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This Week In History

Deciphering Rosetta Stone. July 15, 1799.

The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele, rediscovered in the western world in 1799, inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic script and demotic scripts, respectively, while the bottom is in Ancient Greek. As the decree has only minor differences between the three versions, the Rosetta Stone proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, thereby opening a window into ancient Egyptian history.

The stone, carved during the Hellenistic period, is believed to have originally been displayed within a temple, possibly at nearby Sais. It was probably moved in Late Antiquity or during the Mameluk period, and was eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It was rediscovered there in July 1799 by a French soldier, Pierre-François Bouchard, during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. It was the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, and it aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher this previously untranslated hieroglyphic scriptLithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating among European museums and scholarsBritish troops having meanwhile defeated the French, under the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801 the original stone came into British possession and was transported to London. It has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously since 1802 and is the most-visited object there.

Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt inspired a burst of Egyptomania in Europe, and especially France. A corps of 167 technical experts (savants), known as the Commission des Sciences et des Arts, accompanied the French expeditionary army to Egypt. On 15 July 1799, French soldiers were strengthening the defenses of Fort Julien, a couple of miles north-east of the Egyptian port city of Rosetta (modern-day Rashid), when a slab with inscriptions on one side that the soldiers had uncovered was spotted.

The find was announced to Napoleon’s newly founded scientific association in Cairo, the Institut d’Égypte, in a report by Commission member Michel Ange Lancret noting that it contained three inscriptions, the first in hieroglyphs and the third in Greek, and rightly suggesting that the three inscriptions were versions of the same text. Lancret’s report, dated 19 July 1799, was read to a meeting of the Institute soon after 25 July. Bouchard, meanwhile, transported the stone to Cairo for examination by scholars. Napoleon himself inspected what had already begun to be called la Pierre de Rosette, the Rosetta Stone, shortly before his return to France in August 1799.

Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its eventual decipherment, the ancient Egyptian language and script had not been understood since shortly before the fall of the Roman Empire. The usage of the hieroglyphic script had become increasingly specialized even in the later Pharaonic period; by the 4th century AD, few Egyptians were capable of reading them. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in 391 by Roman Emperor Theodosius I; the last known inscription is dated to 24 August 394, known as the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom.

Hieroglyphs retained their pictorial appearance, and classical authors emphasized this aspect, in sharp contrast to the Greek and Roman alphabets. In the 5th century, the priest Horapollo wrote Hieroglyphica, an explanation of almost 200 glyphs. His work was believed to be authoritative, yet it was misleading in many ways, and this and other works were a lasting impediment to the understanding of Egyptian writing. Later attempts at decipherment were made by Arab historians in medieval Egypt during the 9th and 10th centuries. Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya were the first historians to study hieroglyphs, by comparing them to the contemporary Coptic language used by Coptic priests in their time. The study of hieroglyphs continued with fruitless attempts at decipherment by European scholars, notably Johannes Goropius Becanus in the 16th century, Athanasius Kircher in the 17th, and Georg Zoëga in the 18th. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 provided critical missing information, gradually revealed by a succession of scholars, that eventually allowed Jean-François Champollion to solve the puzzle that Kircher had called the riddle of the Sphinx.

Whether one of the three texts was the standard version, from which the other two were originally translated, is a question that has remained controversial. There was an attempt to show in 1841 that the Greek version, the product of the Egyptian government under the Macedonian Ptolemies, was the original. Among recent authors, it has been stated that “the hieroglyphs were the most important of the scripts on the stone: they were there for the gods to read, and the more learned of their priesthood“. It has been also argued that all three versions were composed simultaneously, while some scholars see in the decree “an intricate coalescence of three vital textual traditions”.

The hieroglyphic version strays from archaic formalism and occasionally lapses into language closer to that of the demotic register that the priests more commonly used in everyday life. The fact that the three versions cannot be matched word for word helps to explain why the decipherment has been more difficult than originally expected, especially for those original scholars who were expecting an exact bilingual key to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

 

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