The Discovery and Decipherment of the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

by Adrienne Naquin

Figure 1. The Rosetta Stone

Located in a display case on the ground floor of the British Museum in London, usually surrounded by a crowd of people, is a large slab of black basalt known as the Rosetta Stone (figure 1). It is the main focus of the museum's Egyptian collection and is viewed by millions of visitors each year (Edwardes). This stone weighs three quarters of a ton and is 114.4 cm in height, 72.3 cm in length, and 27.9 cm in width ("The Rosetta Stone"). It is partly damaged, with a large part of the upper left-hand corner and a smaller part of its lower right corner missing (Sewell). On its face three different forms of writing are inscribed. It is the three inscriptions that make this object so important because it was the decipherment of these texts that was essential for the translation of hieroglyphics.

Figure 2, 3. Detail of Hieroglyphic Script; Detail of Greek Inscription.

The Rosetta Stone is now known to have been a commemorative stela, or decorated slab, originally from an Egyptian temple (Sandison 19). The inscriptions, which date back to 196 B.C., are decrees passed by a council of priests in Memphis. The passages summarize the glories of the rule of Ptolemy V Epiphanes who ruled from 205-180 B.C. The decree is inscribed on the stone three times: in hieroglyphic, the sacred characters of the priesthood; demotic, the script used daily by Egyptians; and Greek, the administrative language (figures 2 and 3). It begins by praising Ptolemy and then includes an account of the siege of Lycopolis, a town in the Delta. It also includes a litany of the good deeds the king had performed at the Egyptian temples. The final part of the text describes the cult of the king, which is the decree's main message:

...King PTOLEMY, THE EVER-LIVING, THE BELOVED OF PTAH, THE GOD EPIPHANES EUCHARISTOS, likewise those of his parents the Gods Philopatores, and of his ancestors, the Gods Euergetai and the Gods Adelphoi and the Gods Soteres and to set up in the most prominent place of every temple an image of the EVER-LIVING King PTOLEMY, THE BELOVED OF PTAH, THE GOD EPIPHANES EUCHARISTOS, an image which shall be called that of 'PTOLEMY, the defender of Egypt', beside which will stand the principal god of the temple, handing him the weapon of victory, all of which shall be manufactured (in the Egyptian) fashion; and that the priests shall pay homage to the images three times a day, and put upon them the sacred garments, and perform the other usual honours such as given to the other gods in the Egyptian festivals...("The Greek Section of the Rosetta Stone," numbers 37-41).

It specifies how the priests were to pay homage to the king, how shrines were to be established, and how and when festivals were to be celebrated and concludes stating that the instructions were to be displayed in stone in the three scripts found on the Rosetta Stone. The stone also includes quotations from the king who commented on the bad condition of Egypt. He referred to debt, banditry, civil war, abandoned fields, and neglected irrigation systems (Young 222). The information about Ptolemy inscribed on the stone and from other primary sources was only available to scholars after the stone was discovered and deciphered.

The discovery occurred during the summer of 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte took his troops to Egypt from Toulon to try and defeat the British by attacking Egypt and thereby control the rich food supply from along the Nile River (Strachan and Roetzel). Roughly one thousand civilians, including a team of scientists, historians, and artists who were skilled draftsmen, accompanied him, hoping to advance the revolution and to unlock the secrets of this ancient country. Since Egyptian culture was largely unknown to most of Western Europe, many prominent intellectuals including geographers, geologists, botanists, and linguists accompanied the armed forces (Young 221).

Figure 4. Rashid (Rosetta) Egypt: Where the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

In July 1799 a troop of Napoleon's soldiers was stationed at Fort Julien near the city of el-Rashid or Rosetta (figure 4). They were tearing down an ancient wall to extend the fort. A young French officer named Pierre François Xavier Bouchard in charge of demolition found a block of black basalt stone built into the wall (Sewell). In September 1799 this discovery was made public in an article printed in the Courrier de l'Egypte (Sewell). The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be known, with its three distinct types of writing, seemed comparable to a dictionary (Singh).

In mid-August, the stone was sent to Cairo where studies began at the Institute of Egypt, which was established one year earlier. Before the scholars could begin any significant research, however, there were disputes over who would take possession of the Rosetta Stone. In 1801 English General John Hely Hutchinson demanded that French General Jacques-François Menou hand the stone over to the British along with other antiquities (Sewell). The terms were part of what became known as the Treaty of Alexandria. One year later, the Rosetta Stone was housed in the British Museum where it has remained ever since. The inscriptions were deciphered to unlock the secrets of Egypt.

The translation proved crucial because hieroglyphs were complex and were used for inscriptions on the walls of royal monuments and temples. However, Egyptian writing was abandoned when the ruling family of the Ptolemies, the 32nd dynasty, lost control of parts of Egypt. The Roman Empire filled the vacuum and became increasingly involved in the region. During the Ptolemic dynasty, Egyptian and Greek languages were used until the Roman Governorship and Latin was used along with Greek (Strachan and Roetzel). The rise of Christianity contributed to the disappearance of Egyptian script. The use of hieroglyphics was prohibited in hope of minimizing Egypt's pagan past. The ancient Egyptian script was replaced with Coptic, a script made up of twenty-four letters from the Greek alphabet. Coptic script was combined with six demotic characters (employed for Egyptian sounds that were not spoken in Greek). Thus the ancient Egyptian language evolved into what became known as the Coptic language. During the Middle Ages the Coptic language was supplanted by Arabic (Singh). Within one hundred years after Arabic became popular, Egyptian hieroglyphs were no longer used or understood by anyone. It was truly a dead language (the language that had been used to record the history of the pharaohs was lost).

Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, scholars trying to read hieroglyphics made several errors. There was the misguided belief that the hieroglyphics were symbolic and secret while in reality hieroglyphics were a form of everyday writing (Sandison). They also believed that hieroglyphic writing was nothing more than primitive picture writing and that decipherment relied on a translation of the pictorial images. In truth, the late hieroglyphic script is phonetic. Just like the letters of the English alphabet, the characters represent distinct sounds (Singh).

Once scholars had the Rosetta Stone at their disposal, they were able to translate the Greek inscriptions. If the other two scripts recorded the same text, then the stone could be used to crack the hieroglyphs. The problem of pronunciation remained. The Greek inscriptions revealed what the hieroglyphics meant, but the ancient Egyptian language had not been spoken for approximately eight centuries. Because of this, it was impossible to establish the sounds of the Egyptian words and this led to many errors in translation. Without knowledge of how Egyptian words were pronounced, scholars could not figure out the phonetic values of hieroglyphics (Singh).

Figures 5, 6. Thomas Young, Jean-François Champollion

In 1814 the first breakthrough came with an English physicist named Thomas Young (figure 5). When he first heard about the Rosetta Stone, he thought it presented an overwhelming challenge. During his annual holiday to Worthing, he brought along a copy of the inscriptions. Like many scholars before him, Young had been convinced that the script was picture writing. He focused on a set of hieroglyphs enclosed in an oval, known as a cartouche. He presumed these circled hieroglyphs stood for something important, possibly the name of the pharaoh Ptolemy, who was mentioned in the Greek text. If this were the case, it would allow Young to learn the phonetics of hieroglyphics since a pharaoh's name is pronounced nearly the same, regardless of the language (Singh).

Young compared the letters for the name Ptolemy with the other hieroglyphs and succeeded in assigning phonetic values to many of the symbols (Singh). By comparing hieroglyphic and demotic writing, he discovered that demotic words were not always written using the alphabet. He identified eighty-six additional signs by studying the Greek words and looking for the same number of repeated signs in the demotic script. The words he identified included "and," "king," "Ptolemy," and "Egypt" (Sewell). As soon as he seemed to be on the right track, he suddenly stopped. He had lost interest in hieroglyphics, calling his achievements "the amusements of a few leisure hours." He brought his work to an end and summarized his findings in an article for the Encyclopedia Britannica published in 1819 (Singh).

Credit for the complete translation has been given to the French scholar Jean-François Champollion (figure 6) who is now known as the "Father of the Decipherment of Hieroglyphics" (Singh). Champollion's fascination with hieroglyphs began when, as a ten-year-old, he saw an assortment of Egyptian antiquities covered with strange inscriptions. After being told that no one could understand the writing, he promised to solve the mystery. Working at the same time as Young, Champollion reached similar conclusions. However, as Young was unable to continue his work, Champollion made great progress. His knowledge of the Coptic language, a language used by the Christian descendants of the Egyptians, was greatly beneficial (Sewell).

By focusing on the cartouches Champollion began to develop an accurate phonetic alphabet that had been employed before Ptolemy. He disproved the theory that hieroglyphs were used to write only foreign names phonetically after he saw cartouches old enough to include traditional Egyptian names that were written phonetically. By deciphering the name Rameses, Champollion realized that all of the hieroglyphs were phonetic. Upon this discovery, he ran into his brother's office proclaiming, "I've got it!" (Singh). He also correctly identified the names of Cleopatra and Alexander and confirmed the spelling of Ptolemy, the pharaoh Young had identified (Strachan and Roetzel). In July 1828 Champollion set out on his first voyage to Egypt where he went to record and to translate hieroglyphics. He had achieved his childhood dream (Singh).

The Rosetta Stone is proudly displayed in the British Museum with information noting the role of Young as well as that of Champollion. Indeed, the museum gives equal credit to Young and Champollion. It is obvious that Britons are proud of the scholarly contribution made by Young. Nevertheless, Britain's claim to the Rosetta Stone has been challenged. Although the Rosetta Stone has been in Britain for the past 200 years, the Egyptian Government is currently demanding the stone's return. Perhaps the Egyptians are following the example of the Greeks who have asked for the return of the Elgin Marbles. In any event, Egypt is threatening to pursue its case aggressively if the Rosetta Stone is not returned (Edwardes). On July 15, 2003 in a speech at the British Museum, Zahi Hawass, one of the world's leading Egyptologists and director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, made a request for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Cairo. According to Hawass:

If the British want to be remembered, if they want to restore their reputation, they should volunteer to return the Rosetta Stone because it is the icon of our Egyptian identity. I don't want to fight anyone now, but if the British Museum doesn't act, we will have to employ a more aggressive approach with the Government. I don't care if people know my strategy; the artifacts stolen from Egypt must come back (Edwardes).

Vivian Davies, caretaker of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the museum, has said that the voluntary return of the stone is unlikely. He stated, "We are working with our Egyptian colleagues to preserve the heritage of today rather than concentrate on problems - or issues, perhaps I should say - that are very old" ("Egypt Demands Return of Ancient Rosetta Stone").

A three month loan of the stone with the museum is being considered. Dr. Hawass observed, "More immediately, we are prepared to accept it peacefully on a temporary loan and we are in discussions about that right now. That is a short-term solution, however. Ideally, we would like the stone to come back for good" (Edwardes). Davies responded, "Whilst we are always willing to discuss new ways of cooperating with them on joint projects, we are clear, as are they, that the Rosetta Stone will stay in London" (Bailey).

Perhaps the controversy has added to the Rosetta Stone's popularity. During my first visit to the British Museum, I was amazed at the crowds that gathered around it. Even from a great distance, before I was sure that I had located the Rosetta Stone, the large number of people surrounding the display case made it clear that the visitors thought they were viewing an object of great importance. As I first looked at the stone, I remembered learning about it in my History 101 course and I was thrilled to see the actual artifact. However, the textbook did not provide much detail about its importance for Egyptian history. Not once was Thomas Young or Jean-François Champollion ever mentioned, even though they both helped to make the Rosetta Stone significant for the study of Egyptian history.

Before researching this paper, the only thing I really knew about the Rosetta Stone was that it was used for the decipherment of hieroglyphics. However, I was not aware that there were two translators or that there were three inscriptions on the stone. Additional research and study has provided a great wealth of information regarding this basalt stone.

As a visitor to the museum I was also impressed by the large size of the Rosetta Stone and its physical makeup. Whereas the front with the inscriptions was incredibly smooth, the back was partially carved, but for the most part was rough and untreated. Any questions one might have about the physical condition of the stone are answered in a sign found next to it. The museum placard states:

The Rosetta Stone/196 BC originally from Sais/This fragment of a dark hard-stone stela has recently been conserved, with a patch at the lower left corner being left uncleansed showing layers of wax and white infill designed to make the text more legible. The Stone was for many years fitted into a metal cradle for display, the marks from which can still be seen on the sides. The front of the stela is inscribed in three scripts, but the back is only roughly worked and would have been placed against a wall.

The curators also acknowledge the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and discuss the decipherment of the inscriptions by Young and Champollion noting that their efforts benefited archaeologists, Egyptologists, and students of Egyptian history. The stone is presented as essential for the subsequent translation of writing found in the Egyptian temples and tombs.

The Rosetta Stone proved that the paintings, carvings, and inscriptions covering the walls, floors and ceilings of Egyptian monuments, as beautiful as they are, are not just decorations. They tell the history of ancient Egypt including the great adventures, triumphs and disasters; they provide information about the gods and goddesses, and the pharaohs and priests (Sandison 19).

All that was needed for the modern world to more fully appreciate the history of ancient Egypt was a key for the decipherment of the hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone provided the key and deserves to have a prominent place in a world class museum collection.

Works Cited

Adkins, Lesley and Roy. The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphics.
Great Britain: Harper Collins Publishers, 2000.

Bailey, Martin. "The Rosetta Stone Will Stay in London, Say Trustees." (May 23, 2004).

Edwardes, Charlotte and Milner, Catherine. "Egypt Wants Rosetta Stone Back from British Museum". (July 21, 2003 ). (May 23, 2004).

"Egypt Demands Return of Ancient Rosetta Stone". (July 21, 2003) (May 23, 2004)

"The Greek Section of the Rosetta Stone." 27, 2004).

"The Rosetta Stone". 23, 2004)

Sandison, David. The Art of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Hong Kong: Hamlyn, 1997.

Sewell, Max. "The Discovery of the Rosetta Stone". (February 1999).

Singh, Simon. "The Decipherment of Hieroglyphics". (October 1, 2001)

(May 13, 2004)

Strachan, Richard A. and Roetzel, Kathleen A. "The Story of the Rosetta Stone, Finding a Lost Language". (1997).
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Young, John Howard. "Rosetta Stone". Collier's Encyclopedia. New York, 1983: 221-222.