Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Rosetta Stone

In July 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egyptia with an army of 35,000 soldiers. His goal was take control of Egyptian society.
On July 15, 1799, some French soldiers were digging near the coastal city of Rosetta (today’s Rashid). Rosetta was about 40 miles (65 km) northeast of Alexandria. While working, they accidentally dug up a stone with letters carved on it. A French lieutenant, Pierre-Francois Bouchard, saw the stone, thought it might be important, and was able to escort it to Cairo. There he handed it over to members of Napoleon’s Institute of Egypt for study. Even Napoleon took a look at what became known as the Rosetta Stone.
Napoleon failed to take control of Egyptian society. He abandoned his army in Egyptia and returned to France in August 1799. His Institute of Egypt closed in March 1801. His poor army followed him in defeat five months after that.
Before leaving Egypt, French leaders gave to English leaders control of all the valuables they had stolen from Egyptians. This loot included priceless objects of ancient Egyptian art as well as the Rosetta Stone. English leaders took this loot back home. The Rosetta Stone went on public display in London at the British Museum in 1802.
The Rosetta Stone is a piece of granite which is 45 inches high, 29 inches wide, and 11 inches thick (114 x 72 x 28 cm). It weighs about 1700 pounds (750 kg). It is actually the surviving piece of an even larger stone.
On it was a single text inscribed in 196 BC. But this same text was written three times, in two different languages, using three different types of writing. The language of the first text was ancient Egyptian and was written in hieroglyphs. The language of the second text was also ancient Egyptian but was written using Demotic letters. The language and letters of the third text were ancient Greek.
Excitement in the Rosetta Stone was great from the moment of its discovery. In 1799, no one on earth could figure out the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. No one could read any of the thousands of words written in hieroglyphs on stone, clay, and papyrus. The meaning of ancient Egyptian culture remained a frustrating mystery. But scholars knew how to read ancient Greek. The great hope was that the ancient Greek text on the Stone could be used to rediscover, at last, the meaning of the hieroglyphs.
Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) did the most significant work on rediscovering the meaning of hieroglyphs. In September 1822 he presented his own eight-page dictionary of hieroglyphs to a public meeting of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. He published a 44-page version of this dictionary in October 1822. With that dictionary, the modern field of Egyptology was born and the door to ancient Egyptian culture was reopened.
The Rosetta Stone remains on public display at the British Museum in London to this day. It is the most visited item there.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.