Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of an Ancient Egyptian granodiorite stele, the engraved text of which provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The inscription records a decree that was issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three texts: the upper one is in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle one in Egyptian demotic script, and the lower text in ancient Greek.

Originally displayed within a temple, the stele was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period, and eventually used as building material in the construction of a fort at the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It was rediscovered there in 1799 by a soldier of the French expedition to Egypt. As the first ancient bilingual text recovered in modern times, the Rosetta Stone aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher the hitherto untranslated ancient Egyptian language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating amongst European museums and scholars. Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the Capitulation of Alexandria. Transported to London, it has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.

Ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, the long-running dispute over the relative value of Young's and Champollion's contributions to the decipherment, and since 2003, the demand for the stone's return to Egypt.

Study of the decree was already under way as the first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the decipherment of the Egyptian texts was announced by Jean-Fran├žois Champollion in Paris in 1822; it took longer still before scholars were able to read other ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently. Major advances in the decoding were: recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text (1799); that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names (1802); that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic (Thomas Young, 1814); and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words (Champollion, 1822–1824).

Two other fragmentary copies of the same decree were discovered later, and several similar Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions are now known, including two slightly earlier Ptolemaic decrees (the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV, ca. 218 BC). The Rosetta Stone is therefore no longer unique, but it was the essential key to modern understanding of ancient Egyptian literature and civilization. The term Rosetta Stone is now used in other contexts as the name for the essential clue to a new field of knowledge.


The Rosetta Stone is listed as "a stone of black granite, bearing three inscriptions ... found at Rosetta", in a contemporary catalogue of artefacts discovered by the French expedition and surrendered to British troops in 1801. At some period after its arrival in London, the inscriptions on the stone were coloured in white chalk to make them more legible, and the remaining surface was covered with a layer of carnauba wax designed to protect the Rosetta Stone from visitors' fingers. This gave a dark colour to the stone that led to its mistaken identification as black basalt. These additions were removed when the stone was cleaned in 1999, revealing the original dark grey tint of the rock, the sparkle of its crystalline structure, and a pink vein running across the top left corner. Comparisons with the Klemm collection of Egyptian rock samples showed a close resemblance to rock from a small granodiorite quarry at Gebel Tingar on the west bank of the Nile, west of Elephantine in the region of Aswan; the pink vein is typical of granodiorite from this region.

The Rosetta Stone is now 114.4 centimetres (45.0 in) high at its highest point, 72.3 cm (28.5 in) wide, and 27.9 cm (11.0 in) thick. It weighs approximately 760 kilograms (1,700 lb). It bears three inscriptions: the top register in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second in the Egyptian demotic script, and the third in ancient Greek. The front surface is polished and the inscriptions lightly incised on it; the sides of the stone are smoothed, but the back is only roughly worked, presumably because this would have not been visible when it was erected.

Original stele

The Rosetta Stone is a fragment of a larger stele. No additional fragments were found in later searches of the Rosetta site. Owing to its damaged state, none of the three texts is absolutely complete. The top register composed of Egyptian hieroglyphs suffered the most damage. Only the last 14 lines of the hieroglyphic text can be seen; all of them are broken on the right side, and 12 of them on the left. The following register of demotic text has survived best: it has 32 lines, of which the first 14 are slightly damaged on the right side. The final register of Greek text contains 54 lines, of which the first 27 survive in full; the rest are increasingly fragmentary due to a diagonal break at the bottom right of the stone.

The full length of the hieroglyphic text and the total size of the original stele, of which the Rosetta Stone is a fragment, can be estimated based on comparable stelae that have survived, including other copies of the same decree. The slightly earlier decree of Canopus, erected in 238 BC during the reign of Ptolemy III, is 219 centimetres (86 in) high and 82 centimetres (32 in) wide, and contains 36 lines of hieroglyphic text, 73 of demotic text, and 74 of Greek. The texts are of similar length. From such comparisons it can be estimated that an additional 14 or 15 lines of hieroglyphic inscription are missing from the top register of the Rosetta Stone, amounting to another 30 centimetres (12 in). In addition to the inscriptions, there would probably have been a scene depicting the king being presented to the gods, topped with a winged disk, as on the Canopus Stele. These parallels, and a hieroglyphic sign for 'stela' on the stone itself (Gardiner's Sign O26) suggest that it originally had a rounded top. The height of the original stele is estimated to have been about 149 centimetres (59 in).