This Week in History: The Finding of the Rosetta Stone

One of my favorite things to do in my spare time is browse history news articles. And, in doing so, I found that it was this week in 1799 that the Rosetta Stone was discovered. What is the Rosetta Stone, you ask? Only one of the most important artifacts ever found. The primary importance of the Rosetta Stone is that it helped paved the way for understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone is a granite-like stele (a slab used for commemorative purposes) which bears the same inscription in three different languages: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demiotic script, and ancient Greek. A group of priests under Ptolemy V issued the inscribed decree in 196 BC in Memphis, an ancient capital of great importance. But why three languages? According to the British Museum (which houses this artifact):

1. The hieroglyphics were used in priestly decrees.

2. The demiotic was the native script used for everyday communication.

3. The Greek was the official court language.

Again, according to the British Museum, the decree “affirms the royal cult of the thirteen-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation.”

French soldiers in the Napoleonic army discovered the stone at Port Julien near el-Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt in 1799.  The French lost possession of the stone in 1801 when the Treaty of Alexandria ceded control of numerous ancient artifacts the French had uncovered. Since a year after the Treaty, it has been exhibited at the British Museum with almost no interruptions (with the exception of WWI and quite possibly a stint in Egypt).

The trilingual inscriptions almost instantaneously aroused interest. But knowledge of how to read and understand the hieroglyphics had been lost since the fourth century due to the rise of Christianity. It was not until the efforts of the English Thomas Young and the French Jean-Francois Champollion that this lost knowledge became known. Where once hieroglyphs had been taken literally, they now had a counterpart (the Greek text) to which they could be compared.

So, as all good historians ask, why does this matter? Simply put, this helped to spur the fascination with Egypt which pervaded in the nineteenth century in addition to the tangible and intangible benefits of aiding scholarly research now that researchers could translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. And, realistically, we realized that the hieroglyphs were not just pretty pictures painted onto walls.

For more information, visit the British Museum’s website on the Rosetta Stone.

A full translation of the decree is also on the website.

Other information was taken from the Discovery Channel and the BBC.

Finally, the featured picture is from my trip to the British Museum in 2010. It really is a fascinating thing to see in person if you get the chance! Much like the Sutton Hoo treasure, it is one of the iconic objects in the Museum’s collections.

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