Introduction to How the Rosetta Stone Works

Ancient Egypt conjures up ima­ges of bearded ­pharaohs, mighty pyramids and gold-laden tombs. Centuries ago, before archaeology became a legitimate field of science, explorers raided Egyptian ruins, seizing priceless artifacts. Collectors knew that t­hese items were valuable, but they had no way of understanding just how much they were worth. Because the civilization's historical records and monuments were inscribed with hieroglyphics, a language no one -- Egyptian or foreigner -- could read, the secrets of Egypt's past were hopelessly lost. That is, until the Rosetta Stone was discovered.

The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of a stela, a free-standing stone inscribed with Egyptian governmental or religious records. It's made of black basalt and weighs about three-quarters of a ton (0.680 metric tons). The stone is 118 cm (46.5 in.) high, 77 cm. (30 in.) wide and 30 cm. (12 in.) deep -- roughly the size of a medium-screen LCD television or a heavy coffee table [source BBC]. But what's inscribed on the Rosetta Stone is far more significant than its composition. It features three columns of inscriptions, each relaying the same message but in three different languages: Greek, hieroglyphics and Demotic. Scholars used the Greek and Demotic inscriptions to make sense of the hieroglyphic alphabet. By using the Rosetta Stone as a translation device, scholars revealed more than1,400 years of ancient Egyptian secrets [source: Cleveland MOA].

The discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone are as fascinating as the translations that resulted from the stone. Controversial from the start, it was unearthed as a result of warfare and Europe's quest for world domination. Its translation continued to cause strife between nations, and even today, scholars debate who should be credited with the triumph of solving the hieroglyphic code. Even the stone's current location is a matter of debate. This artifact has long held a powerful grip over history and politics.

­Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has occupied a space in London's British Museum. While most visitors acknowledge the stone as an important piece of history, others are drawn to it like a religious relic. The stone is now enclosed in a case, but in the past, visitors could touch it and trace the mysterious hieroglyphics with their fingers.

In this article, we'll learn how the world came to regard this piece of stone as a harbinger of Egypt's secrets. We'll also discuss its history and the circumstances surrounding its discovery, as well as the long and difficult task of deciphering the Rosetta Stone's inscriptions. Last, we'll examine the field of Egyptology and how it evolved from the Rosetta Stone.

We'll begin with the history of the Rosetta Stone in the next section.

Egyptian hieroglyphics puzzled centuries of scholars.

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History of the Rosetta Stone

The message recorded on the Rosetta Stone isn't as significant as the languages in which it's written. The stone is dated March 27, 196 B.C., and is inscribed with a decree from Egyptian priests endorsing the pharaoh as a good, humble ruler and respectful worshipper of the Egyptian gods [source: BBC]. Written beneath the decree is a mandate on how the message should be shared: Clearly, the priests wanted to get the word out because they ordered that it be written in three languages and carved into stone.

In itself, the Rosetta Stone is no more remarkable than the other stelae of its time. But its preservation helps us to understand Egypt's past as well as shifting powers during the Greco-Roman period when Egypt was ruled by the Macedonians, Ptolemies and the Romans. The pharaohs, of whom Cleopatra was the last, would be succeeded by Coptic Christians, Muslims and Ottomans from 639 to 1517 A.D. [source: BBC].

These fundamentally different rulers caused changes in all aspects of Egyptian life, and the most apparent evidence of these changes can be found in the written language. New rulers brought new religions, and the old gods were replaced by new ones. As a result, the most sacred of all writing, hieroglyphics, was replaced, too.

For centuries, Egyptians recorded their history in hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were sacred characters reserved for religious or governmental mandates. The language was used to inscribe tombs, temples and other monuments. Because hieroglyphics was such an intricate and sacred language, the Egyptians developed hieratic, which was like an abbreviated version of hieroglyphics. Hieratic was used to record some governmental decrees and business transactions, but it wasn't used for sacred purposes.

By the Ptolemaic Period, when the Rosetta Stone was inscribed, Egyptians had turned to Demotic -- an even more simplified version of hieroglyphics. When the priests commissioned the decree on the Rosetta Stone to be written in three languages, they ensured that all of Egypt would be able to read it [source: Harvard].

And until the fourth century A.D., the Rosetta Stone was perfectly readable. But as Christianity became more widespread in Egypt, hieroglyphics was abandoned for its association with pagan gods. Demotic wasn't a taboo language like hieroglyphics, but it eventually evolved into Coptic. Coptic was based off of the 24 letters in the Greek alphabet as well as a few Demotic characters for Egyptian sounds that weren't represented by the Greek language.

When Arabic replaced Coptic, the last frayed thread to hieroglyphics finally snapped. More than a thousand years of Egyptian history became lost in translation. Egypt made way not only for a new language but also for new politics and religion. The sacred temples inscribed with hieroglyphics no longer had any meaning for the Egyptians or their new rulers, and they were stripped bare and demolished to obtain raw material for new buildings. Among this rubble was the Rosetta Stone, which was rebuilt into a wall.

The Rosetta Stone would later be resurrected as that civilization came down and a new one erected in its place. Only then would its significance be realized. In the next section, we'll learn about the events leading up to the Rosetta Stone's discovery and the lucky accident that revealed the stone.

Napoleon Bonaparte

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Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

In the late 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte launched the Egyptian Campaign. The purpose of the campaign was to claim Egypt for France -- colonizing the country would give France a greater authority in the East [source: International Napoleonic Society]. Strategically, this would prepare France for domination over the most valuable territory in the East: India. Napoleon strategized that cutting off Britain's access to the Nile River would cripple British troops and their Eastern settlements.

Napoleon didn't just plan a military attack. He prepared for a thorough infiltration of Egypt by assembling a think tank whose job it was to gather information about Egypt's past and present people, environment, culture and resources. Napoleon shrewdly reasoned that to rule a country, one must know everything about it. He called his scholarly squadron the Institute of Egypt, also known as the Scientific and Artistic Commission. It included mathematicians, chemists, mineralogists, zoologists, engineers, illustrators and art historians [source: International Napoleonic Society]. Its purpose was highly covert, and members were ordered to reveal nothing more about their work than that they were acting for the good of the French Republic.

British and French navies at Aboukir Bay

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Napoleon and his forces landed off the coast of Egypt at Aboukir Bay in August 1798. The British navy crushed the French and destroyed all of Napoleon's ships. The French were stranded in Egypt for 19 years [source: International Napoleonic Society].

Making the best of a bad situation, the French settled in around the Nile Delta. While the military built forts and conducted reconnaissance, the Institute collected artifacts, explored ruins and became acquainted with the local population. The palace of Hassan-Kashif was overtaken as the Institute's headquarters. Royal rooms were converted into libraries, laboratories and even menagerie -- where harems once danced and entertained, local fauna grazed under scrutinizing eyes.

In the summer of 1799, Napoleon's soldiers razed ancient walls to expand Fort Julien in the town of Rosetta. A soldier noticed a polished fragment of carved stone. Pulling it from the rubble, he recognized that it might be something significant and handed the stone over to the Institute.

The Institute's scholars determined that the stone was some kind of decree and immediately began translations, a long and tedious process. Scholars named the stone the Rosetta Stone, in honor of the town in which it was discovered. They had the foresight to make several copies of the inscriptions, which served them well after the British acquired the stone -- along with several other artifacts -- under the terms set forth in the Treaty of Capitulation [source: BBC]. Both the French and the British knew they had something valuable on their hands, but it would take years to crack the code inscribed on the Rosetta Stone. Only then would its true worth be revealed.

Next, we'll learn about the struggle to decipher the Rosetta Stone.

A photograph of the Rosetta Stone from the 1800s.

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Translating the Rosetta Stone

Scholars began attempting translations of the Rosetta Stone as quickly as they could get their hands on it -- or a copy of it. It didn't take too long to translate the Greek and Demotic portions of the text, but the hieroglyphics seemed to be an indecipherable mystery. An intellectual battle over hieroglyphics ensued between a British scholar, Thomas Young, and a French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, both of whom wanted to crack the code first.

Their respective countries were equally as competitive, and even today Britain and France debate about the true victor in hieroglyphic translation as well as which country owns (or should own) the stone. When the Rosetta Stone was displayed in Paris in 1972 for the bicentenary of its discovery, rumors flew that Parisians were planning to secretly steal the stone. The British and French also argued that the portraits of Young and Champollion, displayed alongside the stone, were of unequal sizes, glorifying one scholar above the other [source: Harvard].

The Greek inscription was translated by the Reverend Stephen Weston. He completed his work on the stone in April 1802. While knowledge of the Greek language and alphabet were certainly limited among certain professionals and academics, the Western world had become acquainted with Greek centuries ago, when the Renaissance incited Europeans' interest in the Greco-Roman civilization and culture. Therefore, Weston's contribution stirred less attention than the events that would follow [source: BBC].

Undoubtedly, the hieroglyphic portion of the stone was the most challenging to decipher, but early scholars who translated the Demotic and Greek established some important precedents. French scholar Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (who taught a young Champollion linguistics) and Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad each successfully interpreted the Demotic inscription in 1802.

While de Sacy detected proper names -- Ptolemy and Alexander -- in the text and used those as a starting point for matching up like sounds and symbols, Åkerblad's methodology depended on his knowledge of the Coptic language. Åkerblad noticed some similarities between the Demotic inscription and Coptic, and by comparing these similarities he was able to discern the words "love," "temple" and "Greek." Relying on these words to form a skeletal outline of the Demotic alphabet, Åkerblad went on to translate the entire portion.

In the next section, we'll learn about the painstaking process of deciphering the Rosetta Stone's hieroglyphics.

Jean-Francois Champollion

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Cracking the Hieroglyphic Code

The earliest attempt at translating hieroglyphics came well before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. A fifth-century scholar named Horapollo set up a translation system based on hieroglyphics' relation to Egyptian allegories. After Horapollo's hypothesis, 15 centuries of scholars dedicated themselves to a false translation system. De Sacy, who had translated the Demotic portion, tried his hand at the hieroglyphic inscription, but he failed, too.

Thomas Young made a significant breakthrough in 1814 when he discovered the meaning of a cartouche [source: BBC]. A cartouche is an oval-shaped loop that encloses a series of hieroglyphic characters. Young realized that these cartouches were only drawn around proper names.

Identifying the name of the pharaoh Ptolemy, Young was able to make some progress with his translation. Reasoning that a name sounds similar across languages, Young parsed out a few sounds in the hieroglyphic alphabet using Ptolemy's name and the name of his queen, Berenika, as guides. But because Young was counting on Horapollo's premise that pictures corresponded to symbols, he couldn't quite make sense of how phonetics fit in. Young gave up the translation but published his preliminary results [source: BBC]. His discovery built the foundation of Jean-François Champollion's successful translation.

Champollion began his linguistic education in 1807 under de Sacy and became familiar with the languages and skills that would aid in his translation of hieroglyphics. After Young's breakthrough in 1814, Champollion picked up where he had left off [source: Ceram]. Champollion reconsidered the connection between the hieroglyphics and phonetics. He thought that the images might have some symbolic meaning, but that they also probably had some connection to phonetic sounds, like most languages do.

In 1822, Champollion got his hands on some very old cartouches. He started with a short cartouche that contained four characters, the last two of which were identical. Champollion identified the last two characters as the letter "s." Examining the first character, a circle, he guessed that it might represent the sun. In Coptic, another ancient language, the word for sun is "ra," and by spelling out the cartouche phonetically as "ra - s s", Champollion could see only one name that fit the bill: Ramses.

This cartouche, which contains the name

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Determining the connection between hieroglyphics and Coptic proved that hieroglyphics wasn't based on symbols or allegories: It was a phonetic language -- one that corresponded to sounds. Champollion was so overwhelmed by his discovery that he fainted on the spot [source: Ceram].

Next, we'll learn about the vast world that opened up after hieroglyphics could be read.

Egyptian papyri display in Turin, Italy

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Egyptology

The Rosetta Stone made it possible to read more than a thousand years of Egyptian history. The West used to marvel at the civilization simply because it was old, but this new wealth of information inspired an enthusiastic interest in Egypt. Aided by innovations in travel during the Industrial Revolution, Egypt became a popular destination for Westerners to visit. Doctors even recommended the country as a healing site for its warm, dry weather. Westerners pored over books about Egypt and others adorned themselves in Egyptian-inspired fashions.

Part of Napoleon's master plan was for France to reveal Egypt's mysteries to the world. His Institute was rather limited by not being able to read hieroglyphics. Many of the scholars' findings were based on empirical evidence, or conclusions drawn from their observations. Not all of their conclusions were accurate. For instance, they estimated the temple at Dendra to be very ancient, but it was actually built in the Greco-Roman period (332 B.C. through 395 A.D.) [source: BBC].

Despite errors and holes in their research, Napoleon's scholars pooled their observations together into 19 volumes. The Institute's compilation was completed in 1822 and published under the name "A Description of Egypt." It was displayed in the Louvre in 1825 and accompanying maps were added to it in 1828 [source: International Napoleonic Society].

The compilation became enormously popular throughout Europe. Egypt became a subject of intrigue for the masses as well as the scholars -- tales of mummies, magnificent tombs and immeasurable riches appealed to everyone. Cracking the hieroglyphic inscription on the Rosetta Stone was just the first step: It would take years to sift through the stacks of papyri and scan the walls of monuments to get a bigger picture of ancient Egyptian history. Plenty of scholars were willing to devote themselves to the study of the civilization. As a result, Egyptology, or the study of ancient Egypt, evolved into a legitimate science as well as a topic of popular culture.

Scholars flocked to Egypt to study the ruins, archives and artifacts. Writers like Gustav Flaubert and Charles Dickens brought Egypt into the imaginations of people who could not travel there. Many artifacts were shipped to Europe for safe-keeping. Egyptians who didn't realize the value of their artifacts had been selling them to collectors for years. During the Middle Ages, countless mummies had been sold to European doctors, who believed that ground-up mummified remains were a cure-all for disease.

Rosetta Stone replica

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Egyptologists argued that if artifacts weren't shipped to Europe and placed in museums, they'd be sold or lost forever. Champollion campaigned to have these items placed in the Egyptian National Museum. He countered that scholars didn't know how to properly care for them, either. Papyrus, for instance, should be stored in bamboo containers in non-humid environments: When Egyptologists transported them by ship to the West, the papers crumbled to dust [source: Ceram].

In 1895, the Egypt Exploration Fund was established to support museums' acquisitions of Egyptian art and antiquities. Developments in archaeology allowed scholars to piece together even more of Egypt's mysterious past.

Today, Egyptologists engage in studies and excavations to reveal new aspects of ancient Egyptian culture. Many universities include Egyptology as a degree program. In popular and academic culture, our fascination with ancient Egypt is in no small part due to the Rosetta Stone.

For more information on the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian history and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • Baines, John. "Ancient Egypt Timeline." BBC.CO.UK. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/timeline.shtml
  • Byrd, Melanie. "The Napoleonic Institute of Egypt." The International Napoleonic Society. December 1998 (11/14/2007). http://www.napoleon-series.org/ins/scholarship98/c_institute.html
  • Ceram, C.W. "Gods, Graves, and Scholars." Alfred A. Knopf. New York 1968.
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art. "The Finding of the Rosetta Stone." 2006 (11/6/2007). http://www.clevelandart.org/archive/pharaoh/glyphs.html.
  • EMuseum@Minnesota State University. "Howard Carter." (11/15/2007). http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/information/biography/abcde/carter_howard.html
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  • Roach, John. "Egypt Asks for Loans of Artifacts Held Abroad." National Geographic News. 4/30/2007 (11/14/2007). http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/pf/43451512.html
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