What You Should Know About the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone
George Rinhart/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The Rosetta Stone, which is housed in the British Museum, is a black, possibly basalt slab with three languages on it (Greek, demotic and hieroglyphs) each saying the same thing. Because the words are translated into the other languages, it provided Jean-Francois Champollion the key to the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Discovered at Rosetta (Raschid) in 1799, by Napoleon's army, the Rosetta Stone proved the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. The person who found it was Pierre Francois-Xavier Bouchards, a French officer of engineers. It was sent to the Institut d'Egypte in Cairo and then taken to London in 1802.

Rosetta Stone Content

The British Museum describes the Rosetta Stone as a priestly decree affirming the cult of 13-year-old Ptolemy V.

The Rosetta Stone tells of an agreement between Egyptian priests and the pharaoh on March 27, 196 B.C. It names honors bestowed on Macedonian Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes. After praising the pharaoh for his generosity, it describes the siege of Lycopolis and the king's good deeds for the temple. The text continues with its main purpose: establishing a cult for the king.

Related Meaning for the Term Rosetta Stone

The name Rosetta Stone is now applied to just about any type of key used to unlock a mystery. Even more familiar may be a popular series of computer-based language-learning programs using the term Rosetta Stone as a registered trademark. Among its growing list of languages is Arabic, but, alas, no hieroglyphs.

Physical Description of the Rosetta Stone

From the Ptolemaic Period, 196 B.C.
Height: 114.400 cm (max.)
Width: 72.300 cm
Thickness: 27.900 cm
Weight: about 760 kilograms (1,676 lb.).

Location of the Rosetta Stone

Napoleon's army found the Rosetta Stone, but they surrendered it to the British who, led by Admiral Nelson, had defeated the French at the Battle of the Nile. The French capitulated to the British at Alexandria in 1801 and as terms of their surrender, handed over the artifacts they had unearthed, chiefly the Rosetta Stone and a sarcophagus traditionally (but subject to dispute) attributed to Alexander the Great. The British Museum has housed the Rosetta Stone since 1802, except for the years 1917-1919 when it was temporarily moved underground to prevent possible bomb damage. Prior to its discovery in 1799, it had been in the town of el-Rashid (Rosetta), in Egypt.

Languages of the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is inscribed in 3 languages:

  1. Demotic (the everyday script, used to write documents),
  2. Greek (the language of Ionian Greeks, an administrative script), and
  3. Hieroglyphs (for priestly business).

Deciphering the Rosetta Stone

No one could read hieroglyphs at the time of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, but scholars soon pieced out a few phonetic characters in the demotic section, which, by comparison with the Greek, were identified as proper names. Soon proper names in the hieroglyphic section were identified because they were circled. These circled names are called cartouches.

Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) was said to have learned enough Greek and Latin by the time he was 9-years-old to read Homer and Vergil (Virgil). He studied Persian, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi, and Arabic, and worked on a Coptic dictionary by the time he was 19. Champollion finally found the key to translating the Rosetta Stone in 1822, published in 'Lettre à M. Dacier.'

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Gill, N.S. "What You Should Know About the Rosetta Stone." ThoughtCo, Oct. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/rosetta-stone-111653. Gill, N.S. (2021, October 9). What You Should Know About the Rosetta Stone. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/rosetta-stone-111653 Gill, N.S. "What You Should Know About the Rosetta Stone." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/rosetta-stone-111653 (accessed June 10, 2023).