The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is a stele composed of granodiorite inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The stele was found in a small village in the Delta called Rosetta (Rashid). It is called the Rosetta Stone because it was discovered in a town called Rosetta (Rashid).

Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion was able to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs through the oval shapes found in the hieroglyphic text, which are known as Kharratis and include the names of kings and queens.

The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone

Why it is important?

It is one of the most important objects in the British Museum as it holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs—a script made up of small pictures that was used originally in ancient Egypt for religious texts.

The picture shows the principle by which the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion deciphered the Rosetta Stone. In 1799, a stone tablet was found near the Egyptian village of Rosetta.

The inscription was carved in three languages: Demotic, Greek and Late Egyptian. Champollion was able to decipher the name of King Ptolys (Ptolomew) and Queen Cleopatra on an obelisk from Philae and thus the inscription.

Decoding of the late Egyptian hieroglyphs by Champollion
Decoding of the late Egyptian hieroglyphs by Champollion

What were the languages written on the Rosetta Stone?

The Rosetta Stone, a symbol for different things to different people, is a dark-colored granodiorite stele inscribed with the same text in three scripts – Demotic, hieroglyphic and Greek.

The message, inscribed on the stele in 196 BC, is a decree (an official message) about Pharaoh Ptolemy V. It says that the priests at the temple in Memphis, Egypt, supported the Pharaoh. It translates as a bit of a list of all of the good things Pharaoh Ptolemy V did for the priests and the people of Egypt.

Two modern inscriptions on the stone now record key moments in its modern history — “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” and “Presented by King George III.”

The stone has been on display in the British Museum (EA 24) since 1802, with only one break. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, when the Museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other, portable, ‘important’ objects.

The writing on the stone is a decree, saying that the priests of a temple in Memphis supported the king. The decree was copied on to large stone slabs called stelae, which were put in every temple in Egypt.

The Rosetta Stone. British Museum EA2
The Rosetta Stone. British Museum EA2

The decree was written into three languages: Demotic (everyday script), Ancient Greek (the language of administration), and hieroglyphs (suitable for a priestly decree).

The English physicist Thomas Young was one of the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy.

The French scholar Jean-François Champollion then realised that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language. Together with his knowledge of the Coptic, he began reading the inscription fully.

Champollion made a breakthrough on 22 September 1822, exclaiming to his brother ‘Je tiens l’affaire!’ (‘I’ve got it!’). He then promptly collapsed from excitement.

Finally, on 27 September 1822 Champollion presented his research to Paris’ Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, with his rival Thomas Young in the audience, and the rest is history!

Unlock everything you ever wanted to know about the Rosetta Stone over on the British Museum blog.