The Rosetta riddle finally understood

The Rosetta riddle finally understood

762 kg of history

112 cm high, 76 cm wide and 762 kg in weight. Much more important than the dimensions of the dark gray Rosetta granodiorite stele, however, is what was engraved in it, 2200 years ago.

The stone that revealed the secrets of the pharaohs

Pierre-François Bouchard wiped the sweat from his brow. The Egyptian sun was burning mercilessly, but an officer of the engineering corps urged the diggers to continue as he knew that the medieval walls of Fort Julien on the edge of the port city of Rosetta had to be strengthened as soon as possible, otherwise the French crew would not hold onto this important bridgehead for Napoleon's campaign. Suddenly Bouchard heard the screams of the soldiers. Among the crumbling stones, their pickaxes and shovels uncovered a massive block of granite-like stone: a meter tall and weighing as much as 10 men. It was decorated with three mysterious inscriptions, which were the key to one of the greatest mysteries in human history. However, in July 1799, no one knew what to do with this great gift of the desert.

Two years later, the English defeated the French and they withdrew from Egypt. The Rosetta Stone passed into the hands of the sons of Albion and ended up in the British Museum in London. There, for 20 years, scientists tried in vain to decipher its meaning. It was only known that three inscriptions were carved in it: the upper part of the plate was covered with hieroglyphic script. The middle one contained the characters of the demotic script, which was used in ancient Egypt every day. It replaced the 7th century BCE hieroglyphs, as a result of which the ability to make and read them blurred, and with it went most of the knowledge of the empire's former glory over on the Nile. No matter what the archaeologists found: be it temple walls, obelisks or tomb chambers in pyramids, they found hieroglyphs that they could not decipher (just like papyri covered with demotic script). However, the lower part of the stone, written in Greek, was not a challenge for historians, it was the decree of the priests from Memphis from 196 BCE on the anniversary of the coronation of Pharaoh Ptolemy V.

Finally, the breakthrough in reading the inscriptions, came about by another Frenchman, the linguist Jean-François Champollion. He looked at the inscription which were copied by his countrymen, for many years before giving the stone to the British. I figured it out! he shouted to his brother on September 14, 1822, after which, he passed out. The scientist, then 31, used, inter alia, an analysis of the Coptic language which has established that hieroglyphs are not always there to symbolize concepts, but also individual and group sounds.

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This discovery made it possible to translate and understand ancient Egyptian texts again, a skill that had been lost for several thousand years was now recovered. Papers from the time of the pharaohs describing how they lived, what they thought and how they died, suddenly ceased to be a mystery. "That is why the Rosetta Stone is such an important monument to humanity," explains Egyptologist Dr. Franziska Naether from the University of Leipzig.

To this day, the stele can be admired in the British Museum in London - 221 years after French soldiers stumbled upon it in the sands of the desert.

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Six million people can’t be wrong

Every year, the British Museum in London is visited by people from all over the world who want to see the Rosetta Stone. If you don’t want to travel to England, you can see a fragment of the ancient Egyptian stele online. The digital version is avaiable here.

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