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The Discovery and Importance of the Rosetta Stone
On July 15, 1799, a French soldier noticed a strange stone in the wall of an old fort near the town of el-Rashid, Egypt. The town, also called Rosetta, is in the delta of the Nile River and was part of the area occupied by the French Army at that time. France, under Napoleon Bonaparte, had invaded Egypt, part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1799 as a means of establishing a French presence in the Middle East.
The stone was dark granite, smoothly finished. It was 4 feet 8 inches tall, 30 inches wide and nearly a foot thick, and what made it noticeable was that it had some sort of inscription carved onto two sides. The soldier’s commanding officer called in some archaeologists, who had accompanied the French Army to Egypt, to show them the find. They soon realized that the stone’s inscription was in three different languages: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, a script called Demotic (an alphabet writing also used by the Egyptians) and ancient Greek.
Greek, even in its ancient form, was well known to Europeans, but the secret to reading hieroglyphs and Demotic had died out nearly two thousand years before. Europeans were awed by the artifacts, temples and monuments of Egypt, but they had no way to read and understand the inscriptions that would tell them who had built these marvels and what they meant. This stone, they saw, was the means to unlock the written record of the ancient civilization.
The British invaded Egypt and defeated the French in 1801, and took possession of the Rosetta Stone (as it had come to be known) along with many other archaeological treasures unearthed by the French. Although they took the stone back to London, where it was given to the British Museum, they made copies of the inscriptions. These copies were widely distributed throughout Europe, where they were studied by experts in ancient languages. Ironically, it was a French professor and linguist named Jean François Champollion, who broke the code. In 1822, he published a paper giving the translation of the inscription and provided an early dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The stone pillar, the translation showed, bore a decree of King Ptolemy V from the year 196 BC.
Being able to read the ancient Egyptian languages from this stone – supported and expanded by later discoveries of multi-language inscriptions – gave archaeologists a way to learn a great deal about the history and culture of ancient Egypt. Finally, they could read the numerous inscriptions found on walls and stele (stone pillars) and in tombs and interpret the meaning of the objects they excavated. Two hundred years after its discovery, the Rosetta Stone is still considered to be the key to the beginning of modern Egyptology.
The Rosetta Stone has become a monument to the value of communication between languages, across distance and through time. It is so important that its name has become synonymous with the breakthrough to any discovery.
Today, the Rosetta Stone can still be seen in the British Museum. It is the most-visited object in their collection.