Rosetta Stone: Key to Ancient Egyptian Writing

Rosetta stone - A basalt tablet bearing nscriptions in Greek, Egyptian and demotic scripts.
The Rosetta Stone has been on display at the British Museum since 1802. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

The "Rosetta Stone" — which was discovered in mid-July 1799 during construction of a fort by a French military expedition at the town of Rashid (ancient Rosetta) — contains text written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (a written script used by the Egyptians between the seventh century B.C. and the fifth century) and ancient Greek. 

Because ancient Greek had been deciphered at the time of the Rosetta Stone's discovery, scientists were eventually able to decipher the other two unknown scripts, which contained the same text. It was discovered that the writing on the stone was a decree written in the year 196 B.C., during the reign of pharaoh Ptolemy V. The decipherment of the two Egyptian scripts — hieroglyphs and Demotic — allowed other texts written by the ancient Egyptians to be translated and understood."

After the French surrendered to an army from the British Empire and Ottoman Empire, the stone was taken to Britain and is now in the British Museum. The left side of the Rosetta Stone has the words "captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801," while the right side has the words "presented by King George III." Egypt has asked the British government to return the stone to Egypt. 

The Rosetta Stone is 44 inches (112 centimeters) high, 30 inches (76 cm) wide, weighs about 1,680 lbs. (762 kilograms) and has a rough, unpolished backside, which suggests that the stone was meant to be shown with its back against a wall. The stone itself "is a granodiorite, similar in composition to the so-called 'black granite' from Aswan but somewhat finer-grained than most examples of that rock," wrote geologists Andrew Middleton and Dietrich Klemm in a paper published in 2003 in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. "It is most probable that the slab of rock used for the Rosetta Stone was obtained from the Ptolemaic quarrying sites to the south of Aswan," wrote Middleton and Klemm. 

"What it records is a decree, the text of an agreement issued jointly by a king and a synod of ancient Egyptian clergy," wrote John Ray, a professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University in his book "The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt" (Profile Books, 2007). 

The text on the stone says that a group of Egyptian priests agreed to crown Ptolemy V pharaoh of Egypt, and declare him a god, in exchange for tax breaks for temples and clergy. This "decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing," the stone reads (translation by R. S. Simpson), and it should be set up "next to the statue of the king" in temples all over Egypt.  

The phrase "sacred writing" meant hieroglyphic writing, and by 196 B.C. this script was used only by a small number of priests. "Hieroglyphs had been used for over 3,000 years and were now understood only by specialist priests: the archaic language written in them had been dead for many centuries," wrote Richard Parkinson, a curator at the British Museum in his book "The Rosetta Stone" (British Museum Press, 2005). 

Demotic was an Egyptian script that was more commonly used by the Egyptians by 196 B.C., while the Greek language was brought over from Greece by the rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty and was gradually becoming more widely used in Egypt. The kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty are descended from Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian who was one of Alexander the Great's generals. Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. and incorporated it into his empire. After Alexander died in 323 B.C., his empire quickly fell apart, and troops commanded by Ptolemy I Soter took control of Egypt.  

"From surviving traces it seems possible that the signs [on the Rosetta Stone] were originally filled with a light red pigment," wrote Parkinson. "The incised signs were filled with white chalk early in its museum history, a procedure that was designed to make the text more legible, and carnauba wax was applied to the surface to help protect it," wrote Parkinson. 

Fragment of a much larger stela

The Rosetta Stone was not originally located at Rashid (ancient Rosetta) and is actually a fragment of a much larger stela that was originally displayed at a temple, possibly at the ancient Egyptian city of Sais.  

"The original stone was considerably taller than it is today," Ray wrote in his book. "Its uppermost register would have been decorated with figures of the king and the gods of the temple where it stood. These are long gone," wrote Ray. "Of the hieroglyphic text which formed its second register, only a third is left." Fragments of the Demotic and Greek texts are also broken off and are gone. Parkinson estimates that when the Rosetta Stone was first created, it was about 59 inches (149 cm) in height. 

The town of Rashid (ancient Rosetta) is located by the sea, and the Rosetta Stone would not have originally been placed there, wrote Parkinson. "The land on which that seaside town was built did not exist at the time of its carving, being the result of later sedimentation." 

"The stela was probably erected at a more ancient site than Rashid, further inland," possibly the ancient city of Sais, which is fairly close by, wrote Parkinson. "The Rosetta Stone probably stood in the temple precincts of Sais for several centuries."

The temple that once held the stone may have been quarried centuries after the Rosetta Stone was created, and the stone may have been brought to Rashid as quarried rock. 

Discovery and British capture

The use of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Demotic died out during the fifth century. The last known inscriptions were written on Philae, an island near the southern border of Egypt that has a temple complex. 

Scholars have noted that the use of the two ancient texts declined as Christianity and Greco-Roman culture spread in Egypt. Greek and Coptic (an Egyptian language that uses the Greek alphabet) supplanted Egyptian hieroglyphs and Demotic. 

The Rosetta Stone was found by a French military expedition during construction of Fort St. Julien. "The exact spot of discovery was apparently inside the outer wall, under what is now an internal turret," wrote Parkinson. A 23-year-old French engineering officer named Pierre Francois Xavier Bouchard (1771-1822) apparently made the discovery. "Bouchard immediately realized that it was part of a stela inscribed in three scripts," wrote Parkinson. 

The exact date of discovery is uncertain, scholars have found. "The discovery of the Rosetta Stone seems to have been made in mid-July 1799, shortly before the land battle of Abuqir [sometimes spelled Abukir] on 25 July," wrote Parkinson. 

The French force that Napoleon led to Egypt included a group of scientists, scholars and artists who studied and documented the country's human and natural history. "Their work culminated in the magnificent 'Description de l'Égypte,' whose volumes included antiquities, the modern state of the country and its natural history, and which were published in the years after the French withdrawal," wrote Parkinson. He noted that word spread quickly of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, and copies of the inscriptions were sent to Paris. 

By 1801, the French force was on the defensive, and the Rosetta Stone had been taken to Alexandria, one of the last remaining Egyptian cities under French control. By Aug. 31, this force had surrendered, and the British captured the stone and took it to the British Museum. 

Parkinson noted that Col. Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner, who took the Rosetta Stone back to Britain aboard a captured French frigate, called the stone a "proud trophy of the arms of Britain — not plundered from defenseless inhabitants, but honorably acquired by the fortune of war." Over the past decade, Egypt has been requesting that the Rosetta Stone be returned to Egypt. 

Modern-day military conventions and international agreements prohibit pillaging and looting during war, and the Egyptian government has long since made the looting and export of artifacts illegal. However, in 1801, when the Rosetta Stone was taken, these conventions, agreements and laws did not exist, and museums in Europe and North America now contain many artifacts that were looted or stolen in the 19th century or earlier.   

Deciphering the stone

"In 1802 the Swedish diplomat J.H. Akerblad (1763-1819) published his identification of several important features of the Demotic, including the third-person pronouns, and correlated them with their Coptic equivalents, as well as isolating the Demotic equivalents of 'Egypt,' 'the temples,' 'many,' 'the king,' and 'Greek,'" wrote Parkinson. Coptic was still understood in the 19th century, and Akerblad and other scholars knew that Coptic was an Egyptian language with words whose meanings were similar to those in the Demotic script.

While Akerblad made important discoveries about the Rosetta Stone as early as 1802, the credit for the decipherment of the Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphic texts goes to two scholars: Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion. 

Young was a polymath who made discoveries in mechanics, optics, anatomy, acoustics, physics, navigation and languages, wrote Ray. By the time the Rosetta Stone was discovered, Young was an established scientist with many patents and a well-known reputation. Champollion, in comparison, was a young, upstart Egyptologist who was struggling to become established in his field, wrote Ray. 

Young focused his efforts on understanding the Demotic script — the cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs, wrote Ray. Scholars knew that the Demotic text represented letters and sounds that had the makings of an alphabet, but many scholars thought that hieroglyphs were more symbolic. 

Young was able to decipher the hieroglyphic word for "Ptolemy" and determine that the hieroglyphic signs represented sounds and letters — the makings of an alphabet. "In 1819 he [Young] published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica an article which we can call state of the art, in which he offered equivalents for 218 Demotic words, as well as 200 hieroglyphic groups," wrote Ray, who noted that Young still believed that hieroglyphs only represented an alphabet when Greek or foreign words were used, and that the hieroglyphs were largely symbolic when they discussed Egyptian topics. 

"He [Young] could not overcome his suspicion that the alphabetic elements that he had discovered were used only for foreign names and that the rest of the hieroglyphs could not be explained along those lines," wrote Ray. 

When Champollion learned of Young's work, he realized that Young was wrong, and that hieroglyphs represented an alphabet that could be deciphered and understood. Champollion went to work matching the hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone with the same words in Demotic and Greek, gradually revealing the hieroglyphic alphabet. He used his knowledge of Coptic to help with this task. 

Champollion got copies of additional Egyptian inscriptions from other sites in Egypt and was able to read the name "Ramesses," a name used by several pharaohs. He was also able to read the name of the god Thoth, noted Parkinson in his book. 

On Sept. 27, 1822, Champollion presented his findings at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. "In this report Champollion described the alphabet that was used to write non-Egyptian names, and in the concluding pages he tentatively announced that he was certain that the phonetic signs were an integral part of 'pure hieroglyphic writing,'" wrote Parkinson in his book. In other words, the hieroglyphs represented a language with an alphabet, which Champollion had deciphered. In the upcoming decades, the findings in this report allowed ancient Egyptian texts to be translated and Egyptian history to be better understood. 

Young was in the audience during the presentation and wrote a letter to Champollion congratulating him on his discoveries. While historians sometimes suggest that there was conflict between Young and Champollion, the letters that Young wrote show little evidence of it. The two scholars corresponded before Champollion's paper was presented in 1822 and for some time afterward. Ray noted in his book that Young had already made many discoveries in a variety of fields, and his place in scientific history was already assured. Young died in 1829 at the age of 56, while Champollion died in 1832 at the age of 41. 

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Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.