Avatar of admin


The Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone

January 10, 2018 in History

By Evan Andrews

Thomas Young. (Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

In July 1799, during Napoleon Bonaparte’s military invasion of Egypt, a group of French soldiers accidentally made a groundbreaking archaeological discovery. While working to strengthen the defenses of a sunbaked fort near the Nile Delta town of Rosetta (modern-day Rashid), they knocked down a wall and unearthed a 44-inch-long, 30-inch-wide chunk of black granodiorite.

It wasn’t unusual for the French troops to stumble upon Egyptian relics, but this particular slab caught the attention of Pierre-Francois Bouchard, the engineer in charge. When, upon closer inspection, he noticed that it was covered in ancient text, he halted demolition and sent word to his superior officer. Experts would soon confirm that the stone contained writing in three different scripts: Greek, demotic, or everyday, Egyptian and hieroglyphics.

Almost immediately, Bonaparte remarked on the stone’s potential. “There appears no doubt that the column which bears the hieroglyphs contains the same inscription as the other two,” he said before the National Institute in Paris that autumn. “Thus, here is a means of acquiring certain information of this, until now, unintelligible language.”

While the French soldiers couldn’t have known it at the time, the “Rosetta Stone” they pulled from the rubble would trigger one of history’s great intellectual odysseys. The meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics had been lost since the dying days of the Roman Empire, but with its triple inscription, the stone offered scholars a chance to decipher the ancient symbols once and for all—making the find the key to this remarkable period in history. Yet it would take decades, and the work of two brilliant scholars, to unlock the stone’s secrets.

Soon after its discovery, the Rosetta Stone was already the subject on international intrigue when British forces seized it in 1801 after defeating the French in Egypt. By then, several casts and copies of its text had been made, allowing researchers across the globe to begin experimenting with potential translations. The first and easiest step, deciphering the Greek text, revealed that the Rosetta Stone contained a relatively mundane Egyptian decree praising the 2nd–century B.C. boy-king Ptolemy V Epiphanes. A rudimentary translation of the demotic text (a script rendering of the everyday Egyptian language) followed shortly thereafter. But when linguists tried to tackle the portions written in hieroglyphics, most were left scratching their heads.

Thomas Young. (Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

A clear understanding of how the ancient script functioned would ultimately take 20 years …read more


Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.