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The Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is one of the famous objects in the British Museum because of its history, mystery and a story more interesting than any fictional adventure story. It’s a story of accidental discovery, warring empires and becoming the lynchpin to deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.

The stone is valuable because it is inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V. The top text is in Ancient Egyptian using the hieroglyphic script, the middle passage is Ancient Egyptian Demotic script, and the bottom is in Ancient Greek. As the decree is the same in all three versions, the Rosetta Stone provided the key to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone was found in the Nile Delta of Egypt, in the town of Rashid, which was called Rosetta by the French and English. The French soldiers who discovered this granodiorite stele were part of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798 – 1801. The Rosetta Stone or stele was found accidentally when a group of French soldiers were ordered to demolish an old wall to make way for extensions to a fort called Fort St Julien.

The stone, carved in black granodiorite, it is now assumed to have been initially displayed in a temple. It was most probably moved from its original place during the early medieval period and was eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien

The French officers, fortunately, recognised the importance of this accidental discovery and the stone was sent to Cairo to be placed in an Institute established by Napoleon. The “Institut d’Égypte” was established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte to research Egyptology during his Egyptian campaign. Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition included scientists, artists and scholars who were keen to discover how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics.  To help them with this endeavour they used the stone as a printing block to make copies which they sent to scholars in Europe to help with the decipherment effort.

In Europe, at this time the English were at war with the French, and so the English started a naval blockade of Napoleon’s Expedition in Egypt which cut off the French forces from their country home base in France. The English army then began to threaten the French troops in Cairo, and the French decided to combine their forces in Alexandria. The French scholars followed the military and relocated the Rosetta Stone and their collection of Egyptian antiquities to Alexandria.

In 1801 under the terms of the “Treaty of Alexandria” the French capitulated, and the Egyptian objects collected by the French, including the Rosetta Stone, became the property of the British Crown and was shipped to England in 1802 and presented to the British Museum.

The Rosetta Stone, at the time, was the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text discovered and it aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher this previously untranslated hieroglyphic language.  The British thus continued the effort to translate the Egyptian hieroglyphics by making lithographic copies and plaster casts of the Rosetta Stone available to universities and scholarly institutions in Europe.

The first full translation of the Greek text was published in 1803. It took 20 years of work and controversy before the interpretation of the Egyptian scripts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822. Champollion eventually formulated a system of grammar for the Ancient Egyptian language and laid the foundations on which our current knowledge is based. The Rosetta Stone played a central role in this complex work effort.

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“Victory belongs to the most persevering.”
– Napoleon


Photo Credit:  1a) © Hans Hillewaert / , via Wikimedia Commons 1b) See page for author [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons