How the Rosetta Stone Works

Museum Image Gallery Rosetta Stone on display in British Museum, London. See more pictures of museums.
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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.