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Rosetta Stone


Close up of Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

Close up of Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

Rob Meredith (c) 2006

The Rosetta stone is a big (114x72x28 centimeters) hunk of volcanic basalt found near the town of Rosetta (now Rashid), Egypt, in 1799, by the French emperor Napoleon's military expedition. Napoleon's soldiers were improving Fort Julien for the failed attempt to conquer Egypt, and found the black basalt block when robbing stone from an ancient wall nearby.

The Rosetta stone is inscribed with the identical text in three languages: ancient Egypt in both its hieroglyphic and demotic (script) forms, and ancient Greek. The text was identified and translated by French linguist Jean François Champollion in 1822.

The stone's text was carved in 196 BC, during the 9th year in the reign of the Ptolemaic period pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes (ruled 204-180 BC). The text describes the siege of Lycopolis, but also discusses the state of Egypt and what its citizens can do to improve things. In the text, the Greek version of the Egyptian god Amun is translated as Zeus.

The Importance of the Rosetta Stone

It seems pretty astounding today, but Champollion's translation of the Rosetta Stone was the first time anyone had been able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. His translation formed the bedrock for more scholars to build on and eventually translate thousands of scripts and carvings dating for the entire 3,000 year old Egyptian dynastic tradition.

The slab now resides in the British Museum in London, much to the chagrin of the Egyptian government who would dearly love its return.


Try your hand at the Rosetta Stone Trivia Quiz, and see Rosetta Stone from Ancient History.

Chauveau, Michel (translated from the French by David Lorton). 2000. Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra: History and society under the Ptolemies. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Downs, Jonathan 2006 Romancing the stone. History Today 56(5):48-54.

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