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The Rosetta Stone

Rossetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is one of history’s rare finds. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte took his French army into Egypt. His troops were moving rocks to strengthen their defenses against the British Navy. In the process, a stone with inscriptions was uncovered by a French soilder and shown to the Lieutenant in charge, a captain named Pierre Francois Bouchard. He recognized that the stone may be important, so he had it shipped to Cairo for exanimation.


The stone was found to have three different bands of writing inscribed on it. The top band contained Egyptian hieroglyphs. The second band contained an Egyptian script called demotic, and the third band was in ancient Greek. The Greek language was still in use, which made translation of the rest of the stone possible. Both demotic and hieroglyphic languages had been lost to the Egyptians more than a thousand years earlier. The Greek translation revealed that the message on the stone was a “decree by the priesthood of Egypt in honor of King Ptolemy V Ephaphanes.”. . . “As a condition of the British success over French troops in Egypt, the Rosetta Stone was ceded to the British in 1801 and was brought to England where it was placed in a British Museum as a gift from King George III.” (David 1998, pg197 )


Several attempts were made to decipher the texts on the stone. Silvestre de Sacy was able to identify symbol groups that comprised the words “Ptolemy” and “Alexander.” John David Akerblad worked on the demotic script, identifying several words. In 1802, he wrote a book titled Lettre à M. de Sacy . Thomas Young was the first to suggest that the Egyptians intermixed symbols that were both alphabetical in nature and ones that were symbolic (nonalphabetical). These two types were used side by side in the text.


The person who played a major role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone was Jean-Francois Champollion. Champollion had learned six Middle Eastern languages in addition to Latin and Greek, by the time he was seventeen. In 1822, while studying the writing on the walls of the temple at Abu Simbel, Champollion discovered the name of Rameses II. He expanded on Young's work on the Rosetta Stone and realized that many of the symbols in hieroglyph were phonic in nature. He published his findings in 1824 in a book called Precis du systeme hieroglyphique phonetiques. His framework for translating hieroglyphs led to the full translation of the Rosetta Stone, which then became the basis for the translation of all future hieroglyphic manuscripts and writings.



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