The Rosetta Stone: An Introduction

Unlocking the Ancient Egyptian Language

Replica of the Rosetta Stone
A replica of the Rosetta Stone is displayed as part of the 'Treasures of the World's Cultures' exhibition at Centro Exposiciones Arte Canal in 2010 in Madrid, Spain. The original stone has been on public display at The British Museum since 1802. Hieroglyphic passage on the top; beneath it is part of the demotic script. Juan Naharro Gimenez / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

The Rosetta Stone is an enormous (114 x 72 x 28 centimeters [44 x 28 x 11 inches]) and broken hunk of dark granodiorite (not, as once believed, basalt), that nearly single-handedly opened up Ancient Egyptian culture to the modern world. It is estimated to weigh over 750 kilograms (1,600 pounds) and is thought to have been quarried by its Egyptian makers from somewhere in the Aswan region in the early second century BCE.

Finding the Rosetta Stone

The block was found near the town of Rosetta (now el-Rashid), Egypt, in 1799, ironically enough, by the French emperor Napoleon's failed military expedition to conquer the country. Napoleon was famously interested in antiquities (while occupying Italy he sent an excavation team to Pompeii), but in this case, it was an accidental find. His soldiers were robbing stones to bolster nearby Fort Saint Julien for the planned attempt to conquer Egypt, when they found the curiously carved black block.

When the Egyptian capital Alexandria fell to the British in 1801, the Rosetta Stone also fell into British hands, and it was transferred to London, where it has been exhibited at the British Museum nearly continuously ever since.


The face of the Rosetta stone is almost completely covered with texts that were carved into the stone in 196 BCE, during Ptolemy V Epiphanes's ninth year as Pharaoh. The text describes the king's successful siege of Lycopolis, but also it discusses the state of Egypt and what its citizens can do to improve things. What probably should not come as a surprise, since it is the work of the Greek pharaohs of Egypt, the language of the stone sometimes blends Greek and Egyptian mythologies: for example, the Greek version of the Egyptian god Amun is translated as Zeus.

"A statue of the King of the South and North, Ptolemy, ever-living, beloved of Ptah, the God who maketh himself manifest, the Lord of Beauties, shall be set up [in every temple, in the most prominent place], and it shall be called by his name "Ptolemy, the Saviour of Egypt." (Rosetta Stone text, WAE Budge translation 1905)

The text itself is not very long, but like the Mesopotamian Behistun inscription before it, the Rosetta stone is inscribed with the identical text in three different languages: ancient Egyptian in both its hieroglyphic (14 lines) and demotic (script) (32 lines) forms, and ancient Greek (54 lines). The identification and translation of the hieroglyphic and demotic texts are traditionally credited to the French linguist Jean François Champollion [1790-1832] in 1822, although it's up for debate how much assistance he had from other parties. 

Translating the Stone: How Was the Code Cracked?

If the stone were simply the political bragging of Ptolemy V, it would be one of uncountable such monuments erected by innumerable monarchs in many societies all over the world. But, since Ptolemy had it carved in so many different languages, it was possible for Champollion, aided by the work of English polymath Thomas Young [1773–1829], to translate it, making these hieroglyphic texts accessible to modern people.

According to several sources, both men took on the challenge of deciphering the stone in 1814, working independently but eventually exercising a keen personal rivalry. Young published first, identifying a striking similarity between the hieroglyphics and demotic script, and publishing a translation for 218 demotic and 200 hieroglyphic words in 1819. In 1822, Champollion published Lettre a M. Dacier, in which he announced his success in decoding some of the hieroglyphs; he spent the last decade of his life refining his analysis, for the first time fully recognizing the complexity of the language. 

There is no doubt that Young published his vocabulary of demotic and hieroglyphic words two years before Champollion's first successes, but how much that work influenced Champollion is unknown. Robinson credits Young for an early detailed study that made possible Champollion's breakthrough, which went above and beyond what Young had published. E.A. Wallis Budge, the doyen of Egyptology in the 19th century, believed that Young and Champollion were working on the same problem in isolation, but that Champollion did see a copy of Young's 1819 paper before publishing in 1922.

The Significance of the Rosetta Stone

It seems pretty astounding today, but until the translation of the Rosetta Stone, no one had been able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. Because hieroglyphic Egyptian had remained virtually unchanged for so long, Champollion and Young's translation formed the bedrock for generations of scholars to build on and eventually translate the thousands of extant scripts and carvings dating to the entire 3,000-year-old Egyptian dynastic tradition.

The slab still resides in the British Museum in London, much to the chagrin of the Egyptian government which would dearly love its return.


  • Budge EAW. 1893. The Rosetta Stone. The Mummy, Chapters on Egyptian Funeral Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Chauveau M. 2000. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and Society Under the Ptolemies. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Downs J. 2006. Romancing the stone. History Today 56(5):48-54.
  • Middleton A, and Klemm D. 2003. The Geology of the Rosetta Stone. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 89:207-216.
  • O'Rourke FS, and O'Rourke SC. 2006. Champollion, Jean-François (1790–1832). In: Brown K, editor. Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (Second Edition). Oxford: Elsevier. p 291-293.
  • Robinson A. 2007. Thomas Young and the Rosetta Stone. Endeavour 31(2):59-64.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "The Rosetta Stone: An Introduction." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). The Rosetta Stone: An Introduction. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The Rosetta Stone: An Introduction." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).