History Embalmed

Rosetta Stone

What is the Rosetta Stone?

What is the Rosetta Stone? Definition: The Rosetta Stone is a large black stone, made of *basalt, which is nearly 4 feet long, over 2 feet wide and 11 inches thick.

The stone contains a decree of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ptolemy V who ruled Egypt 204 BC-180 BC.

The stone is dated as 196 BC and contains a royal decree of the Pharaoh which had the same messages written in three different languages: Ancient Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic (the language of the ancient Egyptians).

The Ancient Greek language was known by linguists and the text inscriptions on the stone gave the first clues to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The stone was found in 1799 at Rosetta (Rashid) in the Nile Delta, hence its name - the Rosetta Stone.

*Basalt is a dark colored, fine-grained volcanic rock the most abundant volcanic rock in the Earth's crust

Description of the Rosetta Stone
The description of the Rosetta Stone is as follows:

  • The Rosetta Stone is made of black basalt stone
  • It is believed to date back to 196 BC
  • Size: The Rosetta Stone measures:
    • 3 feet 9 inches long
    • 2 feet 4½ inches across
    • 11 inches thick
  • The Rosetta Stone contains three separate bands of writing which are inscribed with text from three different languages:
    • Hieroglyphics - top band of the Rosetta Stone
    • Demotic script ( Ancient Egyptian language ) - Middle band
    • Greek - bottom band
  • The names of the men who played major roles in the translation of the Rosetta Stone:
    • Pierre-Francois Bouchard
    • Silvestre de Sacy
    • Johann Akerblad
    • Rev. Stephen Weston
    • Thomas Young
    • Jean-Francois Champollion

What was the original purpose of the inscription on the Rosetta Stone?
The original purpose of the inscription on the Rosetta Stone was to affirm the royal status and cult of Ptolemy V as a deity throughout Egypt by a series of royal decrees. The text on the Rosetta Stone was duplicated on many similar stones and was made known throughout Egypt, literally set in stone, just like the Rosetta Stone, in three languages.

What is the text inscribed on the Rosetta Stone?
The inscription on the Rosetta Stone is a decree establishing the status and cult of Ptolemy V as a deity.  The text begins with an inscription praising the Pharaoh Ptolemy V. The stone then details his victory at the siege of the city of Lycopolis, where rebel priests of the Temple of Lycopolis had refused to pay taxes to the Pharaoh in the 9th year of his reign (196BC) which had prompted the decree. The inscription on the Rosetta Stone then goes on to extol the good deeds done by the Ptolemy V for the temples. The final part of the text gives instructions detailing how Ptolemy should be worshipped - how his shrine was to be set up, when prayers should be offered, the burning of incense and days when festivals, such as the birthday of the god-king, should be celebrated.

The Rosetta Stone - How did Egyptian hieroglyphics become a 'dead language'?
The Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics were a total mystery for many hundreds of years - people were completely unable to decipher the symbols and pictures. How did Egyptian hieroglyphics become a 'dead language'? The decline in the use of hieroglyphics began during the Ptolemaic dynasty. During this period of Egyptian history the Egyptian and Greek languages were used simultaneously. Following the decline of the Ptolemaic period Egypt was ruled by the Romans when only the Latin language was used (and occasionally some Greek). Within a period of just hundred years of the Roman Governorship, the Egyptian hieroglyphics were no longer used or understood by anyone. The Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics had become a 'dead language' - until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

History of the Rosetta Stone - Why were the French involved?
What was the history of the Rosetta Stone and who found the Rosetta Stone? In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led a military campaign into Egypt. Napoleon Bonaparte believed that the French could defeat the British by invading Egypt and gaining control of the rich food supply. Lord Horratio Nelson, the commander of the British Navy, defeated the French navy and stranded the French army in Egypt for 3 years. During this time the French studied Egyptian monuments and history and Napoleon Bonaparte gave orders that valuable Ancient Egyptian antiquities should be transferred to Paris.

Who found the Rosetta Stone? Pierre-Francois Bouchard
The French soldiers built forts in Egypt using existing stones from old ruins.  In 1799 a young French officer called Pierre-Francois Bouchard (1772 - 1832) was involved with the building of fortifications near Rosetta (Rashid) in the Nile Delta, a small Egyptian city near Alexandria. It was near Rosetta that Pierre-Francois Bouchard stumbled across a block of black basalt stone which would become world famous as the 'Rosetta Stone'. Pierre-Francois Bouchard discovered the Rosetta Stone on July 15, 1799.

The condition of the Rosetta Stone
When Pierre-Francois Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone he realised that it might be important and contacted the French scholars who had accompanied the forces of Napoleon on his expedition to Egypt. The Rosetta Stone had been damaged over the years and the most incomplete part of the stone was the top band of writing containing hieroglyphics. The middle band was the Egyptian script called Demotic script, a forerunner of the Hieratic script,  and the bottom was ancient Greek. Pierre-Francois Bouchard recognised the Greek language and the hieroglyphics but had never seen an example of the Demotic script. When Pierre-Francois Bouchard took the stone to the French scholars they realized that it was a decree written in the languages used in Egypt at the time.

Deciphering the Demotic script contained on the Rosetta Stone - Silvestre de Sacy
The French scholars including a linguist called Silvestre de Sacy began to focus on deciphering the Demotic script, the middle band of text, because it was more complete and it looked more like letters than the picture writing of the hieroglyphics. The Demotic script was compared to the Ancient Greek writing in an effort to decipher and understand the language. Silvestre de Sacy and the French scholars were able to read and understand some of the Greek script and the process of deciphering and translating the Demotic script and the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics began by comparing the Greek and the Egyptian words. The Demotic script was the first to be deciphered and much of this pioneering work is credited to Silvestre de Sacy, the French linguist. Silvestre de Sacy identified the symbols which comprised the word ‘Ptolemy’ and ‘Alexander’ thus, establishing a relationship between the symbols and sounds.

Deciphering the Demotic script contained on the Rosetta Stone - Johann Akerblad
Johann Akerblad was a Swedish diplomat and linguist. Johann Akerblad looked at the Rosetta Stone with an additional knowledge of the Coptic language. Coptic was the old Egyptian language used by the Coptic church of Egypt. Coptic was written with the Greek alphabet but also contained seven additional symbols from the Demotic script. His knowledge of Coptic allowed Johann Akerblad to identify the words for love, temple and Greek confirming that the Demotic script was a phonetic script.

Deciphering the Greek script contained on the Rosetta Stone - Rev. Stephen Weston
The earliest translation of the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone into English was done by Reverend Stephen Weston in London in April 1802 before the Society of Antiquaries .

Deciphering the Rosetta Stone - Thomas Young
In 1814, the British linguist, Thomas Young finished the work started by Johann Akerblad and Stephen Weston. Thomas Young translated the Demotic text and began work on translating the hieroglyphic alphabet. Thomas Young was successful in determining that names could not be represented by symbols because symbols are based upon the words used in a given language. Therefore foreign names had to be spelled phonetically. In hieroglyphics there are groups of encircled symbols that are separated from other symbols. This type of encircled symbol became known as a cartouche. Thomas Young realised that a cartouche contained proper names of important people - like the names of Ptolemy and Alexander. Thomas Young successfully deciphered five cartouches.

Translating the Rosetta Stone - Jean-Francois Champollion
Jean-Francois Champollion was a young French historian and linguist who had knowledge of many Eastern languages. In 1807 Jean-Francois Champollion went to study with Silvestre de Sacy. Jean-Francois Champollion followed in the footsteps of his tutor, Silvestre de Sacy and started work on the translation of the text on the Rosetta Stone. Jean-Fracois Champollion greatly expanded on the work of Thomas Young on the translation of the Rosetta Stone. Champollion compiled a Coptic dictionary and then studied the conclusions drawn by Thomas Young on hieroglyphics. Jean-Francois Champollion realized that what Thomas Young had proved was that all hieroglyphics were phonetic, not just those hieroglyphics that were contained within the cartouches. Jean-Francois Champollion studied the hieroglyphics from an obelisk found at Philae by Belzoni and he correctly identified the names of Cleopatra and Alexander and verified the name of Ptolemy which had previously been identified by Thomas Young. In 1822 new inscriptions from a temple at Abu Simbel were shown to Jean-Francois Champollion who correctly identified the name of the pharaoh who had built the temple as ‘Ramses.’ Utilizing his knowledge of Coptic he continued to successfully translate the hieroglyphics opening up an understanding of the Ancient Egyptians. Jean-Francois Champollion became known as the translator of the Rosetta Stone.

Rosetta Stone
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