In 1799, French soldiers in Napoleon’s army discovered a mysterious black rock buried in the sands near the city of Alexandria, Egypt. The stone was inscribed in three ancient languages. The rock’s first inscription was in Greek. Scholars
determined it dated from about 196 BC, when Egypt was a province of the Greek empire created by Alexander the Great. The other two inscriptions on the black rock were in different versions of hieroglyphics, the traditional writing of the Egyptians.
For thousands of years, Egypt was one of the great empires of the ancient world. Ruled by kings known as pharaohs, the Egyptians built gigantic monuments such as the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. Egyptian armies controlled lands from present-day Sudan to Syria. The pharaohs built thriving cities and splendid tombs for themselves.
But for centuries before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, historians and archeologists were unable to read the vast number of written records left by Egypt’s scribes. They wrote in a complicated script that was incomprehensible to even the most learned modern scholars.
The Rosetta Stone, which recorded an edict issued by the Greek authorities to the Egyptian population, unlocked the secrets of ancient Egypt. By lining up the Greek text with the hieroglyphics, a French scholar named Jean-Francois Champollion was able to decode the complex Egyptian language after years of study. Deciphering hieroglyphics allowed historians and archeologists in the nineteenth century to develop a much fuller understanding of ancient Egypt.
Translating the Rosetta Stone was a scholarly accomplishment in its own right. Champollion was a prodigious linguist who was fluent in dozens of languages. A British scholar, Thomas Young, also helped decode the inscriptions. The Rosetta Stone was seized by the British in 1801 and now resides in the British Museum in London.
- During World War I, the Rosetta Stone and other important exhibitions were moved from the British Museum to a subway station to protect them from the bombing of London.
- The text on the Rosetta Stone outlined the good deeds of the thirteenyear-old Greek pharaoh Ptolemy Vin an effort to convince his Egyptian subjects of his divinity.
- Ancient Egyptians believed that bodies should be preserved after death and carefully embalmed the corpses of their kings in a process known as mummification. As late as the nineteenth century, charlatans in Europe sold mummies ground up into a powder, claiming it had medicinal value.