History of the Rosetta Stone – Napoleon and His Army
What’s the history of the Rosetta Stone? What’s the story behind the famous discovery that revolutionized Egyptology?
After the Roman Empire took control of Egypt in about 30 BC, the art of reading and writing hieroglyphics was ultimately lost. Actually, unknown to many, Egyptian hieroglyphics was considered a “dead” language for over 1,500 years.
Then, in 1798, Napoleon landed his French flotilla near Alexandria, Egypt, and marched his troops south to fight the British near Cairo. The French won the ground battle, but while on land, the British Navy under Lord Horratio Nelson sailed-up and sank the French flotilla. Napoleon and his troops had no way to return to France, so they ended up spending the next three years in Egypt.
History of the Rosetta Stone – The Discovery
In 1799, while “digging in” and building defensive positions near Rashid (ancient Rosetta), a small city outside Alexandria, a soldier in Napoleon’s army discovered a black basalt stone, 3’ 9’’ long by 2’ 4’’ wide, with three distinct bands of engraving. Although the soldier didn’t recognize the Egyptian hieroglyphics at the top, or the Demotic script in the middle, he did recognize the ancient Greek at the bottom. Rather than use the stone as part of his barricade, he gave it to scholars travelling with Napoleon’s army. They realized that the stone was some sort of ancient royal decree written three times in three different languages. They named it the Rosetta Stone and commenced some study.
Shortly thereafter, in 1801, the British defeated the French, and the Rosetta Stone became a British possession as part of the treaty at Alexandria. It was transported to London in 1802, where it’s been on display at the British Museum ever since. To this day, the Rosetta Stone is the most-visited object in the British Museum.
History of the Rosetta Stone – The Importance
So, why is the history of the Rosetta Stone so important…?
In 1820, after a couple decades of political intrigue and academic shenanigans, Jean Francois Champollion (a French linguist and historian) and Thomas Young (a British linguist and physicist) combined talents to finally decipher the Demotic script and Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone by comparing them to the known Greek text. While the process was complicated and not without controversy, this was the all-important “Ah-Ha” moment for Egyptologists, archaeologists, linguists, and historians. In short, the Rosetta Stone was the code that unlocked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was the Rosetta Stone that allowed scholars to read the inscriptions and reliefs -- the texts, tablets, and tombs -- that finally provided a modern understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilization.