What Is the Rosetta Stone and Why Was It Important?

What Is the Rosetta Stone and Why Was It Important?

What Is the Rosetta Stone?

The Rosetta Stone is essentially a broken off a slab of black rock composed of a type of stone called granodiorite. It was once part of a larger slab that would have stood about 6.5 feet high. While the back of the stone is a rough surface much like any other stone, the front of the stone is smooth and covered in an ancient Egyptian text that is written in three different scripts.

The scripts have since been interpreted as three different translations of a royal decree issued in 196 BC, affirming the royal cult of a then 13-year-old Ptolemy V. The three different scripts inscribed on the stone are hieroglyphics, which was the language of Priests, demotic, which was the standard everyday script, and Greek, which was used by the administration. The text outlines all the accomplishments that the young Pharaoh had achieved in the name of the Egyptian Empire since he had taken the throne and the duties the Priests planned to undertake in their gratitude.

The Rosetta Stone was first displayed in a temple close to the town of Sais, Egypt, before it was moved to Rosetta where it would be discovered by the French thousands of years after it was first engraved. The iconic stone has stood in the British Museum for over two centuries, since 1802, with the exception of being hidden underground for two years to prevent damage during World War I.

This ancient artifact is undoubtedly one of the most famous in the world and draws in millions of visitors annually, but how was it discovered in the first place, and why is it so important?

How Was the Rosetta Stone Discovered?

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 by Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers, who were in the process of building a fort near the town of El-Rashid, or Rosetta, during their campaign to take Egypt. Interestingly enough, the Rosetta Stone actually spent many years inside of a fortress wall in the Ottoman Empire. Since many of the temples of ancient Egypt were destroyed in the 4th century AD, the ruins would often be used as hideouts by occupying armies.

The man who discovered it was a French engineer named Pierre-Francois Bouchard, who was involved in the project of rebuilding the ancient walls to form a fort. He noticed an irregular slab of stone sticking out of one of the walls, and when he inspected it and saw the texts, he immediately recognized the stone’s historical value. The find was quickly reported to superiors and carefully excavated by French soldiers to be later inspected by none other than Napoleon himself.

When the French were defeated by British and Ottoman forces in 1801, the Treaty of Alexandria stipulated that the mysterious stone was to fall into British possession, where it has safely remained ever since.

So this is all very interesting, but it still doesn’t answer the question of why is this stone so celebrated.

Why Is the Rosetta Stone So Important?

The Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum.

The key to understanding the immeasurable value of this priceless historical artifact is that it features the same phrases written in three different ways. In the early 1800s, the valuable information garnered from the Rosetta Stone was used to decipher other texts and inscriptions from ancient Egypt.

Up until this point, hieroglyphics had been out of use for about 1,400 years, and it had only been used by about 1% of the Egyptian population even during its heyday. The language disappeared completely around 391 AD, and until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, there was no remaining information on how to interpret this rare and mysterious text.

Scholars were able to use the identical Greek and demotic texts as a point of reference to finally interpret the ancient hieroglyphic language. However, the challenge was a difficult one since pieces of the stone were missing, and none of the three texts were fully complete.

Who Cracked the Code?

The unlocking of the Rosetta Stone was essentially a shared effort.

In 1814, an English physicist named Thomas Young first demonstrated that part of the hieroglyphics sounded out the name Ptolemy. Between the years 1822-1824, a French scholar named Jean-François Champollion then used this important clue along with his interpretations of the demotic text to gradually discover through trial-and-error the exact way that hieroglyphs actually formed the sounds of the Egyptian language, which was actually a direct translation from Greek.

This discovery proved to be key in forming the world’s modern understanding of early Egyptian culture, and Champollion is now widely regarded as the founding father of ancient Egyptology.


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