Rosetta Stone

The Key to Ancient Egypt

The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele inscribed with a decree from 196 BCE by Egyptian priests and Ptolemy V, the ruler at the time. The stone’s text celebrates the royal cult of Ptolemy V, who ascended to the Egyptian throne during a tumultuous era of war and rebellion. A council of priests composed the decree to honor the king and demonstrate their loyalty, inscribing it in three scripts: Hieroglyphics, used primarily by the priesthood; Demotic, a common script for everyday use; and ancient Greek.

The Rosetta Stone exhibited at the British Museum in London

The Rosetta Stone exhibited at the British Museum in London

Measuring approximately 4 feet (1.2 meters) high by 2.5 feet (0.75 meters) wide, the Rosetta Stone is merely a portion of a larger, now-missing stele. Despite its incomplete state, its value is immense. Hieroglyphics, which became obsolete after the 4th century, had baffled scholars for centuries. The Rosetta Stone emerged as a crucial key, enabling researchers to unlock the secrets of this ancient script. It wasn’t until the 19th century, almost two millennia after the stele’s creation, that the code of hieroglyphics was finally deciphered.

The stone’s text begins by praising Ptolemy V’s reign, noting his contributions to Egypt’s ​​prosperity, temple building, grain distribution, tax relief, and freeing of prisoners. It also mentions his military successes. In honor of these deeds, the decree commands that statues titled “Ptolemy, Defender of Egypt” be set up in all temples for daily tributes by priests. The king is to be worshiped like a god, with special festivities for his birthday and coronation day. Finally, the decree mandates that its message be inscribed in three scripts on stones and placed in temples across the land for all to see.

In 1799, during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, French soldiers unearthed the stone in Rosetta (present-day el-Rashid, Egypt) while building fortifications near Alexandria by the banks of a Nile tributary. It was the officer Pierre François Xavier Bouchard who stumbled upon the inscribed stone segment and immediately realized its potential importance. He speculated that the various scripts might be translations of the same text, a theory later confirmed by the translation of the Greek text on the stone.

Upon recognizing its value, Bouchard’s superior had the artifact transported to Alexandria. Replicas were made, but it was British General Tomkins Turner who ultimately seized the stone. It has been housed in the British Museum in London ever since, despite ongoing requests for its return to Egypt.

A potential reconstruction of the original stele

A potential reconstruction of the original stele

Scholars from across Europe eagerly tried to decipher the Rosetta Stone’s secrets. English polymath Thomas Young treated the task like a math problem, using the Greek translation to map out the hieroglyphs, making some progress in understanding their meanings and how plurals were formed.

However, it was French linguist Jean-François Champollion, known as “the father of Egyptology,” who cracked the code in 1822. Unlike Young, Champollion’s fluency in Coptic language and his profound understanding of Egyptian culture led him to the realization that the Demotic script expressed syllables and the hieroglyphs corresponded to Coptic sounds.

Champollion’s breakthrough was groundbreaking. Overwhelmed with excitement, Champollion famously burst into his brother’s office exclaiming, “Je tiens mon affaire!” (“I’ve got it!”), before collapsing and remaining unconscious for five days.

John Ray, the author of The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, reflects on the artifact’s profound impact: “The Rosetta Stone is really the key, not simply to ancient Egypt; it’s the key to decipherment itself…You’ve got to think back to before it was discovered. All we knew about the ancient world was Greece, Rome, and the Bible. We knew there were big civilizations, like Egypt, but they’d fallen silent. With the cracking of the Rosetta Stone, they could speak with their own voice, and suddenly whole areas of history were revealed.”

Words of wisdom

“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.” —Andre Gide

“Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.” —Charlotte Bronte

“If nothing saves us from death, at least love should save us from life.” —Pablo Neruda

“Money is a great servant but a bad master.” —Francis Bacon


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