other interesting facts about the Rosetta Stone
- Initially, it was proposed that the Rosetta Stone be presented to King George III upon its arrival in London.
- The Rosetta Stone has remained one of the most-visited single object of the British Museum for many centuries. Many merchandises related to the stone are sold by the museum every year as well.
- Owing to concerns that bombings during World War I (WWI) could damage the Rosetta Stone, British Museum officials in 1917 moved the stone, along with other priceless artifacts, to different location for safe keeping. Thus, between 1917 and 1919, the stone was placed in an underground storage – a station of the Postal Tube Railway at Mount Pleasant near Holborn in central London.
- As of 2023, the Rosetta Stone has left the British Museum only once during peacetime. That time was in October 1972 when it was displayed at the Louvre in Paris, France.
- The phrase “Rosetta Stone” first entered the English dictionary (i.e. the Oxford English Dictionary) in the early 1930s, when it was used to mean a first critical point in the decryption of an encoded information. Similarly, the phrase was used in “The Shape of Things to Come”, a 1933 novel by English writer H.G. Wells. It was also used by German physicist Theodor Wolfgang Hänsch in a 1979 spectroscopy article published in the science magazine Scientific American (SciAm).
- The Rosetta spacecraft was built in 2004 by the European Space Agency. The spacecraft contained a space probe built to study the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P). The mission came to an end on September 30, 2016 when it was crash-landed at a site called Sais, Ma’at.
- The Rosetta Stone is not the only Ptolemaic-era decree discovered so far. Scholars and archeologists have even unearthed Ptolemaic-era stele containing Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions. There are also stelae that predate the Rosetta Stone. Some examples of those earlier Ptolemaic decrees include: the Decree of Alexandria in 243 BC, the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV around 218 BC.
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