200 years ago, Jean-Francois Champollion raced into his brother’s office and shouted ‘Je tiens l’affaire!’ – ‘I’ve got it’. After years of research, he had pieced together one of the great historical puzzles of the time; he had deciphered the hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt.
Various objects were crucial in helping Champollion arrive at this famous moment: from the Casati Papyrus to the Philae Obelisk at Kingston Lacy. But of all the artefacts that contributed to the groundbreaking decipherment, one is more renowned than all of the rest: the Rosetta Stone.
Today on display at the British Museum, this object was central in kickstarting antiquarians such as Champollion and Thomas Young down the path of unlocking ancient Egypt’s enigmatic language within just c.20 years of the Stone’s rediscovery. Today, the Rosetta Stone ranks amongst the most famous artefacts in the world. But what exactly is it?
The Rosetta Stone
The Stone itself is a commemorative stone (stela), upon which is written a priestly decree issued on 27 March 196 BC. The early 2nd century BC was a time when non-native pharaohs ruled Egypt; the last native Egyptian ruler had been forced into exile almost 150 years before, in c.343 BC.
196 BC was the time of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, one of the most remarkable of Alexander the Great’s Successor kingdoms. Ruling from the prestigious city of Alexandria, ancient Greek was the dominant language of Ptolemaic administration. Away from the official administration however, ancient Egyptian was still a language that people spoke widely across the kingdom: in homes and temples all along the River Nile. Early 2nd century Ptolemaic Egypt was a multicultural, multilingual society.
It’s this bilingual nature of Ptolemaic Egypt that explains one of the central features of the Rosetta Stone. Carved onto this great, broken slab of granodiorite was text, written in three different languages. The first language was Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second was demotic (a handwritten version of the Egyptian script that Egyptians had long used alongside hieroglyphs; demotic was the ‘script of the people’) and the third language on the Stone was ancient Greek.
The priestly decree itself was issued by a group of priests that, in essence, provided King Ptolemy V divine honours. As thanks for his good deeds as King (protecting the country, rebuilding temples, lowering taxes etc), the Stone’s decree ordered that Ptolemy’s statue be honoured inside the temple and placed alongside those of the gods. Furthermore, Ptolemy’s statue was also to appear during sacred processions, once more alongside statues of other gods. To all extents and purposes, the decree placed King Ptolemy V on the same level as the gods.
This in itself was no novel practice for the Ptolemies; Hellenistic ‘ruler cult’ is something we see repeated again and again in various Successor Kingdoms across the Eastern Mediterranean during this latter half of the 1st millennium BC, where people paid tribute to their ruler’s benefaction by bestowing them with divine honours.
The Stone itself is named after its discovery location: Rosetta. Situated east of Alexandria near the coast of the Mediterranean today, Rosetta (Rasheed) didn’t exist in pharaonic times. But sometime in Egypt’s long and incredible history, the Stone was moved here and used in the foundations of a building. Given the strength of this granodiorite slab, someone decided that it would be a very useful building block.
It would be in 1799 that the importance of this stone was realised, when French soldiers – assigned to Napoleon’s ongoing Egyptian campaign – were restoring their fort at Rosetta and discovered this tri-lingual stela. Very quickly, both the soldiers themselves and the many scholars that Napoleon had brought with him to Egypt realised that this artefact could be the key to deciphering hieroglyphics – an ancient script that medieval Arab scholars had already been attempting to decipher for centuries.
It was rapidly realised that the Rosetta Stone was highlighting the same decree in three different languages. As ancient Greek was already known, the huge potential this Stone had for helping scholars finally decode this enigmatic ancient Egyptian script (both hieroglyphic and demotic) was quickly acknowledged.
French soldiers had rediscovered this Ptolemaic priestly decree, but it would not remain in their hands for long. In 1801, the defeated remnants of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt signed the Capitulation of Alexandria with the British and the Ottomans. Part of the surrender – Article 16 – demanded that the French transfer 22 Egyptian antiquities to the British. Amongst these were two giant sarcophagi – one of which was at the time believed to be the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. But the most famous object that the French handed over to the British was the Rosetta Stone.
Although they took possession of the physical object, the British still permitted the French scholars to make copies of the Stone. This would allow many figures on both sides of the Channel Sea (including Champollion) to have access to copies of the inscription in the years ahead, as the race to decipher hieroglyphics heated up.
In 1802 the Rosetta Stone, alongside the other artefacts seized by the British, arrived in Portsmouth. Not long after they were placed in the British Museum, which at the time was still very small. The arrival of these new objects encouraged the Museum to expand – to create new galleries that would ultimately house these artefacts.
The Rosetta Stone has since left the British Museum on only two occasions. The first was during World War Two – for safety; the second occasion was in 1972, when the Stone was displayed at the Louvre.
The Rosetta Stone was the keystone for the great acceleration of decoding hieroglyphics in the early 19th century. It was thanks to this Stone that figures such as Thomas Young and Champollion worked tirelessly as they raced to be the first to crack the ancient script. Other artefacts would help these scholars fill in the final pieces of the decoding puzzle, but it was the Rosetta Stone’s discovery, and its surviving trilingual text, that kickstarted them to devote years in their mission to make Egyptology’s ultimate breakthrough.
Thomas Young made some striking early progress. Focusing on the demotic text, he was able to identify some key words such as King/ruler (basileus) and temple. Most famously of all, he correctly identified the demotic word for Ptolemy and its hieroglyphic cartouche. Attributing phonetic values to the symbols in the cartouche, he was able to make some progress. Mistakenly however, he didn’t quite translate the correct phonetic sound for each of the symbols.
Ultimately, it was Champollion who made the ultimate breakthrough on the Ptolemy cartouche on the Rosetta Stone. That is why it is Champollion today, who we associate with making the ultimate breakthrough. Young made significant progress and is heralded in some circles as the man who translated Demotic. But Champollion was the man who ‘won’ the race.
William Bankes and the Philae Obelisk
One other figure to mention here is William Bankes. An adventurer and daredevil, in the 1810s Bankes voyaged down the River Nile on two separate occasions. Bankes was an avid drawer; he and several of his companions made countless drawings of the ancient Egyptian sites he saw as he ventured up the Nile as far as the Second Cataract and Wadi Hafa.
Bankes sent countless drawings back to Young, who used them to help him in the great deciphering race. But Bankes also brought back to Britain an obelisk, which he had found fallen over at Philae. This obelisk, today visible at Kingston Lacy, had a bilingual inscription. An ancient Greek inscription on the base of the obelisk, with hieroglyphs running up the shaft. It was from this obelisk that Bankes correctly identified the cartouche for the name Cleopatra.
Champollion, using this discovery, the Ptolemy cartouche from the Rosetta Stone and other papyri was able to make the breakthrough. Although we remember Champollion and the Rosetta Stone in the story of how hieroglyphs were deciphered, let us not forget the invaluable information that William Bankes and the Philae Obelisk also provided in this story.