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This Day in History: Rosetta Stone Found

This day in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was found during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign about 35 miles north of Alexandria. To learn more about this famous artifact, I turned to Oxford Reference Online and discovered this entry, taken from Carol A. R. Andrews’ article “Rosetta Stone” in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology edited by Brian M. Fagan.

Named after the village in the western Egyptian delta where it was found, the trilingual inscription found on the Rosetta Stone provided the key for the decipherment of other Egyptian hieroglyphic discoveries. It was found in mid-July 1799 by a French officer of engineers called Bouchard, one of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, and was reportedly built into an old wall that was demolished to extend Fort Julien. Accompanying French scholars quickly realized the importance of the inscribed slab of granite but were compelled to cede it to the victorious British army under Article XVI of the Capitulation of Alexandria. In 1802, the stone was installed in the British Museum in London, where it has been on display ever since.

The importance of the Rosetta Stone lies in its being inscribed in three scripts (demotic, Greek, and hieroglyphs) but only two languages (ancient Egyptian and Greek). At the time of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the language of ancient Egypt had been extinct for fourteen centuries, although charlatans like the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century had erroneously claimed to have deciphered hieroglyphic inscriptions. Yet the Rosetta Stone provided scholars, for the first time, with a Greek translation of an Egyptian language, and the Greek section was found to contain a decree passed on 27 March 196 B.C. by Egyptian priests gathered at Memphis to celebrate the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V.

Because Greeks formed the upper levels of the Ptolemaic bureaucracy and Egyptian speakers formed the vast majority of the population throughout the Ptolemaic period (305–30 B.C.), royal decrees were routinely issued in both Greek and Egyptian. Thus the text of the Greek section of the Rosetta Stone was repeated in both Egyptian hieroglyphic script, used primarily for monumental inscriptions, and demotic, a script derived from hieroglyphs via cursive hieratic. Demotic was the contemporary documentary script embodying the current form of the language in the Ptolemaic period and was quite different from the hieroglyphs in grammar and vocabulary.

The elongated ovals called cartouches, which contained the royal names in hieroglyphs, provided the key to the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone inscription, when compared to the corresponding royal names in the Greek text.

A comparison of the royal names on the Rosetta Stone—in conjunction with the cartouche of Cleopatra inscribed on the Bankes’ obelisk at Kingston Lacey, Dorset, England—enabled English physician Thomas Young to demonstrate in 1819 in an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica that hieroglyphs were basically phonetic, not symbolic, as had previously been thought. This insight offered the French scholar Jean François Champollian the basis for further discoveries. His Lettre a M. Dacier in 1822 marked the beginning of the scientific reading of hieroglyphs and the first step toward formulation of a system of ancient Egyptian grammar, the basis of modern Egyptology.

Carol A. R. Andrews “Rosetta Stone” The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Brian M. Fagan, ed., Oxford University Press 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Oxford Online OUP-USA. 19 July 2010

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