What Is The Rosetta Stone? And Why Is It Important?

The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous artifacts in all of archaeology.  It is a stone “stele” (pronounced STEE-lee) inscribed with the same decree in three different scripts used in Egypt at the time of its creation: on the top is Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics, the middle portion in Demotic script, and the lower portion is Ancient Greek.  The stone was one of the most important elements in unlocking the “code” of Egyptian Hieroglyphics, making translation of the pictorial writing system possible.

This was an amazing discovery at the time, and hence the importance it has to modern archaeology.  The stone was created in 196 B.C.E. and contains a decree from a congress of priests establishing the royal cult of Ptolemy V and his reign over Egypt.  Interestingly, Ptolemy V had inherited the throne at the age of 5 and  was coronated at the age of 12 (when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed).

It was common practice to issue such decrees at the time on stone tablets and steles, and also common practice to issue the same decree in several languages so that it was accessible to most citizens at the time.

Who Discovered The Stone?

The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 when members of Napoleon’s army were digging in the town of Rosetta on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt in order to build additions to a fort.  The stone was later deemed important and preserved, and after the defeat of the French by the British it was handed over to British authorities along with other antiquities.

It then went on to be studied in detail by several linguists from many different countries.

The Key To Hieroglyphics

Before the stone was found, there was no real way to begin to translate Egyptian Hieroglyphs.  The language had died off, and all knowledge of its translation and writing system had been gone for almost a thousand years hence.  Once scientists got this “key” they were able to begin unlocking the Hieroglyphs that had been stumping them.

Before the Rosetta Stone was found, translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics was almost impossible.  However, translation of the Hieroglyphs on the stone didn’t happen immediately.  Despite the fact that the Ancient Greek was able to be translated relatively quickly, it wasn’t until several years later that scientists and linguists determined the elements of the Demotic and Hieroglyphic texts were matching the Ancient Greek.

Hieroglyphs on top and Demotic underneath.

Translating The Text

Because of the difficulty in translating Hieroglyphics, and the uncertainty as to how the writing system was structured, linguists started by translating the Demotic text in the middle.  The main bulk of the translation credit traditionally has been attributed to French linguist Silvestre de Sacy.  He worked at comparing the Greek to the Demotic syllables and establishing comparisons between the languages using foreign names such as “Ptolemy” and “Alexander”.  It was these two names that enabled him to begin to translate the rest of the Demotic text.

Swedish linguist Johann Akerblad helped in the translation of the Demotic text with his knowledge of the Coptic language – which was the language of the Coptic Church of Egypt and used Greek text to write Egyptian.  Interestingly the Coptic language uses seven symbols that were shared by the Demotic text.  With this additional kernel of knowledge, Johann Akerblad helped establish the Demotic translations of the words “love”, “temple”, and “Greek”.  It was this that helped confirm that the Demotic text in the middle of the Rosetta stone was a phonetic script.

Unlocking Phonetic Hieroglyphs

Example of a cartouche

British linguist Thomas Young took over the rest of the translation of the Demotic text in 1814, and went on to begin to unlock the Hieroglyphics.  He determined that proper names would not be able to be portrayed in symbols, as they were unique and would not be re-creatable using the words of the language itself.  They would then, therefore, have to be spelled phonetically.  Using this assumption he noted that there were certain parts of the Hieroglyphics that were encircled and separated from the other symbols.  These encircled groups of symbols were dubbed a “cartouche” and Thomas Young was able to successfully prove that these contained the proper names of people like Ptolemy and Alexander.

Jean-Francois Champollion then later expanded on Thomas Young’s work after corresponding with him and using his own prior experience with Coptic as well as some minor translations of names from another obelisk with Hieroglyphic writing.  Starting with the names, he was able to successfully start to unlock many of the phonetic characters used in Hieroglyphics.

Champollion’s table of Coptic, Demotic, and Hieroglyphic phonetics
Interestingly enough, when Champollion made his breakthrough that the Hieroglyphic symbols were sometimes broken down into sound components and used phonetically, he exclaimed “Je tiens l’affaire!” (I’ve got it!) loudly to his brother, promptly fainted, and then remained bedridden for five days. 

Where Is The Stone Now?

On display in the British Museum

Despite the discovery and most of the translation done by the French, the Rosetta Stone has resided in the British Museum since 1802.  It was briefly relocated during World War I in order to protect it from the extensive bombing of London, however after the war it was quickly put back.  The location is still under minor controversy.  It is said that Egypt would like the stone back, however the British Museum assumes that its ownership has been well established by time.


Liz Blake

Liz Blake is a language enthusiast who takes a special interest in linguistic anthropology and how language affects the way people interact and see the world. In her spare time she likes to read, garden, and most of all: travel!

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