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The Rosetta Stone
In 1799, when Napoleon s army was dismantling a wall in Rashid, Egypt, they discovered the Rosetta Stone. Little did they know that this 11-inch thick piece of rock would be one of the greatest discoveries in history! It contained Egyptian scripture, with Greek also on the stone. This was used to decode the once lost Egyptian writing system.
Before the 1800 s, attempts at trying to uncover the secrets held by the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics found on walls inside numerous tombs were useless. The pictures were falsely believed to be symbolic, representing some sort of object or idea. Something soon changed all of this misconception. 1799 was the year of a great breakthrough in Egyptology. French troops, under Napoleon s command, were destroying a wall when they found a black, basalt stone. The stone was inscribed with three different forms of writing: Egyptian hieroglyphics, a shorthand form of hieroglyphs, and Greek written in 196 BC. The Rosetta Stone then became instrumental in decrypting the long forgotten Egyptian writing system.
The stone was first discovered near Rosetta, Egypt, by one of Napoleon’s soldiers, named variously as Bouchard, during his expedition to Egypt in August of 1799. In no time, this discovery was mentioned to all the top scholars who were immensely interested since there was no way to decode the hieroglyphs. In 1802, Johan David Akerblad was the first to break ground in identifying the first demotic symbols. He identified a few of the proper names in the demotic text, after comparing them with the same names found in the Greek text. (Ogg 78) Next on the scene was Thomas Young, an English physicist, who took an interest to the deciphering the Rosetta Stone as well. After much researching, Young was able to prove that the proper names in the hieroglyphics section of the stone did in fact have phonetic value, and were not made up of symbols. He then introduced the idea of the proper names being written with ovals around them, known as cartouches. In reality, the hieroglyphs only contained six. Of the phonetic values that he assigned to hieroglyphs, five were correct (p, t, i, n, and f). (Budge 54) In 1814, he revealed the way in which the hieroglyphic signs were to be read by studying the direction in which the birds and other animals were all facing. He also was able to correctly identify some single-consonant hieroglyphic signs. Young’s main contribution to Egyptology was published in the 1824 Encyclopedia Britannica, which described his findings. Another man who devoted many years of his life to studying the stone was Jean-Francois Champollion. After many years of perseverance, Champollion finally translated the stone in 1822.
He accomplished this feat by first recognizing that hieroglyphs were not symbols, but instead were associated with phonetics, as Thomas Young had proved. (Andrews 166) His first major breakthrough in his studies was in 1808, when he resolved those fifteen signs of the demotic script related with alphabetic letters from the Coptic language. From this he concluded that Coptic language must be based on the remnants of the last of the ancient Egyptian language, and written with the Greek alphabet, which is why it was readable to Champollion and other scholars researching the stone. Also, that the hieroglyphic text was a translation of the Greek, not the reverse, as had been previously believed. By 1818, Champollion had successfully concluded that though some signs were basically ideograms, many of the glyphs had phonetic value, meaning the ancient Egyptian script was at least partially alphabetic. (Giblin 83) He came to this conclusion after referring back to three other different forms of Egyptian writing and also using Coptic as a reference. Recognizing the name ‘Ptolemy’ and ‘Cleopatra’ in the Greek and demotic sections of the stone allowed him to identify those same names in hieroglyphics. Still wondering, he didn’t think that hieroglyphs were regularly used in a phonetic way to write in ancient Egyptian language, since the deciphered names were foreign to Egypt (they were Greek and Roman). (Frimmer 278) So, in 1822, he took a look at some older inscriptions, containing cartouches with the names Ramses and Tuthmosis. Using what he already knew about hieroglyphs, and the Coptic language, he finally unraveled what the message contained within in it. He had cracked the code. Twelve months later, he finally came to publishing his work- revealing what his many years of research had accumulated to. He wrote of himself accumulating an alphabet of 26 letters, of which ten were correct, two were partially correct, and fourteen were wrong or were missing. (Jean 153) Following his publication, another book titled Summary of the Hieroglyphic System of the Ancient Egyptians, was published which built upon his earlier results and was the foundation used in all later discoveries. Two other works of his were Egyptian Grammar (1836-41), and the Egyptian Dictionary (1842-43). (Claiborne 96) Both were published after his death, which occurred on March 4, 1832, the first book almost four years after his untimely death due to a stroke.
The whereabouts of the Rosetta Stone today is the British Museum, in London. Without this old, black, basalt rock, we may never have deciphered the ancient egyptian scriptures. Still, there are many other writing systems of numerous lost civilizations that have yet to be deciphered. Until then, we can only make well thought inferences, and educated guesses until the next Rosetta Stone is unearthed.
1. Budge, Sir E.A. Wallis. Egyptian Language- Easy Lessons in Egyptian Hieroglyphs. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1991.
2. Ogg, Oscar. The 26 Letters. New York: Thomas C. Crowell Company, 1962.
3. Claiborne, Robert. The Birth of Writing. New York: Time Inc., 1974.
4. Andrews, Carol. The British Museum Book of The Rosetta Stone. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1985.
5. Giblin, James Cross. The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone – Key to Ancient Egypt. New York: Harper & Row Publishers,1990.
6. Frimmer, Steven. The Stone That Spoke- and other clues to the decipherment of lost languages. Toronto, Canada: Longmans Canada Limited, 1969.
7. Jean, Georges. Writing- The Story of Alphabets and Scripts. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.
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