The Rosetta Stone: The Key to Ancient Egypt

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The Rosetta Stone: The Key to Ancient Egypt


The Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt in 1799. Inscribed upon it was the same text in hieroglyphs, another Egyptian form of writing called demotic, and Greek. Since Greek was well understood, the stone provided a key to deciphering the others. With all the inscriptions that still existed in stone, the ability to understand hieroglyphs vastly increased our knowledge of the civilization of ancient Egypt.


Hieroglyphs, the stylized pictures and other symbols used in ancient Egyptian texts, were used for almost 3,500 years. They have been beautifully preserved over the millennia, etched into many stone walls and tablets. Yet the knowledge of their meaning was lost after the fourth century, when Egypt came under Byzantine rule. The latest known hieroglyphic inscription was carved at the Philae Temple in 394 A.D.. This temple dedicated to the goddess Isis was one of the last surviving centers of Egyptian religious ritual, owing its longevity to the popularity of the Isis cult among Greeks and Romans.

The word hieroglyph comes from the Greek for "priestly carving." For many hundreds of years, people didn't realize that hieroglyphs were simply the way the ancient Egyptians wrote. They thought the symbols were a type of magical code, and that one had to be an initiate of the esoteric arts in order to understand them. A few scholars did make attempts to decipher them, but with little success. What passed for standard reference works, such as the fourthor fifth-century Hieroglyphika of Hor-Apollo, an Egyptian who wrote in Greek, and the translations of the seventeenth-century German linguist Athanasius Kircher, were little more than fantasies.

In July 1799, a year after Napoleon's armies had captured Egypt, a group of French soldiers would come upon the key to understanding the ancient civilization of Egypt. Working on a fort near Rosetta in the Nile Delta, they found a black basalt slab about the size of a desktop covered with inscriptions, which would come to be called the Rosetta Stone. The inscriptions were unusual in that they were in three different scripts. The French officers realized the stone might be important, and sent it on to Alexandria.

The inscription at the top of the stone was in Egyptian hieroglyphs. At the bottom there was an inscription in Greek. Between them was demotic script, a later cursive form of hieroglyphs that came into use around 600 B.C., derived from an earlier cursive script called hieratic. The word "demotic" comes from the Greek demos, meaning "of the people," indicating that this was the script used for everyday purposes by that minority of the population that was literate.

Looking at the stone, the French began to realize that the three inscriptions might say the same thing. This would make the Rosetta Stone an incredible gift to scholars, because the Greek version of the inscription could be readily understood, providing a key to the other two.

The text of the stone was a royal edict dating from 196 B.C., during the time of the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies were a Macedonian family who ruled as kings of Egypt from 323 through 30 B.C., after the death of Alexander the Great. During this time, the official language of the court was Greek, but demotic script was used to communicate with the people, and hieroglyphs were used to impress them and appease their gods. The Rosetta Stone commemorated the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes on the occasion of the anniversary of his coronation. It proclaimed the devotion of the king to the gods and to the Egyptian people.


The Rosetta Stone was shown to Napoleon, who was very impressed. He arranged for printers to come from Paris and make copies of the inscriptions by inking the stone and laying paper upon it. The copies were sent to the best linguists in Europe. The Greek text was translated in 1802 by the Rev. Stephen Weston. Next, work began on the demotic text. In 1803, a Swedish diplomat named Johan Akerblad published his initial results, identifying the proper names in the text and a few other words.

The linguist whose work was most instrumental in understanding the hieroglyphic text was Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832). Champollion had been fascinated by ancient languages since childhood. He began working on the Rosetta Stone inscriptions in 1808 when he was 18 years old.

Champollion made three basic assumptions in his effort to decipher the hieroglyphs. He looked for hints in the script used by the early Egyptian Christians, or Copts, assuming that this represented the last remnants of the language of the pharaohs. Soon after he began working on the Rosetta Stone inscriptions, he identified correspondences between the Coptic alphabet and 15 signs of the demotic script.

Then, Champollion realized that although the hieroglyphs obviously included ideograms, symbols intended to represent objects or ideas, there were also phonograms, symbols representing sounds. In most written languages, ideograms were gradually discarded as phonetic symbols took hold, but the ancient Egyptians retained them both.

Finally, he recognized that the groups of hieroglyphs encircled by an oval loop, or cartouche, were phonetic symbols for the pharaohs' names. Champollion found the name Ptolmys in Greek and demotic, and so was able to decipher the cartouched hieroglyphic characters for the name as well. An obelisk found by Giovanni Belzoni and sent to England also bore both Greek and hieroglyphic texts. From this inscription Champollion was able to pick out the name Kliopadra, defining the sounds of a few more hieroglyphic signs. Champollion had realized that since the names of these Ptolemy rulers were Greek in origin, they would have no meaning in the Egyptian language. Therefore they would be represented only with phonetic symbols. A copy of an inscription from the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel afforded additional clues.

During the Late Period (712-332 B.C.) there were as many as 6,000 different hieroglyphs in existence, although no more than about 1,000 were in general use at any one time throughout most of ancient Egyptian history. As in Hebrew and Arabic, the phonograms corresponded only to consonants. Vowels were simply omitted. In English this would correspond to writing "brk" for "brook," "break," and "brick." In hieroglyphic text, a special ideogram called a determinative would be added to remove the ambiguity. In our example, a determinative for water would be added to "brk" to convey the meaning "brook."

Hieroglyphic text is also like other Middle Eastern languages in that it was generally written from right to left. Unlike them, there was also the alternative of going from left to right. The pictures of people and animals in the text always face toward the beginning of the line. If the inscription is written from top to bottom, as is also common, the signs face toward the beginning of the series of columns.

Champollion took 14 years to solve the puzzle of the hieroglyphs. In 1822, he wrote a letter to the French Royal Academy of Inscriptions, explaining his results. He defined an alphabet of 26 letters and syllabic signs, of which about half turned out to be correct. He also included an explanation of determinatives. In 1824 Champollion published his book Precis du Systeme Hieroglyphique, in which he expanded upon the information in the letter, as well as correcting some of his own mistakes and a few of the English physicist Thomas Young. Young had been working on the Rosetta Stone inscriptions and made substantial progress, independently coming to some of the same conclusions as Champollion. His work had been published in 1819, in a supplement to the fourth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Champollion died of a stroke in 1832 when he was only 41; his Egyptian Grammar and Egyptian Dictionary were published posthumously. In 1897, an exhaustive reference called the Berlin Woerterbuch was begun, including all the words in all the known Egyptian manuscripts and inscriptions.

Additional copies of the Ptolemy V text were later found in other locations, allowing Egyptologists to fill in sections of hieroglyphs that had been missing where the top of the Rosetta Stone was broken off. The stone itself had changed hands soon after its discovery, when Napoleon's forces were routed by the English. Today it is displayed in the British Museum.


Further Reading

Andrews, Carol. The British Museum Book of the RosettaStone. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1981.

Davies, W. V. Reading the Past: Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Scott, Joseph and Lenore Scott. Egyptian Hieroglyphics forEveryone. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.

Wilson, Hilary. Understanding Hieroglyphics: A CompleteIntroductory Guide. Passport Books, 1995.

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The Rosetta Stone: The Key to Ancient Egypt

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