The Joy of Museums

Finding Meaning in a Museum

The Rosetta Stone

Piedra Rosseta

The Rosetta Stone is one of my favourite 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 hieroglyphic script, the middle text 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.

Rosetta Stone. (1874) - TIMEA

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 who discovered this granodiorite stele were part of of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798 – 1801.

Napoleons Campaign in Egypt 1798

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 originally been displayed in a temple. It was most probably moved from its original location 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 was sent to Cairo to be placed in an Institute established by Napoleon.

Francois-Louis-Joseph Watteau 001

The “Institut d’Égypte” was established in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte to carry out research in Egyptology during his Egyptian campaign. Below is a picture taken in 2012 of the “Institut d’Égypte”, Academy of Egypt building that was founded by Napoleon in Cairo.

المجمع العلمي

Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition included scientists, artists and scholars who were keen to discover how to read Egyptian hieroglyphics and 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.

Rosetta Stone

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 its country home base in France. The English army then started to threaten the French forces in Cairo and the French decided to consolidate their forces in Alexandria. The French scholars followed the army 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 decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphics by making lithographic copies and plaster casts of the Rosetta Stone which were sent to universities and scholarly institutions of Europe.

Picture below shows experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the International Congress of Orientalists of 1874.

Rosetta Stone International Congress of Orientalists ILN 1874

The first full translation of the Greek text was published in 1803. It took 20 years of work and controversy before the translation 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.

Controversy

There is a long-running dispute over the relative contributions of Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion’s (pictured below) contributions to the decipherment of the ancient Egyptian text.

Leon Cogniet - Jean-Francois Champollion

Thomas Young (1773 – 1829) was an English polymath and physician, who made a number of first-time insightful innovations in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs based on the Rosetta Stone before Jean-François Champollion eventually expanded on his work.

Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832) was a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, known primarily as the decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and a founding figure in Egyptology.

Repatriation Demands

The most recent controversy dates to 2003 when Egypt first requested the return of the Rosetta Stone. The chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities has formally requested that The Rosetta Stone be repatriated to Egypt.

In general there is strong opposition among most national museums to the repatriation of objects of international cultural significance such as the Rosetta Stone. As well as the British Museum, a number of other museums are facing repatriation demands. The Parthenon Marbles are being claimed from the British Museum and the Louvre by Greece. The Pergamon Altar from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin is being claimed by Turkey. Nigeria has requested the return of The Benin Bronzes from a number of museums. Egypt has made claims for major Ancient Egyptian objects from a number of Museums outside Egypt. A range of Latin American countries have made calls for the return of pre-Columbian objects from  United States’ museums .

Facts:

  • Material:          Black Granodiorite
  • Size:                   1123 mm × 757 mm × 284 mm  or 45 in × 28.5 in × 11 in
  • Writing :           Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs & Demotic script plus Greek script
  • Created:            196 BC
  • Discovered:      1799 at the Nile Delta of Egypt, in the town of Rashid, (Rosetta)
  • Museum:           The British Museum

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“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Mark Twain

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Photo Credit: 1) See page for author [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons 2) By Unknown author [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons 3)  See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 4) By Mohamed Ouda (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 5) François-Louis-Joseph Watteau [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 6) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 7) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 8) Léon Cogniet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons