The Rosetta Stone is a slab of black basalt, approximately 3 feet 9 inches long, 2 feet 4½ inches wide, and 11 inches thick, bearing a bilingual inscription in Egyptian and Greek. The top right-and left-hand corners and the right-hand bottom corner are missing. The stone was found in 1799 by a French officer named Boussard (sometimes given as Bouchard), near Rosetta (Rashid) in the Nile Delta. It passed into British possession when the French surrendered Egypt in 1801.
The inscription is divided into three sections, each in a different form of writing: Old Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic (the ordinary Egyptian handwriting), and Greek. The first studies of the demotic text were those of Sylvestre de Sasy and J. D. Åkerbald in 1802. An Englishman, Thomas Young, demonstrated that the royal name "Ptolemy" occurring in the Greek text was found in the hieroglyphic version surrounded by an oval. This discovery provided Young with a clue to the phonetic values of the Egyptian symbols. In 1822, the alphabetic Egyptian characters provided by Young were corrected and enlarged by Jean François Champollion. This French scholar formulated a system of general deciphering that has been the foundation upon which all Egyptologists have worked. The deciphering of proper names provided the key to the Egyptian writing, but an understanding of the languages could not have been accomplished without the assistance of Coptic, the liturgical language of the Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians.
The inscription is the decree of the Egyptian priests assembled at Memphis in 196 b.c. to celebrate the first
commemoration of the coronation of Ptolemy V. It proclaims the king's piety, his love of the Egyptians, the benefits he had conferred upon Egypt, and resolutions of gratitude to honor him. The stone is in the British Museum.
Bibliography: e. a. w. budge, The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum (London 1929). h. hartleben, Champollion: Sein Leben und sein Werk (Berlin 1906).
[j. j. o'rourke]