The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone, a black basalt slab bearing an inscription that was the key to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics and thus to the foundation of modern Egyptology. It was unearthed in July 1799 by Napoleon"s army in Rosetta (Rashid), Egypt.

Its measurements are - 3ft 9in, long and 2ft. 41/2 in wide - (114x72x28cm).

The immediate importance of the Rosetta Stone lay in the fact that the Egyptian hieroglyphic text was accompanied by the Greek translation which could be read. A third inscription on the stone was written in Demotic, a cursive script developed late in Egyptian history and used almost exclusively for secular documents. Thus the stone displayed the same text in three scripts, but only two languages, Egyptian and Greek.

It was quickly discovered that all three contained the same message. The Greek could be translated immediately, so providing clues to the others.

The Rosetta stone is dated to March 196 BC, in the 9th year of Ptolemy V. The background to the setting up of the stela was the confirmation of the control of the Ptolemaic kings over Egypt.

The Ptolemies were Greeks who had been ruling Egypt since the fragmentation of the Empire of Alexander the Great, and while they built temples in the Egyptian style, their lifestyle and language remained exclusively Greek. Egypt had by now become a multi-cultural society, a mixture of Greek and Egyptian, although in many parts of the country the two rarely met.

In the years preceding the setting up of the Rosetta Stone, control of certain parts of Egypt had been lost to the family of the Ptolemies, and it had taken the Ptolemaic armies some time to put down opposition in the Delta; parts of southern Upper Egypt, particularly Thebes, were not yet back in the control of the government. It appears that it was decided that the best way to emphasise the legitimacy of the 13 year old Ptolemy V in the eyes of the Egyptian elite was to re-emphasise his traditional royal credentials with a coronation ceremony in the city of Memphis, and to affirm his royal cult throughout Egypt. This second aim was done through a series of priestly decrees, of which the Rosetta Stone is by far the best-known example. It is a version of the decree issued at the city of Memphis; others include the Canopus decree in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The inscription begins with praise of Ptolemy, and then includes an account of the siege of the city of Lycopolis (a town in the Delta, not identified with certainty), and the good deeds done by the king for the temples. The final part of the text describes the decree"s overriding purpose, the establishment of the cult of the king. For example, it stipulates how the priests shall maintain the cult of the king ("...the priests shall pay homage three times a day..."), how the king"s shrine is to be set up ("...there shall be set upon the shrine the ten gold crowns of the king..."), and days when certain festivals, such as the king"s birthday, shall be celebrated. It ends by saying that it is to be made known that all the men of Egypt should magnify and honour Ptolemy V, and that the text should be set up in hard stone in the three scripts which it still bears today.

The Egyptians had used hieroglyphic script for nearly 3,500 years, from 3100 BC until the end of the fourth century AD. At about the turn of the third century AD the Egyptians began to write their languages in a script composed of the Greek alphabet, to which were added seven characters derived ultimately from hieroglyphs. In this form the languages came to be known as Coptic, no doubt a corruption of the Greek word Aiguptios. Knowledge of how to read and write the hieroglyphic script was probably lost soon after it had been superseded and no key to its meaning was found until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

The deciphering began with the work of the British physicist Thomas Young. He showed that both the demotic and hieroglyphic writing contained both alphabetic and symbolic elements which were closely related.

In 1822 - French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832) - in 1822 - with the aid of the Coptic language (language of the Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians) - succeeded in realizing the phonetic value of the hieroglyphs. This proved the fact that hieroglyphs do not have only symbolic meaning, but that they also served as a "spoken language".

Originally the stone was "souvenired" by one of Napoleon"s troops during one of their rampages across Europe. It was passed down through generations of the soldier"s family as "one of great grandads nick-nacks".

Eventually, it was sold in a junk market, where it was spotted by an Oxford professor of Egyptology who was holidaying in France. He recognized some of the inscriptions on the stone tablet, but not all of them. He showed it to some of his colleagues upon his return, who could recognise some more of the inscriptions, however none could decipher it all.

The Stone remained in the college for many more years until an under graduate student started to examine it, and came to the stunning realisation that the stone contained the same passage written three times in three different languages.

It was an ancient "Code Book".

It is presently in the British Museum, in London.

To view a translation of the text into English click here. 


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