Discovery of the Rosetta Stone: July 15, 1799

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.

The Maryland Gazette – 12.10.1801

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.

The Morning Chronicle 8.9.1802

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.

The Rosetta Stone is still displayed in the British Museum today, where it has drawn curious crowds for nearly 220 years. To learn more about the Rosetta Stone, search™ today!

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44 thoughts on “Discovery of the Rosetta Stone: July 15, 1799

  1. ….and when they were done translating it, this is what it really said:

    HERE BETWEEN 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.
    VIOLATORS WILL BE TOWED and FINED 50 SCARABS. EVC (Egypt vehicle code) 21223

  2. I’m impressed that it took a full 22+ years for the right person to come along to finally fulfill it’s purpose. nice piece…


      1. In a perfect world I would agree, but when I see radical elements destroying ancient artifacts in the name of their religion, I feel we need to be careful.

    1. The Rosetta Stone actually belonged to an Egyptian pharaoh of Greek ancestry. When the Egyptian government is headed by such a leader in a similar framework, the British should consider the proper place for the item.

  4. I agree, give it back to Egypt as well as all of the other treasures that were taken without proper permission.

  5. There are many treasures from foreign lands in museums all over the world. If not for that, few people would see and learn from them. And often in areas like the Middle East, where wars have raged for thousands of years, most of these treasures would be destroyed.

    1. Artifacts on world tours are the solution to this. It belongs in Egypt. Such a gift of grace is a powerful thing.

    2. I agree with you 100%, Diana. The majority of the museums in the world have items that are from other lands. That is how we learn from our past. If the debate is how they were acquired is the issue then that should be taken up separately. The items should stay where they’re at.

    3. Holding in safe keeping the ancient artifacts of other cultures, is a profoundly noble act. It may however offend many if permission was never granted. That said I’m sure many appreciate their cultural history being safely preserved and shared, rather than savagely destroyed as has happened in many wars, such as WWll

  6. Or anything questionable is bought up and hidden away by the Smithsonian Institute.

        1. It’s pointless to argue especially against bots.

          Anything not part of main stream your labeled a conspiracy nut as a means to silence you..

  7. Re your article on the Rosetta Stone. The article is slightly incorrect!. The ‘crack’ of the hieroglyphic writing system was achieved by the British polymath Thomas Young around 1810. Champolloin, the French linguist, reluctantly later admitted the he used Young’s prior achievement to enable his own more complete translation!

  8. Considering the disruptions in the middle east and questionable governmental ownership, many of the treasures currently safe guarded in the British Museum could be damaged if returned. Remember that the last uprising in Egypt and Bagdad had many of their museum pieces looted and damaged. Returning these artifacts would be commendable, but is questionable in this time of unrest.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree! I think many of those saying to just send them back have not thought this through. This was not a piece looted and hidden. As has been seen in other times. This is a piece that needs to be in a safe place. Egypt at this time and in the past, has not been.

  10. Seems like one of my wife’s ancestor with the last name stone was named rosetta, but my memory is clouded.

  11. I was visiting the British Museum during my first visit to London and was very tired after a long day of playing tourist. In one of the small dusty upper rooms, I stopped to rest and leaned on a sturdy dark object that was just elbow height. After a few minutes, I looked down and at the other side of the object and realized I was leaning on THE Rosetta Stone. I guess they were doing some remodeling and had put it out of the way for a while. I’ve been back since and viewed the stone in its new, (probably) bullet/bomb-proof case. I smiled to see that my “old friend” was being so well taken care of.

  12. Keeping artifacts in a safe place is not a bad thing. Think about the ones that have destroyed by radical Islam groups in the recent past.

  13. It is safer in England than it is in the Middle East. Look what Isis did to all the treasures in the museums. It was horrible.

  14. These antiquities belong to humanity in general, not some unstable government that happens to be there thousands of years later.

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