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What is the Rosetta Stone and Why is It Important?

Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign of 1799 in Egypt led to one of the most important discoveries of all time. In a bid to get back at Britain, Napoleon led an army of soldiers and scholars into the strategically located colony in Northern Africa.

While rebuilding a fort in the Rosetta area that was perceived to help inhibit Britain’s trade and believed to be a formidable ancient civilization comparable only to Greece and Rome, Pierre-Francois Bouchard, a French officer, inadvertently came across a black stone slab that would later revolutionize Egypt. It became the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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What is the Rosetta Stone?

Rosetta stone

The Rosetta Stone is an ancient slab of stone, 44 inches tall and 30 inches wide, made of black granodiorite. It bears three different types of writings: Greek, Egyptian Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The use of hieroglyphics had been phased out by the 4th century, so 19th-century scholars were puzzled as to why this form of writing appeared on the slab, which dates to 196 BCE .

While it’s reportedly not pretty looking, the stone is a gem for modern history as it helped decipher hieroglyphs, which until then had been a mystery.  Hieroglyphs had been used by different civilizations, but documented by none, except the Egyptians.

Prior to its discovery, scholars had made an attempt at interpreting writings that had been written in hieroglyphics, but to no avail. However, once, scholars were able to read the writings left behind by the Ancient Egyptians, this opened up a whole new world for them.

It’s, therefore, safe to say that the Rosetta Stone not only exposed Egyptian language and culture but also provided a window to other ancient cultures like Mesopotamia, Ancient China, Mayans, and the Olmec.

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History of the Rosetta Stone 

The Rosetta stone was created following a decree issued by a group of Egyptian clergymen on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 196BC and was meant to attest to his devotedness and generosity. The decree has 14 lines of hieroglyphics commonly used by priests, 32 lines of demotic script used for everyday purposes, and 53 lines of the Greek script. 

It’s believed that the stone, which was originally kept in a temple in Sais, was moved either in the late antiquity or Mameluk period to Rosetta town, also known as Rashid town, and was used as building material for Fort Julien, where it would later be discovered by the French.

The stone, among other ancient objects collected by the French commission, was handed to the British in 1801 after the British conquered the French and took over the colony. In 1802, it was then moved to the British Museum. It has been on display there almost ever since, but was moved temporarily during World War I, and is reportedly the most viewed artifact on display.

What Does the Rosetta Stone Symbolize?

Sacred Inscription – The Rosetta Stone was inscribed by priests, with one of the languages used being Hieroglyphics. Additionally, the term ‘hieroglyph’ stands for ‘sacred inscribed sign’. As a result, it’s come to be seen as a symbol for sacred inscription.

Cultural Discovery – The uncovering and decoding of the Rosetta Stone was a cultural discovery. It opened up Egyptian civilization to the world, leading to the understanding of a long obscure dynasty.

Key to New Concepts – It’s through the discovery of the Rosetta Stone that the long puzzling hieroglyphics were decoded. For this reason, the term Rosetta Stone has come to mean “a significant key to a new concept”.

About Hieroglyphics

Hieroglyphic writing, which was invented by the Egyptians around 3100BC, was used by the ancient civilization for civil and religious purposes. It doesn’t make use of vowels or punctuations but instead has an estimate of 700-800 pictures consisting of ideograms (symbols representing an idea or object) and phonograms (symbols representing sounds). Over time, hieroglyphics were shortened to form a script known as Hieratic and later further abbreviated into the Demotic Script.

Although the abbreviated versions proved to be more efficient than the original hieroglyphics, the latter remained a preference for religious and artistic purposes. Specific uses of hieroglyphics included records of historical events, autobiographies of the departed, writing prayers and religious texts, and decoration of jewelry and furniture.

Decoding the Rosetta Stone 

Being the first bilingual text from Ancient Egypt to be recovered in the modern era, the Rosetta Stone stirred interest, mainly because, as aforementioned, it gave an opening to crack the coded hieroglyphic script. The three types of writings used for the text are very similar, which is why it was used for deciphering and interpretation.

In the carving of the Rosetta Stone, the first inscription was done in ancient Hieroglyphics, which only the highly educated and respected priests could understand; the second inscription was done in Hieratic, which elite civilians understood; and the third in Greek, which had become the most commonly used language in Egyptian government and education during the reign of Alexander the Great. By deciphering the Greek inscription, scholars were able to crack the code of the Rosetta Stone.

The decipherment of the stone began with Thomas Young, a British scientist. He managed to establish that the hieroglyphic part of the decree contains six similar cartouches (oval patterns encompassing the hieroglyphs). Young further confirmed that these cartouches represented King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. This discovery led to the understanding that other cartouches found on other objects were representations of royalty and could be read based on the direction faced by the animal and bird characters therein. The scholar, who is said to have treated the Egyptian marvel as a mathematical problem, was also able to identify the phonetic sounds some glyphs imitated, thus figuring out how words were pluralized.

It was, however, in 1822 that the code was truly cracked. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion, unlike his predecessor Thomas, was well-schooled in the Coptic dialect of the Greek language and had extensive knowledge of Egypt. This knowledge, combined with his enthusiasm, helped the scholar figure out that while the hieroglyphics represented Coptic sounds, the demotic script conveyed syllables and that both the hieroglyphic text and demotic text used phonetic characters to spell both foreign names and native Egyptian words. With his newfound knowledge, Champollion was able to create an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters. With the backing of other scholars, he was eventually declared the father of Egyptology.

The cracking of the Rosetta Stone revealed that the inscription was aimed at cataloging King Ptolemy V Epiphanes’s noble deeds, pledges by the council of priests to bolster the king’s cult, and a promise to inscribe the decree on stone in the three languages and place the stones in temples across Egypt.

The Modern Rosetta Stone – The Rosetta Disk

Inspired by the Rosetta Stone, linguists of the world came together to form the Rosetta Project, which is aimed at conserving languages, both major and native, in a bid to ensure that no language is lost. To this end, this group of specialists have built a digital library known as the Rosetta Disk.

The Rosetta Disk may be portable enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but it is a wealth of information that carries over 1,500 human languages microscopically etched into the disk.

The pages of the disk, which are only about 400 microns each, can only be read using a 650X powered microscope. The disk helps you understand the language quickly and with ease. It also allows one to be confident when speaking the newly learned vocabulary.

Wrapping Up

In the years following the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, several other bilingual and trilingual Egyptian inscriptions were discovered, further easing the translation process. However, the Rosetta Stone remains the most prominent key to Egyptology and the understanding of Egyptian civilization.

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Rose Mulu
Rose Mulu

With a keen interest in understanding why life was and is as it is, Rose has been studying religion, culture, and history for over fifteen years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communication and uses this, together with her knack for literature, to share her knowledge and insight with the world.