Source code: 200 yrs on,see how the Rosetta Stone altered views of Ancient Egypt
The Stone finally unlocked Egypt’s hieroglyphs, in 1822. The modern world could now begin to understand this once-mighty civilisation. Take a look at the race to crack the code, the mysteries that remain, and what new finds are revealing about everyday life at the time.
It’s not much to look at. Object EA24 at the Egypt and Sudan section of the British Museum in London is a large slab of unpolished granodiorite, a kind of granite. Roughly a third of it is missing, broken off by accident or design some time in the last 2,000 years. Of the two-thirds that remain is a fragment of an inscription dating back to 196 BCE. But even that’s pretty dull: a decree passed by priests, droning on about the good deeds of a 13-year-old king on the first anniversary of his coronation. Worse, it does so in three languages no one speaks today: old Greek, Demotic (the everyday language of Ancient Egypt) and hieroglyphs (emoji-like renderings of a bird, a feather, intertwined snakes). As museum pieces go, it’s incomplete, unreadable, unremarkable
Yet, the Rosetta Stone is one of the world’s most-visited exhibits. The British Museum gets six million visitors a year. “About 75% of them will give the stone at least a glance,” says Ilona Regulski, the museum’s curator of Egyptian Written Culture. The stone, after all, unlocked an ancient language that no one was able to decipher for about 1,500 years.
This week marks 200 years of that deciphering. Academics are indebted to the tablet, but so are fans of Assassin’s Creed, Moon Knight, The Mummy, and Asterix comics.
To understand what makes the Rosetta Stone so special, rewind to Egypt in 1799. French general Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded the previous year. The era of the Pharaohs and pyramids was long gone. Cleopatra’s realm had fallen to Rome in 30 BCE. Christianity became the official religion by 312 CE. Pagan worship was outlawed, temples destroyed. A 3,000-year-old civilisation was stamped out. And hieroglyphics were replaced.
To better understand the land, Napoleon included among his troops a team of savants trained in the arts and sciences. So, when soldiers uncovered a muddy old slab with unusual inscriptions in the port town of Rosetta (modern-day Rashid), they turned it over to the savants.
The French knew right away that they’d found something special. “Europeans had been trying to read hieroglyphics for centuries, but there was no guide to what the symbols meant,” Regulski says. Here, finally were 14 lines of hieroglyphics and their translation in two other languages. Demotic had died out. But old Greek was within reach. They’d finally found a key!
It was a rusty kind of key. By 1801, the British had defeated the French in Egypt. The spoils of war, including the stone, were now property of the Crown. It was presented to the British Museum in 1802, and plaster replicas of the inscriptions were sent out to scholars across Europe and the US.
Linguists were stumped. Fourteen lines aren’t enough to decode a foreign language; imagine a speaker of Urdu or Tamil trying to understand all of English from a single Shakespearean sonnet. To make matters worse, Ancient Egyptians commonly used about 700 symbols (of the 2,000 found on tombs, monuments and papyri). The writing was erratic; it flows in different directions, with no spacing, no visible vowels, no punctuation. And as with any language, usage and spellings varied across its 3,000-year use.
“That block of stone, with all its scribbles, remained an enigmatic object,” says Regulski.
A British polymath, Thomas Young, provided the first clue. In 1819, he figured out that one grouping of hieroglyphics, recurring over and over, echoed in the Greek lines, and that it named the king Ptolemy.
This gave Jean-Francois Champollion, a French scholar and Egypt buff, the boost he’d been seeking. The symbols, he realised, didn’t just represent objects, but the sounds of words too. So a snake symbol meant snake, but also stood for the equivalent S sound. This was used to build spelling for other words. It was 1822, and the code had finally been cracked.
By the end of the year, Champollion had compiled a glossary of hieroglyphic signs and their Greek equivalents. Those early translations, built symbol by symbol, helped academics fill in the vowels, arrive at more accurate pronunciation, and reconstruct how the script and language had evolved.
Even today, when Ancient Egypt comes alive in films, videogames and comic books, it’s because Egyptologists can draw on this wealth of written text — a first-hand link to the time and place — and share it with the world.
“Before this, everything we knew of Ancient Egypt came from classical sources and the Bible,” says Regulski. “Here, for the first time, was a direct connection to the era and its people.”
Champollion died in 1832, 10 years after his breakthrough, aged 42. At his grave in Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery, linguists, Egyptologists and language lovers still leave pieces of papyrus to honour his contribution.
Two centuries after it was deciphered, the Rosetta Stone’s status remains undisputed. But its ownership is a matter of debate. Does it belong in Egypt? With the French? Or in the UK, which acquired it as a second-hand trophy but championed its scholarship?
Since 2003, Zahi Hawass, then head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, has been referring to the tablet as stolen property, and demanding its return. “Despite the public statements, no official request has been made from the Egyptian government,” Regulski says.
Rather than return it, the British Museum presented a full-sized, colour-matched, fibreglass replica to Egypt in 2005. “And 28 similar stones have been found across Egypt since the decipherment, one as recently as 2011,” Regulski says. One such trilingual inscription at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is a clearer version, nearly 100 years older than its British cousin, she adds.
Champollion’s story, it seems, has a prequel. Okasha El Daly, head of acquisitions at Qatar University Press and honorary senior research fellow at University College London, conducted a seven-year investigation of Arabic writing on Ancient Egypt. He found that several Muslim and Arab scholars between the 7th and 16th centuries CE studied Ancient Egypt keenly. At least one of them, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn Wahshiyah, seems to have worked out the hieroglyphics’ sound-and-symbol connection nearly 1,000 years before the Europeans.
Part of the reason these ancient researchers remain uncredited is because the evidence is in bits and pieces. “The main obstacles facing such study are that medieval Arabic texts and manuscripts are scattered, and there is a huge cost to obtaining copies of manuscripts,” El Daly says.
The West is listening, but with a twinge of scepticism. “But the door has finally been opened to appreciate the vast corpus of medieval Arabic texts,” El Daly says.
The new translations have the potential to present Ancient Egypt in a new way, highlighting its religions, its links with other ancient cultures such as India. “There’s still a lot to do, lots of hidden treasures worth looking for,” El Daly says.
The Rosetta Stone, Regulski says, is now so well-known, it stands for something greater: the idea of unlocking language itself. But scholars acknowledge that the hieroglyphs don’t tell the whole story. It was the script of the elites. “We have access to the tombs, but not the cities and libraries,” Regulski points out.
And as archaeologists continue to search for the missing one-third of the stone, a find this year is clearing up a smaller mystery.
In central Egypt, at a site said to be the long-lost city of Athribis, digs have yielded more than 18,000 inscribed pieces of pottery, most of them inscribed by students practising their Demotic. There are shopping lists, sales records, lessons in writing, maths and grammar. It’s a side of Ancient Egypt historians have long wondered about. Before he died, Champollion ended up deciphering the Demotic script too. Now, new mysteries are being unlocked.