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Champollion reveals decipherment of the Rosetta Stone

This Day in World History

September 27, 1822

Champollion reveals decipherment of the Rosetta Stone

On September 27, 1822, Jean François Champollion announced a long-awaited discovery: he could decipher the Rosetta Stone. The stone, a document written in 196 BCE during the reign of Ptolemy V, had been discovered in Rashid (Rosetta in French), Egypt in 1799 by French troops involved in a military campaign against the British.

Deciphering hieroglyphics had frustrated scholars for centuries. Arab scholars, beginning in the ninth century, CE, made unsuccessful attempts, as did Europeans in the fifteenth.  Consequently, even though Egypt was littered with monumental stone inscriptions, no one could translate them.

The Rosetta Stone was immediately recognized as a tool that could be used to decode Egyptian hieroglyphic writing since it was inscribed with hieroglyphics, a second Egyptian script called demotic, and ancient Greek. If, as it was assumed, the three pieces of writing had the same text, the Greek could be used to understand the Egyptian.

The task would not be easy, however. Hieroglyphics combine a mixture of ideograms, or pictures representing concepts, and phonetic symbols represent sounds– and more than one symbol could be used to represent a sound. Complicating matters, the demotic and Greek texts were not exactly the same.

The British—who gained possession of the stone in 1801 after defeating France in Egypt—tried to translate the texts. They made some progress but were unable to reach a breakthrough. Meanwhile, Champollion working with illustrations of the Rosetta Stone and of other ancient Egyptian texts, recognized that hieroglyphic marks were sometimes ideograms and sometimes phonetic.  He wrote, “It is a complex system…symbolic and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would say in the same word.”

In 1822, he was able to correctly read the name of several rulers. Soon he was able to identify other names in other texts and then, using the symbols for sounds he gleaned from those translations, to identify a word in hieroglyphics that was not a name.  When Champollion announced his breakthrough, his discovery came under attack from the British, who dismissed his notion that the Egyptians had developed a phonetic-based form of writing. In 1866, however, another text with Greek and Egyptian writing was discovered and successfully decoded using Champollion’s approach. The French scholar could not enjoy this vindication, however. He had died in 1832.

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

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