Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone helped to solve the mystery of hieroglyphics.

Visual Arts

Keywords

Rosette, hieroglyph, demotic, stele, Champollion, Bouchard, Thomas Young, Ptolemy V, archeology, British Museum, archeologist, artifact, tablets of stone, ancient Greek, antiquity, ancient, writing, pharaoh, dynasty, history, church, transmitter, mystery

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The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of an ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele. It is 112.3 cm (44.21 in) long, 75.7 cm (29.8 in) wide and 28.4 cm (11.18 in) thick. It contains a decree carved in two languages (Egyptian and ancient Greek) in three different scripts: the upper 14 lines are in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the middle 32 lines are in Egyptian demotic script, and the lower 54 lines are in Greek.

The stele was found on July 15, 1799 near the town of Rashid (then known as Rosetta) by Pierre-François Bouchard, a French army officer, who was in charge of rebuilding Fort Julien during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. When the importance of the stone turned out, it was sent to Alexandria. Soon the British took possession of it when they defeated the French in Egypt. It has been on display in the British Museum in London since 1802.

The Rosetta Stone is an extremely important find, as it was the key that helped to decipher hieroglyphs and thereby brought about a revolution in Egyptology.

Deciphering hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphic writing was used only in exceptional cases in Roman Egypt, there were very few people who could read hieroglyphs. However, as hieroglyphic writing was consigned to oblivion, deciphering this writing system became an intriguing challenge to people. For centuries, scholars have been trying to break the code of hieroglyphs but most of their attempts were in vain. These eager linguists were often misled by false assumptions.

However, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone provided an excellent opportunity to solve the mystery of hieroglyphics. The first notable results were achieved by an English polymath, Thomas Young, who compared the hieroglyphic and demotic script. He was the first person to identify the name of the pharaoh Ptolemy in these texts.

Based on Young's research, a French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, managed to decipher the entire demotic text. This proved to be the key in deciphering the hieroglyphs. By comparing the two texts, he realized that hieroglyphs were not simply ideograms, that is, pictures representing ideas, but they could stand for syllables or sounds too. He relied mostly on comparing the names of rulers (the groups of hieroglyphs enclosed by cartouches, that is, oval frames) and identified which sounds are represented by the different symbols. Champollion also identified several determinatives, which were not actual sounds that could be pronounced, but helped in the interpretation of hieroglyphs. These symbols helped to distinguish words with the same spelling but different meaning.
He presented his groundbreaking work to the French Academy of Sciences in 1822 and provided the key to the grammatical system.

Reconstruction

The stele was created in 196 B.C. and it contains a decree which was issued in Memphis by a congress of priests on behalf of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, who ruled between 204 B.C. and 181 (or 180) B.C.

In the decree, Ptolemy V ordered the abolishment of taxes and the erection of statues in temples, establishing his own royal cult. He also had the decree inscribed in the "language of the gods" (Egyptian, with hieroglyphs), the "language of documents" (Egyptian, with demotic script), and the "language of the Greeks."

This stele was not unique though. During the reign of the Ptolemaic dynasty, the decrees of pharaohs were inscribed with three scripts: hieroglyphic, which was used by priests; demotic, which was used for daily purposes; and also in Greek, which was the language used in the administration. The latter may have become widespread because of the origins of the reigning dynasty.

There were probably several copies of this stele. The only surviving copy was probably erected in a temple, and it may have reached the Nile Delta by boat in the Middle Ages as a building block. It was probably damaged during this voyage, and that is why neither of the three texts is complete. There are about 14-15 lines missing from the top of the hieroglyphic text.

Narration

The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of an ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele. It was discovered on July 15, 1799 by a French soldier in the Nile Delta, near the town of Rashid. Soon after the discovery, the British took possession of it, and it has been on display in the British Museum in London since 1802.

The stele contains a decree carved in two languages and in three different scripts: the upper 14 lines are in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the middle 32 lines are in Egyptian demotic script, and the lower 54 lines are in Greek.

The Rosetta Stone was an extremely important find, as it was the key that helped to decipher hieroglyphs and thereby brought about a revolution in Egyptology.

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