The Rosetta Stone: the Key to Egyptian Hieroglyphs
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The Rosetta Stone: the Key to Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The Rosetta Stone, an irregularly shaped slab of black basalt measuring 3’ 9” by 2’ 4 1/2’ was found in the town of Rosetta (or Rashid) on the left bank of the Nile, in August of 1799 by a Frenchman named Bouchard. The Stone provided the world the first clues to cracking Egyptian hieroglyphs which prior to that time had remained a mystery--with many incorrect translations in circulation.

The Rosetta Stone, an irregularly shaped slab of black basalt measuring 3’ 9” by 2’ 4 1/2", was found in the town of Rosetta (or Rashid) on the left bank of the Nile, in August of 1799, by a Frenchman named Pierre-Francois Bouchard (or Boussard) during the execution of repairs to the fort at St. Julian.

Subsequently, the Stone passed into British ownership in 1801 during the surrender of Egypt by the French, and is currently housed in the British Museum.

Written in two languages and three scripts (Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic), the inscription records the commemoration of the accession of the Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes (sometimes Epiphanies, incorrectly) to the throne of Egypt in the year 197--196 BCE, in the 9th year of his reign. 

The son of Ptolemy IV Philopator and Arsinoe III of Egypt, Ptolemy V Epiphanes was the fifth ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, becoming ruler at the age of five when his father died and his mother Sosibius was murdered.  Epiphanes assumed power under a series of regents when the kingdom had become paralyzed and lacked leadership.

Ptolemy

The decree inscribed on the Stone summarizes the benefactions conferred by Ptolemy upon the priesthood and appears to have been written by priests of Memphis after a general assembly of religious leaders of the empire

In that one of the texts was a form of the Greek language decipherable by 19th century linguists, the Rosetta Stone provided the world the first clues to cracking Egyptian hieroglyphs which prior to that time had remained a mystery--with many incorrect translations in circulation.

The decipherment of the hieroglyphic inscription was largely the work of Thomas Young (a polymath with numerous academic abilities) and French scholar Jean Francois Champollion, with Young having first discovered that the names of the Egyptian Royal Family were always written within ovals, which became known as cartouches.

Thomas Young

Young surmised that foreign names like Ptolemy and Cleopatra (the Ptolemys were not Egyptian by birth) would probably be written in phonetic values which could then be compared to the remainder of the text--and separated from within all three texts.

Out of the thirteen signs in Cleopatra Ptolemy, he was able to attribute the correct linguistic value to six, and partially correct value to three other signs. 

In this process, Young also discovered the correct way in which the glyphs were to be read by examining the direction in which the birds and animals depicted were facing.

Young is credited with establishing the linguistic science of "philology" (the scientific study of the relationship of languages to one another, and their history, especially based on the analysis of texts).

 

Beginning in 1821, Jean Francois Champollion started where Young had left off, establishing an extensive list of Egyptian signs and their Greek equivalents. 

He became the first Egyptologist to realize that some of the signs were alphabetic, some syllabic, and some, “determinatives,” standing for an entire idea or indicative of an object previously expressed.

Champollion

He also established that the hieroglyphic text was the translation of the Greek--not the reverse, which had been the “logical” consensus among linguistic scholars of the time. 

From 1822 forward, when Champollion completed his work, anthropologists have been able to decipher any text found in an Egyptian context--using this traditional form of writing.

References:

http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/the_rosetta_stone.aspx

http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Rosetta_Stone

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rosetta_Stone

Great Ages of Man, Lionel Casson

Images via wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise (with my appreciation)

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Comments (6)

I wonder if they ever had people with messy handwritting like we do now? it always looks so awesome.

Handwriting as we think of it didn't exist in ancient Egypt. Commoners had a sytem of tallying, but not an everyday written language. Glyph writing was a sacred art performed by professional, court scribes, and if you didn't do it perfectly, you lost your position--maybe you life.

GREAT one James, thank you.

Great work. I've seen it in the British Museum, but it's so crowded you can never get close to have a really good look.

Great article, thanks

Great article James, well written and researched....thanks

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