The Rosetta Stone Is Discovered by Napoleonic Soldiers

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The Rosetta Stone Is Discovered by Napoleonic Soldiers


The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 by a member of Napoleon's Egyptian expeditionary force. The Stone is a stela fragment carved during the reign of Ptolemy V (205-180 b.c.) and is inscribed in two different languages with three different scripts—hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. The importance of this artifact as a potential key for deciphering hieroglyphics was immediately recognized and then confirmed when a translation of the Greek established that the other two scripts contained the same message. News of the discovery created a sensation, spawning renewed efforts at decipherment that culminated in the stunning success of Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832).


Discovery of the Rosetta Stone removed one of the three principal impediments to progress in deciphering hieroglyphics—lack of a bilingual inscription. Others were the nonexistence of a large corpus of accurately copied inscriptions and the false belief that hieroglyphics were essentially symbolic. The orthography of hieroglyphics was partly responsible for the latter view, its pictorial nature helping to disguise the fact that it encodes the spoken language of ancient Egypt.

The first hieroglyphic inscriptions date to the beginnings of Pharaonic Egypt (c. 3300 b.c.). The script evolved from about 700 characters during the Old Kingdom (2705-2250 b.c.) to over 6000 during the Ptolemaic period (332-30 b.c.). The gradual infusion of Hellenism throughout the Ptolemaic period coupled with the Roman conquest (30 b.c.) and subsequent infusion of Christianity slowly eroded Pharaonic culture. Writing of the native language in hieroglyphic and hieractic (a simpler, cursive form of hieroglyphics) was gradually replaced until by 250 b.c. only demotic (a popular form of hieroglyphics) remained in general use. This lasted until the fifth century a.d., after which Coptic (a script composed of the Greek alphabet supplemented by seven demotic characters) enjoyed a period of ascendancy before the Arab conquest in 641. The last hieroglyphs were carved in 394, but by this time priestly secrecy and a heavy veneer of mysticism served to obscure the script's true meaning.

The European Renaissance witnessed a reawakening of interest in Egypt as classical and Greco-Roman works were rediscovered. Authors such as Herodotus, Strabo, and Plutarch had written of the esoteric nature of Egyptian knowledge, and Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus developed these themes while focusing on the symbolic nature of hieroglyphics, maintaining that they recorded pure moral and philosophical ideas unfiltered by language. Greatly influenced by such works, Renaissance efforts at decipherment devolved into attempts to explain the mystical significance of hieroglyphics rather than reading them.

From the late seventeenth century on the number of scholars visiting Egypt gradually increased. The antiquities they collected and their writings greatly facilitated the study of ancient Egypt and hieroglyphics. Modern Egyptology, though, begins with Napoleon Bonaparte's (1769-1821) Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801). In addition to the expedition's political and military objectives, Napoleon wished to recover Egypt's lost wisdom. Consequently, over 150 scientists, scholars, and artists disembarked with the invasion fleet. After his victory at the battle of the Pyramids (1798), Napoleon established the Institut d'Egypte in Cairo, from where the French savants were to explore and report on all aspects of Egyptian culture. The culmination of their work was published in the monumental Description de l'Egypte (1809-22).

The expedition's most memorable discovery was made by the army in July 1799. During construction of Fort St. Julien at port el-Rashid (ancient Rosetta) in the Nile Delta, engineering officer Pierre-François Xavier Bouchard (1772-1832) uncovered an irregularly shaped, dark-gray slab that he immediately identified as a stela fragment inscribed with three different scripts. When translation of the Greek established that the other two scripts recorded the same message, news of what might be the key to unraveling the mystery of hieroglyphics quickly spread.


Many copies of the inscription and casts of the fragment were quickly made and distributed. Copies reached Paris in the fall of 1800, but when the French surrendered to the British in Egypt in 1801, the Rosetta Stone passed into British hands and was officially donated to the British Museum in June 1802.

That same year important contributions to unlocking the secret of hieroglyphics were made by the French orientalist Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) and the Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad (1763-1819). Sacy decided to ignore the Rosetta Stone's hieroglyphic inscription and concentrate on the more complete demotic. He succeeded in locating some of the proper names, but his analysis of the individual signs and transliterations were incorrect. Åkerblad had more success. In an open letter to Sacy, he showed that proper names and foreign words were written phonetically in demotic, although he incorrectly assumed demotic to be primarily alphabetic.

Coptic scholarship also proved of fundamental importance in deciphering hieroglyphics. Pietro della Valle (1586-1652) and others had uncovered many Coptic manuscripts during the seventeenth century. Based on his study of them, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) had claimed Coptic was the language of ancient Egypt. In his letter to Sacy, Åkerblad identified important aspects of the Rosetta Stone's demotic and correlated them with their Coptic equivalents. In 1808 Sacy refined Kircher's claim by suggesting Coptic grammar preserved something of the grammar of hieroglyphics, a fact later exploited by Champollion. None of this, however, challenged the false belief that hieroglyphics were essentially symbolic.

The next significant step toward decipherment was taken by Sacy in 1811. In ideographic languages such as Chinese, there is a difficulty rendering proper names. One of Sacy's students first introduced the idea that foreign words and names were written phonetically in Chinese using standard characters appropriately marked to distinguish phonetic usage. Additionally, it previously had been suggested by Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy (1716-1795) that the oval-shaped cartouches—essentially ovals with hieroglyphs inside them—in hieroglyphic texts might contain the names of kings or gods (1761). From these facts Sacy conjectured that cartouches encircled hieroglyphs that were employed phonetically. Though incorrect, Sacy's suggestion provided the framework under which all work on hieroglyphs proceeded over the next ten years and played a central role in Champollion's first solution.

Further steps towards decipherment were made by Thomas Young (1773-1829), who is best known for his work on the eye's physiology and wave theory of light. By 1816 he had proposed an alphabet that allowed him to decipher Ptolemy's name inside the single cartouche of the Rosetta Stone's hieroglyphic section. Unable to account for all the hieroglyphs in this cartouche, he concluded that only foreign names were written phonetically, with titles and epithets appearing symbolically. Young was also the first to express doubt over the purely ideographic nature of hieroglyphics, noting that with fewer than a thousand hieroglyphic characters typically in use there could be no simple one-to-one correspondence between symbols and the ideas or objects represented. He further realized that demotic was not primarily alphabetic—it contained ideograms as well as phonetic symbols. Despite these insights, Young continued to maintain hieroglyphics were primarily symbolic, with phonetic uses being ancillary.

The key to deciphering hieroglyphics was at last provided by the brilliant French linguist Jean-François Champollion. Highly precocious, his fascination with Egypt began at an early age when he heard stories of the Rosetta Stone's discovery. In 1806, at age 16, Champollion presented a paper before the Société des Sciences et Arts de Grenoble arguing that Coptic was the language of Ancient Egypt. He then went to Paris in 1807 to study Arabic with Sacy and to acquire fuller knowledge of other languages considered relevant for solving the puzzle of hieroglyphics.

Champollion's work proceeded slowly due to insufficient and inaccurately copied inscriptions. The need for an expanded corpus of texts and collateral evidence provided by miscellaneous antiquities was gradually met as volumes of the Description de l'Egypte appeared and new manuscripts and more accurate copies of monument inscriptions were brought back from Egypt. By 1821 Champollion's analysis of this material allowed him to firmly establish the distinction between hieroglyphics, hieratic, and demotic as well as compiling tables of their equivalent signs. He also demonstrated that hieractic and demotic were primarily ideographic, not alphabetic, and subsequently realized that the proper names and foreign words written phonetically in the Rosetta Stone's demotic could be used to help decipher phonetic hieroglyphs. On Friday, September 27, 1822, before the Académie des Incriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris, he announced his success in constructing a phonetic alphabet that allowed him to accurately read cartouches.

As important as this was, especially for dating Ptolemaic and Roman ruins, the decisive step in decipherment was not taken until early the next year when Champollion realized pure hieroglyphics—those outside the cartouches—were primarily phonetic, not symbolic. This insight was motivated by a number of factors. First, his analysis of the Rosetta Stone revealed that just under 500 words of the Greek text were represented by 1,419 hieroglyphic sign-groups, indicating hieroglyphics could not be purely ideographic. Furthermore, the 1,419 sign-groups were constructed from just 66 distinct characters, suggesting the possibility of a phonetic script. Champollion also noted that the few dozen signgroups from cartouches he had already deciphered constituted over two-thirds of all hieroglyphic inscriptions, providing more evidence that hieroglyphics were primarily phonetic.

Champollion's suspicions were confirmed when he successfully applied his phonetic alphabet to the Rosetta Stone inscription. However, understanding what he was deciphering was another matter, one that turned quite decisively on his knowledge of Coptic. As he proceeded he was able to identify recognizable Coptic words and elements of Coptic grammar. By comparison with Coptic he was then able to reconstruct the grammatical forms of hieroglyphics. After expounding the principles of hieroglyphics in Précis du système hiéroglyphique (1824), Champollion traveled to Turin's Museo Egizio, which at the time possessed the world's most extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities, and Egypt to test his method. Further research has confirmed, refined, and extended Champollion's work, which serves as the cornerstone of modern Egyptology.


Further Reading

Davies, W. V. Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphs. London: British Museum Publications, 1987.

Iverson, Erik. The Myth of Egypt and Its Hieroglyphs in European Tradition. Copenhagen: Gad, 1961.

Parkinson, Richard. Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Pope, Maurice. The Story of Decipherment. Revised ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999.

Siliotti, Alberto. The Discovery of Ancient Egypt. Boston, MA: White Star Publishers, 1998.

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The Rosetta Stone Is Discovered by Napoleonic Soldiers

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