The Rosetta Stone is named from its find-place, a village in the western Egyptian Nile Delta, known locally as el-Rashid but Europeanized as Rosetta. The village is situated a few kilometers from the sea on the Bolbitine (Rosetta) branch of the Nile. Tradition recounts that the stone was discovered in mid-July 1799, built into an old wall being demolished for an extension to Fort Julien. It had not originated from Rosetta but, like other locally used pharaonic blocks, had been brought from some nearby ancient site, probably Naucratis. The demolition detail and its officer, a lieutenant of engineers named Pierre Bouchard, were members of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt.

By mid-August, the stone was in Cairo, the center of interest for the scholars whom Napoleon had brought with him. In spring of 1801, when Cairo was threatened by British Army successes, the stone was taken for safety to Alexandria, but its surrender was compelled by article XVI of the Capitulation of Alexandria at the end of August 1801. It reached England on HMS L'Égyptienne in February 1802 and was deposited with the Royal Society of Antiquaries in London; copies of its texts were then dispatched to centers of scholarship throughout Europe. Late in 1802, it was removed to the British Museum and immediately exhibited as registered Egyptian Antiquity 24.

The Rosetta Stone is an inscribed slab of granitoid stone still measuring 114 centimeters (3 feet, 9 inches) in height, 72 centimeters (2 feet, 4.5 inches) in width, and 28 centimeters (11 inches) in thickness; it weights about 762 kilograms (0.75 ton). It lacks a large part of the upper left corner, a narrow section of the upper right edge and the lower right corner. Originally, it would have had a rounded top containing the winged sun disk and a scene of the king before various deities.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone. Drawing of the hieroglyphic portion of the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Stone is important because its inscription is bilingual. It is written in three scripts (hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek) but only two languages (Egyptian and Greek), of which the latter could be read. The Greek section is a copy of a decree passed by a council of Egyptian priests meeting at Memphis on 27 March 196 BCE to celebrate the first anniversary of the coronation of the pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes, who, like all the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, was a Macedonian Greek. The text is a mere catalog of priestly privileges, especially those of an economic nature, and a list of the honors bestowed on Ptolemy V in return for his services to Egypt, at home and abroad. It ends, however, with the information that the decree is to be written in the sacred and native and Greek characters: in other words, the Greek section is a translation of the two sections written in hieroglyphs and Demotic, scripts that had been unread for more than thirteen centuries.

The Rosetta Stone is popularly believed to have provided the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs. In fact, the breakthrough, based on the correct reading of the name Ptolemy in its cartouches, could only be made by reference to other texts.

See also DECIPHERMENT; and the biographical entry on CHAMPOLLION.

Bibliography

  • Andrews, Carol. The Rosetta Stone. London, 1981.
  • Quirke, Stephen, and Andrews, Carol. The Rosetta Stone: Facsimile Drawing. London, 1988. With introduction and full translations.

Carol A. R. Andrews