The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele, found 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 hierogl
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 during the early Christian or medieval 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 named 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 language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating among European museums and scholars. British 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.
Study of the decree was already under way when the first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the transliteration of the Egyptian scripts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822 it took longer still before scholars were able to read Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently. Major advances in the decoding were recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text (1799) that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names (1802) that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic (Thomas Young, 1814) and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words (Champollion, 1822–1824).
Ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, a long-running dispute over the relative value of Young and Champollion's contributions to the decipherment and, since 2003, demands for the stone's return to Egypt.
Two other fragmentary copies of the same decree were discovered later, and several similar Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions are now known, including two slightly earlier Ptolemaic decrees (the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV, c. 218 BC). The Rosetta Stone is, therefore, no longer unique, but it was the essential key to modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature and civilisation. The term Rosetta Stone is now used in other contexts as the name for the essential clue to a new field of knowledge.
The Rosetta Stone is listed as "a stone of black granodiorite, bearing three inscriptions ... found at Rosetta" in a contemporary catalogue of the artefacts discovered by the French expedition and surrendered to British troops in 1801. At some period after its arrival in London, the inscriptions on the stone were coloured in white chalk to make them more legible, and the remaining surface was covered with a layer of carnauba wax designed to protect the Rosetta Stone from visitors' fingers. This gave a dark colour to the stone that led to its mistaken identification as black basalt. These additions were removed when the stone was cleaned in 1999, revealing the original dark grey tint of the rock, the sparkle of its crystalline structure, and a pink vein running across the top left corner. Comparisons with the Klemm collection of Egyptian rock samples showed a close resemblance to rock from a small granodiorite quarry at Gebel Tingar on the west bank of the Nile, west of Elephantine in the region of Aswan; the pink vein is typical of granodiorite from this region.
The Rosetta Stone is 1,123 millimetres high at its highest point, 757 mm wide, and 284 mm thick.
It weighs approximately 760 kilogram.
It bears three inscriptions:
- the top register in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs
- the second in the Egyptian Demotic script
- the third in Ancient Greek.
The front surface is polished and the inscriptions lightly incised on it; the sides of the stone are smoothed, but the back is only roughly worked, presumably because this would have not been visible when it was erected.
The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of a larger stele. No additional fragments were found in later searches of the Rosetta site. Owing to its damaged state, none of the three texts is absolutely complete. The top register, composed of Egyptian hieroglyphs, suffered the most damage. Only the last 14 lines of the hieroglyphic text can be seen; all of them are broken on the right side, and 12 of them on the left. The following register of demotic text has survived best; it has 32 lines, of which the first 14 are slightly damaged on the right side. The final register of Greek text contains 54 lines, of which the first 27 survive in full; the rest are increasingly fragmentary due to a diagonal break at the bottom right of the stone.
The full length of the hieroglyphic text and the total size of the original stele, of which the Rosetta Stone is a fragment, can be estimated based on comparable stelae that have survived, including other copies of the same order. The slightly earlier decree of Canopus, erected in 238 BC during the reign of Ptolemy III, is 2,190 millimetres high and 820 mm wide, and contains 36 lines of hieroglyphic text, 73 of demotic text, and 74 of Greek. The texts are of similar length. From such comparisons, it can be estimated that an additional 14 or 15 lines of hieroglyphic inscription are missing from the top register of the Rosetta Stone, amounting to another 300 millimetres. In addition to the inscriptions, there would probably have been a scene depicting the king being presented to the gods, topped with a winged disc, as on the Canopus Stele. These parallels, and a hieroglyphic sign for "stela" on the stone itself,
READING THE ROSETTA STONE
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 specialised 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, found at Philae and known as the Graffito of Esmet-Akhom.
Hieroglyphs retained their pictorial appearance, and classical authors emphasised 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.
Professor Richard Parkinson:
The Rosetta Stone is perhaps the most important archaeological find of all time; it was thanks to it that we understand the language of the hieroglyphs and came to comprehend the ancient Egyptian civilization that lay beyond them.
When the stone was discovered by mistake by Napoleonic forces in 1799, its importance was obvious; with the same text translated into three languages, it offered the chance at last to understand Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. But the cracking of the code was not at all straightforward and it took some of the greatest minds of Europe years before the most widely-anticipated code-breaking of all time was achieved.
Professor Richard Parkinson tells the story of Thomas Young, Jean-Francois Champollion and the other great Egyptologists behind the unlocking of the Stone’s secrets, while also offering us an insight into the story of the Stone itself, from the questionable artifact-handling of the Victorian era through to its place today at the centre of the British Museum and of the world’s consciousness.
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:
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