The stone was discovered at Port Saint Julien, el-Rashid (Rosetta) on the Nile Delta in Egypt in 1799 by Pierre François Xavier Bouchard. Bouchard was an officer of engineers in Napoleon’s army, and he extracted the stone from an old wall which was being demolished as part of the construction work on Fort Julien. Bouchard’s commanding officer, one General Menou, realising its importance, had the stone sent to Alexandria. Casts and copies were made, but the stone was later seized by the British general Tomkins Turner and so the artefact eventually found a permanent home in the British Museum in London.
The stone features a decree issued in 196 B.C. by a group of Egyptian clergy and Egypt’s ruler, Ptolemy V, attesting to his generosity and devoutness. It originally was displayed in a temple, possibly near the ancient town of Sais, then centuries later moved to Rosetta and used in the construction of Fort Julien, where it was eventually uncovered by the French.
The decree on the stone is written in three ways: in hieroglyphics, which was used mainly by priests; in ancient Egyptian demotic, used for everyday purposes; and in ancient Greek. The use of hieroglyphics died out after the 4th century and the writing system became an enigma to scholars.
The text of the stone begins with a lengthy praise of the achievements and good rule of Ptolemy V. We are told the king has brought great prosperity to Egypt and he has invested large sums of money on temples, both building new ones and restoring old ones, and he has provided grain for the people. Taxes have been reduced or eliminated, and many prisoners who were previously considered enemies of the state have been released during his reign. The king has also quashed Egypt’s enemies, and a specific campaign against an enemy fortress is mentioned, the fall of which was due to canals being dammed to block the city’s water supply. To honor all of these deeds, a statue of the king wearing ten gold diadems is to be set up in all temples titled ‘Ptolemy Defender of Egypt’ and attended to by priests three times a day.
The decipherment 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.
In 1821–22 Champollion, starting where Young left off, 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.
The name Rosetta Stone is now applied to just about any type of key used to unlock a mystery. Even more familiar may be a popular series of computer-based language-learning programs using the term Rosetta Stone as a registered trademark. Among its growing list of languages is Arabic, but, alas, no hieroglyphs.
Featured image courtesy of kinetoons, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons