For millennia, the mysteries of ancient Egypt eluded western study – until some 200 years ago, when scholars unscrambled the Rosetta Stone and opened our eyes to a new world of old wonders.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte set off on what he hoped would be a stunning military campaign in Egypt and Syria. By invading Egypt, he aimed to strengthen France’s position in the region, improve trade links, and give the British one in the eye by cutting off their trade routes to the east. In the spirit of the Enlightenment age, he also wanted to further scholastic knowledge of the area, so accompanying him on the mission were scientists, mathematicians, engineers, linguists and artists.
Unfortunately for him, the military side of things was a fizzer…but the scholarly work was a game-changer.
The large group of “savants” (over 150 of them) who travelled with Napoleon studied the flora, fauna, agricultural practices, geology, climate and most crucially, many of the tombs, temples and sculptures of ancient Egypt. The scientific team discovered ancient remains at Luxor, Philae, the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere. Scrupulous records were made, maps were compiled, detailed sketches were executed, papers were published. From 1801 through to 1828, 23 weighty volumes were published: the Description de l’Égypte, a positive cornucopia of all things Egyptian.
One of the most incredible finds – and our subject for the day – was a large granite slab (or more correctly, a granodiorite slab) that had broken off a larger stele. It measured around one metre high and was covered in ancient indecipherable scripts. It was discovered in 1799 by soldier Pierre Bouchard in the town of Rosetta (Rashid) in the Nile Delta and christened the “Rosetta Stone”.
The Stone was taken to Alexandria for study, but in 1801 the French were forced to capitulate to England. Many Egyptian objects collected by the French, including the Rosetta Stone, were duly appropriated by English forces, ultimately ending up in the British Museum, which is where the Rosetta Stone remains to this day.
Basically it’s a marketing exercise announcing that Ptolemy V is the true pharaoh. It’s propaganda, an age-old message of a leader’s superior qualities, but what it represents is huge – the opening up of a vast and until then unknown culture.
Ownership of this archaeological treasure is a sore point with Egypt, which has requested its repatriation to Cairo. It’s a fraught issue – who should hold precious cultural items sourced from other lands, sometimes illegally – but we’re not going there today, oh no!
The Rosetta Stone has been of paramount significance to archaeology. When the scripts were finally deciphered, some 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history became accessible to scholars the world over. The deciphering took some doing.
The Rosetta Stone is written in two languages – Egyptian and Greek – and three different scripts: hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek. Hieroglyphics, the “language of the gods”, were used by priests for important religious documents; demotic Egyptian was more commonly used across the country and was the language of business and government. And Greek? That was spoken by the ruling elite. In fact Egyptian rulers had spoken Greek since Alexander the Great had done his conquering thing in 332 bce.
The first things that translators considered were that the three scripts contained the same message, and that the logical starting place was to examine the ancient Greek script first. Ah, the Greeks, what would we do without them! A full Greek translation was complete by around 1803. The two Egyptian scripts took longer.
Unscrambling the scripts was attempted by many scholars, but it’s essentially the work of two men, English scientist Thomas Young (1773-1829) and French philologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832).
Young got the ball rolling in 1814 when he determined that the six identical cartouches (a group of hieroglyphs inside an oval) referred to Ptolemy V. He also looked at which way some of the symbols (such as animal characters) faced, which provided a clue as to how to read the script.
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Champollion had been working on a dictionary of Coptic, closely associated with the Greek language. Beginning in 1821, he decided to build on Young’s earlier work, seeking to break the code. He soon found phonetically similar characters across the Greek and Egyptian names and by 1824 had established a comprehensive list of the hieroglyphs accompanied by their Greek counterparts. This not only unlocked the secrets held in the Stone’s text, but made it possible to learn from other Egyptian artefacts. His achievement is all the more impressive when we learn that Champollion did all this from a copy of the text that he’d obtained from the Description de l’Égypte. He only saw the Rosetta Stone itself once and that was after he’d deciphered it.
Napoleon’s expedition, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and its subsequent deciphering led to a whole new area of academia – Egyptology. Until the publication of the academic tomes from Napoleon’s scientific team and the subsequent translation of the scripts on the Rosetta Stone, Egypt’s rich pharaonic history was largely unknown in Europe.
So what does it say? Basically it’s a marketing exercise dating from 196 bce announcing that Ptolemy V (205-180 bce) is the true pharaoh and that his status has been divinely confirmed. Ptolemy’s great generosity is praised, the decree recording his gift of gold and grain made to the temples, his cutting of taxes so the people would prosper, and his absolution of prisoners.
It goes on to extol Ptolemy V’s protection of his people against rebels and invaders; his building of infrastructure, for example, by having the waters of the Nile diverted for irrigation purposes; his esteem for the gods and their temples. It’s only part of the entire decree. Don’t forget the Rosetta Stone is a fragment broken from a larger stele, but even the truncated text assures us that Ptolemy is a fine man, a great and beneficent ruler. You can read a translation here.
It’s propaganda, an age-old message of a leader’s superior qualities, but what it represents is huge – the opening up of a vast and until then unknown culture. The Rosetta Stone was the key to all future understanding of Egyptian achievement, religion, learning and day-to-day life. Not just a hunk of rock, it was the conduit through which we’ve come to know about that remarkable civilisation.