Historical overview of the Rosetta Stone
Soon after the end of the 4th century AD, since the dying days of the Roman Empire, and the Egyptian hieroglyphics had gone out of use, the knowledge of how to read and write them were lost becoming an enigma to scholars. When linguists tried to tackle the portions written in hieroglyphics, most were left scratching their heads.
This all changed following the Rosetta Stone discovery; while the French soldiers couldn’t have known it, the “Rosetta Stone” they pulled from the rubble, in 1799, triggered one of history’s great intellectual odysseys. The Rosetta Stone has helped scholars at long last crack the code of hieroglyphics, leading to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the writing system of one of the greatest and most powerful civilizations in the history of Man, the Ancient Egypt.
The decree on the stone is written in three ways: in hieroglyphics, which was used mainly by priests; in ancient Egyptian demotic, used for everyday purposes; and in ancient Greek. These form three distinct bands of writing. The top part of the stone has been broken off at an angle—in line with a band of pink granite whose crystalline structure glints a little in the light.
The importance of this to Egyptology is immense. In the early years of the 19th century, due to its triple inscription, and scholars could still read Ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone offered scholars the chance to decipher the ancient symbols once and for all, the key that unlocked the secrets of the hieroglyphs. Yet it took decades, and the work of two brilliant scholars, to unlock the stone’s secrets.
Thomas Young (1773–1829), an English physicist, was the first to surmise that the cartouches —hieroglyphs enclosed in ovals— on the Rosetta Stone contained the phonetic spellings of royal names, that of “Cleopatra” and “Ptolemy”, who were referenced in the Greek inscription.
He then applied the signs to the names in the cartouches found on the Rosetta Stone and elsewhere, using the discoveries from each new translation to fill in the gaps on the others. He made a discovery that had eluded all previous scholars: Rather than being a purely symbolic script, hieroglyphics included both conceptual symbols and phonetic signs.
According to Andrew Robinson’s book Cracking the Egyptian Code, Young proved that demotic script derived from hieroglyphics and contained individual phonetic letters as well as ideographic symbols.
Demotic “was neither a purely conceptual or symbolic script, nor an alphabet, but a mixture of the two,” Robinson wrote. Crucially, however, Young did not apply these same revelations to hieroglyphics. Like most scholars at the time, he subscribed to the belief that hieroglyphics were almost entirely symbolic.
Ultimately, it was French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion who deciphered the Rosetta Stone and cracked the hieroglyphic code. Between 1822 and 1824, Champollion showed that hieroglyphics were a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs rather than just symbolic picture writing that didn’t also represent sounds of language, as earlier scholars had suspected. Then, for his discoveries, was heralded as the founding father of Egyptology.
For more than 200 years, the original stone has been housed in London’s British Museum, where it receives millions of visitors annually. As the artifact responsible for rescuing ancient Egypt from the mists of time, the 2,200-year-old slab is often listed among history’s most important archaeological discoveries—the key that decoded the lost language of that remarkable civilization in Man’s history.
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