The Story of the Rosetta Stone, "Finding a Lost Language"

The following is a chapter from "Ancient Peoples: A Hypertext View," draft by Richard A. Strachan and Kathleen A. Roetzel (1997)

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Egyptian hieroglyphics had been used by the Egyptians for thousands of years. However, a particularly bleak period of Egyptian history is the conquest of Egypt by Persia. The Egyptians were dominated by Persian intruders. The events that changed the nature of Egypt were not the Persian conquest but rather the war between Persia (the rulers of Egypt) and the united Greek city-states. Greece had originally been united by Philip of Macedon and then ruled effectively by Alexander the Great. Alexander defeated the Persian forces and then took his army to Egypt. There he was welcomed as a conquering hero by the Egyptians because he brought an end to Persian rule. He was made a god by the Egyptians as well as a pharaoh. He, however, had other campaigns to wage and took his army off to the Middle East and the Indus River Valley leaving a regent in charge of Egypt.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, his empire was divided among his three most trusted and powerful generals. The throne of Egypt fell to Ptolemy I, the son of Lagus. Ptolemy took Alexander’s preserved body in a jar filled with honey back to Alexandria. Ptolemy ran Egypt like a business, strictly for profit. . He was welcomed by the Egyptians as part of Alexander the Great’s family. Ptolemy then became the pharaoh, Ptolemy I. By so doing, he set the name standard for the 32nd Dynasty which turned out to be the last of Egypt’s great dynasties. All of his male successors were called Ptolemy and all of his female successors were called Cleopatra.

As we move to the end of this Greek Dynasty, there was increasing involvement with the Roman Empire. The Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompeii indirectly involved Egypt. Pompeii lost this war and turned to Egypt for shelter and young Ptolemy (several generations below Ptolemy I) had him executed and delivered to Caesar. The young Ptolemy, thinking this would ingratiate him with Caesar was totally incorrect. His sister, Cleopatra, who was vying for the throne had other ways of ingratiating herself with Caesar - they had children together. Caesar was unfortunately assassinated while visiting Rome and his empire was divided up between General Marcus Antonious and his adopted son, Octavian. Marcus Antonious was better known as Marc Antony. Marc Antony took rulership of that part of the Empire that contained Egypt and that resulted in his inheriting Cleopatra. They, too, had children. His relationship with Octavian broke down and resulted in a war which Marc Antony lost. Antony was killed and Cleopatra committed suicide. Their male children were executed and their female children were probably married off to local princes. The Egyptian dynastic system was ended and a Roman Governorship was established.

During the Ptolemic dynasty, Egyptian and Greek languages were used simultaneously. During the Roman Governorship only Latin was used and occasionally Greek. Within a hundred years the Egyptian hieroglyphics were no longer used or understood by anyone and even the Roman authors of the time suggested that hieroglyphics was not even a language. In the truest sense this is now a dead language.

Ultimately the Roman Empire fell and the Middle Ages "came about". Nevertheless, there existed a constant contact between Europe and Egypt such that hieroglyphics were consistently known by the European elite. The reason for this is that medical practices of the Middle Ages resulted in the prescription of bitumen, ground up mummies as a cure for various kinds of diseases. Thus, there was a trade in whole mummies which resulted in examples of hieroglyphics coming into Europe throughout the Dark Ages.

As a result, there were some early attempts at translation of hieroglyphics. In 1633, a Jesuit priest named Anthanasius Kircher, whose specialities were the humanities, science, language and religion translated the word ‘autocrat’ or in Greek ‘autocratur’ into German and did so by substituting ideas for the images. His translation read "the originator of all moisture and all vegetation whose creative forces is brought into this kingdom by the holy mukta" (is this a ‘bureaucrat’?)

The history of the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics during the 16th and 17th centuries took small steps toward final interpretation. Some scholars thought that the hieroglyphics were the origin of other languages. Some believed that hieroglyphics spelled nothing at all. Yet others believed that the hieroglyphics were an indication of social stratification or social significance.

This speculation would have continued had not a political event interceded. The almost constant warfare between Britain and France resulted in nelson.gif (29790 bytes)a major change in the understanding of hieroglyphics. The French under Napoleon Bonaparte decided that they could defeat the British by attacking Egypt and subsequently controlling the rich food supply from along the Nile.

In August of 1798, 13 French ships landed near Alexandria at Aboukir Bay in Egypt and marched inland to fight the British near Cairo. The night before the battle, Napoleon exhorted his troops on by saying something like "Soldiers, from the tops of these pyramids, forty centuries are looking down at you." The French ground forces won the conflict but the British navy, under the command of Lord Horratio Nelson, defeated the French navy. Napoleon believed that he would be in Egypt for only a few months, but he and his men were stranded there for three years with no way to return home. Napoleon had brought with him between nearly 1000 civilians including 167 of whom were scientists, technicians, mathematicians and artists who studied the art, architecture, and culture of Egypt during their "extended vacation." From 1809-1828, they published a 19-volume work called Description of Egypt. Their observations, drawings and illustrations were circulated throughout Europe and created a tremendous interest in antiquities of Egypt.

The soldiers continued to "dig in" and they reconstructed forts as most soldiers had done during previous centuries by using building stones previously used by earlier peoples. In 1799, while extending a fortress near Rosetta, a small city near Alexandria, a young French officer named Pierre-Francois Bouchard found a block of black basalt stone. It measured three feet nine inches long, two feet four and half inches wide, and eleven inches thick and it contained three distinct bands of writing. The most incomplete was the top band containing hieroglyphics, the middle band was an Egyptian script called Demotic script (he did not know that), and the bottom was ancient Greek (he did recognize the bottom band). This stone was called the Rosetta Stone. He took the stone to the scholars and they realized that it was a royal decree that basically stated that it was to be written in the languages used in Egypt at the time. Scholars began to focus on the Demotic script, the middle band, because it was more complete and it looked more like letters than the pictures in the upper band that were hieroglyphics. It was essentially a shorthand hieroglyphics that had evolved from an earlier shorthand version of Egyptian called Heiratic script.

Material from Egypt was continuously coming into Europe. In order to display their status, the European gentry and nobility normally had some rosetta4.gif (184304 bytes)Egyptian relics in their possession, perhaps an art object on a table or if one were quite rich, they might have an obelisk in the front yard of the estate. Material containing hieroglyphics continued to enter Europe at a reasonably accelerated rate.

The first to make any sense of the Demotic script on the Rosetta Stone was a French scholar named Silvestre deSacy. deSacy was an important and skilled French linguist. He identified the symbols which comprised the word ‘Ptolemy’ and ‘Alexander’ thus, establishing a relationship between the symbols and sounds. Johann Akerblad who history records as a Swedish diplomat, looked at the Rosetta Stone with an additional knowledge of Coptic. Coptic was the language used by the Coptic church of Egypt, an early Christian group who preserved the language which was used as early as the 4th century. Coptic was written with the Greek alphabet but utilizes seven additional symbols from the Demotic script. Akerblad’s knowledge of Coptic allowed him to identify the words for ‘love,’ ‘temple’ and ‘Greek’ thus, making it clear that the Demotic script was not only a phonetic script but it was also translatable.

The earliest translation of the Greek text on the Rosetta Stone into English was done by Reverend Stephen Weston in London in April 1802 before the Society of Antiquaries . About this time, both deSacy and Thomas Young, attempted to decipher the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. Young was successful in determining that foreign names could not be represented by symbols because symbols are based upon the words used in a given language. Thus, foreign names had to be spelled phonetically. In hieroglyphics there are groups of symbols that are separated from other symbols. These encircled inscriptions are called cartouches. Thomas Young determined that the cartouches were proper names of people who were not Egyptian like the names of Ptolemy and Alexander which in Greek were Ptolemaios and Alexandrus. He successfully deciphered 5 cartouches. His publication on this matter was far reaching.

At this point there is involvement by a young French historian and linguist named Jean-Fracois Champollion.vchampol.jpg (4225 bytes) Champollion had mastered many Eastern languages. In 1807, Champollion went to study for two years with noted French linguist Francois Antoine-Isaac Silvestre deSacy. Later in his career, Champollion had compiled a Coptic dictionary and read Thomas Young in 1819. Looking at Young’s writing on the subject of hieroglyphics, he realized that what Young pharoh3.gif (5888 bytes)had actually proven was that all of hieroglyphics were phonetic, not just those hieroglyphics that were contained within the cartouches. Utilizing hieroglyphics from an estate at Kingston Lacey in Britain, Champollion correctly identified the names of Cleopatra and Alexandrus and verified Ptolemeus which had previously been identified by Young He published his results and continued his research. In 1822 new inscriptions from a temple at Abu Simbel on the Nile were introduced into Europe and Champollion had correctly identified the name of the pharaoh who had built the temple. That name was ‘Ramses.’ Utilizing his knowledge of Coptic he continued to successfully translate the hieroglyphics opening up an understanding of the Ancient Egyptians.

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