Last week we mentioned the Rosetta Stone in our post about Mother Language Day, but the subject proved so fascinating we decided it deserved a post of its own. So, just what makes this lump of rock so special?

Ancient stone

The Rosetta Stone dates back to 196 BC when a rock was inscribed with a decree passed by a council of priests in Memphis to establish the royal cult of Ptolemy V. He was the fifth ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, who came to power at the age of just five.

It was inscribed following a period of turbulence for Ancient Egyptians. The boy king had come to the thrown after his parents both died – in fact, they are widely suspected to have been murdered. If this theory is true, it is just as likely that the plotters, led by Ptolemy V’s father’s mistress, then secured control of the country thanks to their position as the young boy’s guardians.

Seven years after Ptolemy V came to the throne, he was officially crowned king, and it was for this event that the stone was inscribed. In fact, the decree on it is fairly mundane and depicts all the good deeds and gifts the ruler had bestowed on the temples. It’s probably as a result of this that he had the support of the priests.

Centuries later, the Rosetta Stone would prove to be much more valuable than those who decreed its inscription could ever have imagined.

An exciting discovery

If you have ever seen Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, you may assume they are fairly easy to read and use pictures in place of words. However, when you see huge stone walls inscribed with endless lines of the script, you understand what a daunting task translating it actually is. The system uses logographic and alphabetic symbols and has its roots in the arts, with similar elements used decades before to decorate pottery.

Not only are Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics much harder to read than you may at first assume, but because the script is so old, by the late 18th century there was no one alive who could read or write it. As a result, reams of text taken down during one of the most fascinating periods of history remained illegible.

All that changed in 1799 when French soldiers serving under Napoleon who were based in Rosetta (modern-day Rashid) in Egypt discovered a large stone covered in carvings. Rebuilding a fort that had been destroyed by British troops, the soldiers carelessly disposed of the rocks they dug up in a pile. One soldier, Pierre-François Bouchard, started to search through the resulting mound of rubble where he found one stone covered in scripts.

The discovery itself was just one of a series of coincidences. Bouchard immediately recognised the stone could be important and contacted his superior, who was able to get a message to his general who also happened to be posted in Rosetta. Napoleon had only recently established a science association in Cairo, who were able to examine the stone and Napoleon himself also came to see it.

Unlocking the secrets of Ancient Egypt

As we explained, prior to this there had been no way of deciphering Ancient Egyptian script, and so despite there being a wealth of information about this period, no-one was able to read it. All that changed with the Rosetta Stone.

Ancient Greek script is still studied and understood by academics. Upon examining this part of the text they realised that the stone actually contained one message repeated three times and once they had translated Ancient Greek, the scholars could start to translate the Ancient Egyptian. This was the first time anyone had been able to make an accurate translation of hieroglyphics that was not based on conjecture.

English scientist Thomas Young was the first to notice that certain symbols were contained within a loop called a cartouche, and from the Greek, he established these represented the king’s name. It was French academic Jean-François Champollion who translated the stone and made the discovery that hieroglyphs were used to represent sounds.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone, now housed in the British Museum, and the subsequent translation of its text mean that today historians are able to translate other examples of Egyptian hieroglyphics, providing them with a contemporary insight into this time. The Rosetta Stone truly is the Holy Grail of linguistics.