On July 15, 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French soldier spotted a black stone covered in inscriptions outside of the Egyptian city of Rosetta. Suspecting it could be an important cultural find, he brought it to the attention of his superiors. The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be known, contained an ancient decree written in three types of scripts. One of them was Egyptian hieroglyphics. Using the Rosetta Stone and comparing the hieroglyphics to the other writings, a French linguist was able to crack the hieroglyphic code. For the first time since hieroglyphics died out in the 4th century, scholars were able to decipher a lost language and the field of Egyptology was born.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte led a French campaign through Egypt and Syria. His goal was to defend French trade interests and ultimately drive the British from India. He brought scholars along on the expedition to document the antiquities they discovered. While digging a foundation in Rosetta in July 1799, a young officer named Pierre-Francois-Xavier Bouchard discovered a stone covered in inscriptions. The broken stone was part of a larger tablet and contained an official message or decree about King Ptolemy (204-181 BC). The same message was written in hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Ancient Greek.
After Napoleon’s defeat, the Rosetta Stone fell into British hands. The Treaty of Alexandria required that all antiquities gathered during Napoleon’s campaign be turned over to the British, including the stone. It was loaded on a ship, arriving in England in February 1802. That summer, it was presented to King George III, then displayed at the British Museum. Scholars immediately began studying the inscriptions. A British physicist named Thomas Young was the first to realize that a group of hieroglyphics repeated several times on the stone wrote the sounds of the name Ptolemy.
He continued his extensive study of the stone, as did other scholars, including French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion. Over the next two decades, the race to decipher the Rosetta Stone continued. In 1822, Champollion made the first of several breakthroughs, and in 1824, he realized that hieroglyphics combined phonetic and ideographic signs. Combined with his knowledge of the Coptic language, which is derived from ancient Egyptian, Champollion cracked the code and was able to read the hieroglyphics.
Champollion then transcribed the message on the Rosetta Stone. He is heralded as the founder of the study of Egyptology. The message on the stone was a decree celebrating the first anniversary of the coronation of King Ptolemy V. More importantly, scholars could now decipher hieroglyphics on other Egyptian antiquities.
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