The Rosetta Stone: Science to Rewrite History

Before the text on the Rosetta Stone was deciphered it was impossible to understand the intricacies of the civilization hidden in Egyptian writings. Hieroglyphics were an incomprehensible enigma for archaeologists, philologists, linguists and historians. However, in 1822 the intricate language of the Egyptians ceased to be a mystery and became the tool that would reveal all the secrets of their civilization.

A treasure in the sand

Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign lasted three years (1798-1801), as France and England clashed in Egypt and Syria. The military defeat of the French did, after all, yield a moment of glory when, in the summer of 1799, a French army captain, Pierre-François Bouchard, discovered the Rosetta Stone (on 15 July 1799) as he carried out excavation works to strengthen the defensive zone of the city of Rashid (Rosetta), some 80 kilometers from Alexandria.

Napoleon was fascinated by Egypt and knew that the conquest of this land held an importance far beyond that of the territory in itself. Consequently, he had created a special body to accompany the soldiers, the Commission des Sciences et des Arts (the Science and Arts Commission – an “army” of astronomers, chemists, engineers, economists, painters and poets) which immediately recognized the importance of the discovery and took charge of the stone in the Egypt Institute (in Cairo). However, the joy of this scientific triumph was short-lived, as, following the English victory, the Rosetta Stone passed into the hands of the British Empire, as part of the Capitulation of Alexandria. Today, it is the star exhibit in the British Museum, where it has remained for over 200 years.


Rosetta Stone/ Image: © Hans Hillewaert , Wikimedia Commons.

The Rosetta Stone weighs several tons and is of a material similar to granite (granodiorite), But, what is the message inscribed on the famous stone? The text, inscribed on only one side in 3 languages, refers to a decree by Ptolemy V Epiphanes (dated 27 March 196 B.C):

  • The first 14 lines are written in hieroglyphics.
  • The central part is in Demotic script (a derivative of hieroglyphic script), and occupies 32 lines.
  • The bottom part is in Greek, with a total of 54 lines.

20 years to understand you, Rosetta!

It took 20 years (1799-1822) to decipher the code hidden in the Rosetta Stone, the meaning of hieroglyphic script having been lost when the Roman Empire took control of Egypt (around 30 B.C.). Many scholars received the transcript of the texts over those two decades, but only very few were able to contribute information of significance to the final discovery. Among these was the British physicist, linguist and philologist Thomas Young, who kept up a declared rivalry with Jean François Champollion in the race to conquer the hieroglyphics. Finally, it was the Frenchman who successfully unlocked the code on 14 September 1822, when he came running into his brother’s office shouting “I’ve got it”, before falling down unconscious.


Portrait of Jean-François Champollion (1831), Léon Cogniet / Wikimedia

Champollion The Younger, as Jean-François called himself, was born in a small French village (Figerac, 1790) very nearby the city of Grenoble, where he began his studies and where he discovered his obsessive passion for Egypt. In 1802, when the young Champollion was just 12 years old, he met one of the expeditionaries who had just returned from Egypt: Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, the mathematician and physicist who made his mark on history with several discoveries (including the famous“Fourier series”).  At the time he was writing a work commissioned by Napoleon, the “Description of Egypt”Fourier arrived from the Egypt Institute (Cairo) and met his brilliant “shield bearer”, Champollion. The young man made use of Fourier’s eyes to discover a land he had never seen, but about which wanted to know everything.

He would not have been able to decipher the language of the ancient Egyptians (hieroglyphic script) if he had not mastered Coptic, a language written in a script using letters of the Greek alphabet plus some demotic characters. Demotic is a script derived from hieratic (a later simplification of hieroglyphic script), used frequently in stone inscriptions. Because one of the texts was written in Greek it could be fully understood, and on identifying the proper nouns it was deduced that the 3 texts were all the same, but in 3 different languages. But how was it possible to establish this coincidence? The names of the kings held the key: they were surrounded by an oval.

In addition, the total number of words in each language was very different. Specifically there were many more hieroglyphics than Greek words. Might this not mean that, rather than each sign having an independent meaning, they each had a phonetic value? Champollion thus discounted the idea that the hieroglyphic script was purely ideographic (one symbol, one meaning). The hieroglyphic script ceased to be a mystery and Champollion was able to classify and compose a table of 300 hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic signs, allowing him to make transcripts of the three texts.

13 days after his effusive “I’ve got it!” he had already explained the bases of his discovery and had given a public reading of his letter to Monsieur Dacier, the secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in France. This letter is considered to be inaugural document of Egyptology. It explains the decryption system and proposes an alphabetical order that is still followed today.

By Dory Gascueña for OpenMind