Rosetta Stone

Contributed by British Museum

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The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous objects in the British Museum but the actual contents of its inscription is less well-known. The inscription is a decree that affirms the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation in 196 BC. The same inscription is written in three different scripts ? Greek, hieroglyphs and demotic Egyptian. It was this Greek inscription that allowed modern scholars to begin to decipher hieroglyphs for the first time.

Why is the Rosetta Stone written in three different scripts?

In 332 BC, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. After Alexander's death, his former general Ptolemy I ruled Egypt. His Greek descendents known as the Ptolemies ruled Egypt for the next 300 years. The Ptolemaic period witnessed a fusion of Greek and Egyptian cultures. Greek was the official language of the court, while hieroglyphs were limited to use by the priests. Demotic Egyptian was the native script used for everyday purposes.

The Ptolemaic kings frequently practised incest marrying their sisters

An icon of understanding

Although the Rosetta Stone is a rather heavy stone, it is also a strangely insubstantial and mobile thing.

It was once an inscribed temple stela, one of many, in the shining halls of ancient Sais. It was then a piece of builders’ rubble, then a block in the walls of a medieval fort at Rosetta/el-Rashid, then an exotic antiquity disputed by French and English factions, then war booty in an official treaty, then the key to 4,000 years of an otherwise lost written culture, and gradually an icon of not only this decipherment, but of any decipherment, giving its name to computer programs, language schools, even to satellites.

It has moved from the long demolished temple of Sais through European history into outer space. If it hadn’t been created at a time when Egypt was governed by a Macedonian dynasty, been uncovered by warring nations, been given to Europe and worked on by rival scholars, it would have remained only another duplicate temple inscription.

Instead, its messy war-torn history has somehow made it into an icon of our attempts to understand not only Ancient Egypt, but also other languages and other cultures.

So it is a surprisingly optimistic thing, reminding us that nationalistic conflicts can sometimes end up producing empathy and understanding. Although it has been battered by its long history and is not exactly beautiful, the fact that it still fascinates so many people - including the over six million visitors who see it at the British Museum each year - seems to me utterly wonderful.

Human history is not such a hopeless affair if this heavy piece of granite from Aswan, endlessly fought over, can become a symbol of our desire to understand each other.

Richard Parkinson, curator, British Museum

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  • 1. At 12:21 on 19 May 2010, wendym wrote:

    still don't understand what a temple stela is - help!

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  • 2. At 13:40 on 19 May 2010, Shidract wrote:

    @Wendym - A stela is a freestanding stone that's often inscribed, carved or decorated, which is then set upright in the ground as a commemorative show for a person or event.
    Hope that helps.

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  • 3. At 17:09 on 19 May 2010, Neil wrote:

    Great page! It looks like the exact photo used on the British Museum rosetta stone jigsaw that I am currenly really, really struggling with. This will really help. :D

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  • 4. At 18:22 on 19 May 2010, Flavio Zanchi wrote:

    You quote "the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif ...of course it was found by the French in the context of Napoleon's invasion of the country, and then appropriated by the British when they defeated him, and the French and the British argued over it. No-one seems to have considered that it belonged to neither of them."
    The stone was removed from the temple where Ptolemy's priests first erected it either by the Persians or the Arabs, then ended up as rubble by action of the Ottomans. Modern Egypt rose, thanks to European intervention, from the rubble of the Ottoman empire. From the Persian invasion onwards, its language, culture and politics have no link and bear no resemblance whatsoever with ancient Egypt - they only happen to occupy the same strip on both margins of the Nile. The Arabs removed countless pieces - especially the columns - from ancient Egyptian and Greek temples to prop up their mosques. In the process, Islam erased most of what then existed of Egyptian culture.
    Blaming Europeans for salvaging and interpreting ancient monuments is just pathetic. Modern Egyptians would have no idea of their "heritage" if it wasn't for the efforts of European scientists.

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  • 5. At 10:27 on 20 May 2010, Richard Parkinson wrote:

    As a European Egyptologist, I must admit that I am always struck by the continuity between ancient and modern Egypt in so many ways, despite the changes in religion and languages over the centuries. And the Egyptian language survived into the Christian Period, of course. Many accounts have down-played the extent that Egypt has been interested in its own past, but more recent studies are re-assessing this, such as Okasha el-Daly?s work on medieval Egyptian scholar?s attitude to the antiquities, and Donald Reid?s work on early modern Egyptian Egyptology. And no one can question modern Egypt?s commitment to the study and preservation of its own heritage.
    Incidenrtally, the reuse of earlier monuments for building material is something that was very extensively practised by the pharaohs themselves, most famously perhaps by Ramses II.
    Richard Parkinson, curator British Museum

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  • 6. At 08:32 on 21 May 2010, panglaowai wrote:

    I wonder if this is the first know example of a multilingual official official document.

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  • 7. At 08:32 on 21 May 2010

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  • 8. At 08:32 on 21 May 2010

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  • 9. At 01:35 on 31 May 2010, Flavio Zanchi wrote:

    Different cultures will apply very similar solutions to the basic needs for food and shelter, when successively occupying the same terrain under the same climate, unless new production and transportation technologies are brought to bear. This may give an impression of continuity. The peasants I've seen waiting at train stations in the Delta could very well, by dress and demeanour, be taken for their predecessors on the way to the market 3,000 years ago. However, instead of the deep connection to the land and to the rhythms of the river one would expect to see back then, their faces spoke only of dislocation and despair.
    The Egyptian language - or its descendant dialects - survived indeed in many places into the Christian Period, but was mostly replaced by Arabic not too long after the Muslim conquest. Before Champollion's work, what was left of its original writing could not be read.
    And yes, stones - columns, statues, stele - were constantly reused by many civilisations and turned into rubble. One has only to visit the Citadel in Cairo to see that. So, again, my point: why the reprimand to Europeans implicit in your quote? "?of course it was found by the French in the context of Napoleon's invasion of the country, and then appropriated by the British when they defeated him, and the French and the British argued over it. No-one seems to have considered that it belonged to neither of them."
    The stone belonged to no-one. Should the French soldiers who found it have left it where it was, or the British not have taken it to London, perhaps thinking that one day, maybe, the rightful owners, whoever they turned out to be, would get around to reading it? There is no moral case for leaving knowledge buried in deference to ignorance.

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El-Rashid (Rosetta), Egypt


196 BC


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