The Rosetta Stone is a granitoid slab that contains a decree issued in 196 BC. Written in hieroglyphics, Demotic, and ancient Greek, the content of the stone attests to the generosity and devoutness of the pharaoh Ptolemy V (205 – 180 BCE), Egypt’s ruler at the time of the text’s origin. Due to its rare multilingual composition, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt in 1799 offered historians, archaeologists, and linguists a unique opportunity to use the stone’s contents to finally crack the code of the ancient Egyptian language that had been lost – yet was also hidden in plain sight on tomb and temple walls all over Egypt – for nearly 2000 years after it was last written and spoken.
The Historical Context of the Stone
The conquests of Alexander the Great in 330 BC led to Greek usurping the indigenous Egyptian language and becoming the primary language spoken among Egypt’s ruling and merchant classes as successive generations of Greek-speaking ethnic Macedonians descending from one of Alexander’s generals – who later became Ptolemy I – began ruling Egypt following the dissolution and carving up of Alexander’s empire. By the turn of the second century BC, only a small fraction of Egypt’s inhabitants, including priests of the ancient religion, maintained a connection to and fluent understanding of the area’s ancient indigenous language and its unique hieroglyphic script.
Egypt was in serious turmoil by the time Ptolemy V ascended to the throne at the age of five following the murder of his parents, likely by members of their own court. His predecessors had reigned over one of the most fractious periods in Egyptian history, as the life expectancy of pharaohs of that era grew increasingly short and their replacements’ right to rule became subject to increasing scrutiny. It was for this reason that, in 196 BC as the young pharaoh came of age and his regency ended, priests and supporters of Ptolemy V commissioned a brazen piece of propaganda to firmly declare that he was indeed the rightful and divinely sanctioned ruler of Egypt. In addition to “the language of the gods” (i.e., hieroglyphics) and “the language of documents,” known today a Demotic, the declaration was also written in “the language of the Greeks,” who comprised the Egyptian elite at the time.
Copies of this stone-etched decree were likely disseminated broadly throughout Egypt and displayed at important sites to highlight the legitimacy of the young Ptolemy’s rule. But only one large fragment of the original stone decree remains today, named after the town in which it was found – modern-day Rosetta.
The French Discovery of the Rosetta Stone
As part of a strategy to weaken the British Empire by disrupting its commercial and trading activities in the Middle East and India, the French general Napoleon Bonaparte embarked upon a campaign to seize control of important trading crossroads throughout the Mediterranean region, including Malta, Syria, and Egypt.
In 1798, under the guise of protecting and strengthening French commercial interests in the region, Napoleon invaded and occupied Egypt, garrisoning French forces throughout the country and dispersing teams of French scientists and scholars to study, record, collect up, and haul away as many ancient artifacts as they could find and cart off.
It was during this period, in 1799, that French military engineers discovered the granitoid slab that came to be known as the Rosetta Stone while carrying out repairs to a fort near the Egyptian town of el Rashid (aka Rosetta). It is believed that the stone was initially displayed in a temple in the town of Sais but was later moved to el Rashid to be used in the construction of Fort Julien, which is where it was unearthed by the French some two thousand years after its creation.
The man credited with the stone’s discovery was a French military officer by the name of Pierre Francois Bouchard, who just happened to recognize the unique juxtaposition of languages carved into the stone and ensured it was preserved as part of the French colonial hoard taken from various sites across Egypt. Had Bouchard not recognized the significance of the random stone and plucked it out of the construction materials for safekeeping, it is almost certain that the entire field of Egyptology as we know it today would not exist.
The Capture of the Rosetta Stone by the British
Following a series of defeats by British and Ottoman forces in Egypt, the French occupying army in Egypt retreated to Alexandria where, in August of 1801, the commanding general whom Napoleon had left in charge of the Egyptian campaign, Jacques Francois Menou, negotiated a surrender of French forces that came to be known as the Capitulation of Alexandria.
Among the terms of the surrender agreement was Article 16, in which the French promised to turn over to the victorious British forces all of the “Arabian manuscripts, the statues, and the other collections” that Napoleon’s army had looted during its invasion and occupation of Egypt, and that these stolen artifacts “shall be…subject to the disposal of the generals of the combined army.”
A British colonel (later general) named Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner was put in charge of getting the Rosetta Stone out of Egypt and escorting it back to Britain aboard the captured French ship the Egyptienne. The stone arrived in Portsmouth, England in February of 1802, where it was first housed for five months at the Society of Antiquaries of London for observation, documentation, research, and reproduction by scholars. Then, in June of 1802, the Rosetta Stone was placed in the British Museum where it has remained ever since.
The Initial Deciphering of the Stone
When the slab was transported to Britain, Egyptologist Thomas Young was tasked with deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Starting in 1814, he began analyzing the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the stone and was able to surmise that the cartouches (the hieroglyphs in ovals) contained phonetic spellings of royal names.
In 1822, Young was joined by French linguist Jean Francois Champollion, who was able to show for the very first time in modern history that hieroglyphics were, in fact, a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs. Previously, hieroglyphics were thought to be symbolic picture writing, so Champollion’s discovery enabled a much more thorough understanding of the decree that was etched onto the stone thousands of years prior.
Champollion also realized that the ancient hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the ancient Egyptian language, which he announced officially in a paper at the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris in 1822.
So What’s Actually on the Rosetta Stone?
The Rosetta stone is just a fragment of a much larger stela that was originally displayed elsewhere in Egypt, most probably in the ancient city of Sais. Although the full original stone was much larger, the surviving fragment only measures 44 inches (112 cm) in height, 33 inches (84 cm) in width, and weighs approximately 1,680 pounds (762 kg).
The remaining text of the stone comprises fourteen lines of hieroglyphic symbols, thirty-two lines of Demotic script, and fifty-four lines of Greek text. On the sides of the stone, the words “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” and “Presented by King George III” were added after British forces took possession of the stone from the French.
In addition to serving as a vehicle for Ptolemaic-era royal propaganda, the Rosetta Stone chronicles a list of administrative and societal changes that the priests attributed to the young pharaoh and his regent caretakers. It begins with lengthy praise of the work of Ptolemy V and notes that he brought significant prosperity to Egypt. The stone claims that he eradicated taxes, released prisoners, and invested large sums of money in the restoration of significant historical sites. The text on the stone also refers to the King as “the god Ptolemy Epiphanes Eucharistos” and as “beloved of Ptah.”
Intriguingly, the text ends by affirming that the decrees made must be written in stone and set up in all temples alongside a statue of Ptolemy V, in recognition of his great work and the belief that he would live forever. Given that this particular Ptolemy ascended to the throne at such a young age, was controlled by regents for a significant portion of his life and reign, and died relatively young, it is likely that he would have been largely forgotten in the long history of ancient Egypt had it not been for the Rosetta Stone.
In the end, the discovery of the Rosetta has ensured that the legacy of Ptolomy V not only continues to live on, but that he is actually now the critical link between Egypt’s past and the present-day – similar to another nearly-forgotten famous pharaoh who reigned and died young too.