Mystery of the Rosetta Stone - Part I:
The young French soldier was hot, thirsty and
tired. He had been involved in Napoleon's Egyptian expedition
for months. He'd marched through the desert with no water, chasing
after strange pools of liquid that miraculously appeared on the
horizon, and then cruelly disappeared as he approached them. He'd
also choked on storms of dust that raced across the landscape.
Now he and his companions had been assigned to tear down an ancient
wall so they could build an extension to Fort Julien. Backbreaking
work. As he pried another stone out of the wall, its color struck
him as being odd. It was dark, almost black actually. On one side
that was flat there appeared to be writing of some sort. Not French,
to be sure, but some strange script. No, not just one type either,
but three different types. Very odd. He decided to call over the
officer-in-charge over to take a look at it.
What that young, unnamed soldier had done was to
discover the Rosetta Stone - an unremarkable chunk of black rock,
covered with seemingly indecipherable markings - that would solve
one of the greatest linguistic mysteries of the 19th century:
how to read the ancient writing left by the Egyptians thousands
of years ago.
Napoleon and the Rosetta Stone
On May 19, 1798, General Napoleon Bonaparte set
sail with the French fleet for North Africa. The French were at
war with the British and by invading Egypt, Napoleon hoped to
disrupt England's trade with its colony of India as well as create
a base from which he could make advances into the sub-continent.
Although the expedition was primarily military in nature, Napoleon
decided to take with him some 167 scientists and scholars to document
every aspect of the country's geography, economy and history with
an eye to possibly turning it into a colony. The scientists were
at first very disappointed in what they found: squalid cities
that bore no resemblance to those mentioned in classical history.
This, coupled with the harsh conditions (heat, little water and
poor food), discouraged them.
sketch by Vivant Denon of the Sphinx.
As some of the scholars traveling with the army
penetrated past the coastline and up the Nile River, though, they
began to run into mind-boggling remnants of the ancient Egyptian
culture. The ancient structures at Dendera, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna
and Thebes fascinated them. They were gigantic in size and covered
with thousands of mysterious symbols that nobody could understand.
Even the soldiers were impressed. After seeing the great temple
at Dendera one commented, "Since I came to Egypt, fooled by everything,
I have been constantly depressed and ill: Dendera has cured me;
what I saw today has repaid me for all my weariness; whatever
may happen to me during the rest of this expedition, I shall congratulate
myself all my life for having been part of it." One scholar, Dominique
Vivant Denon, took to sketching everything he saw but was overwhelmed
by trying to record the hieroglyphs. "It would take months to
read them," he wrote, "supposing the language was known: it would
take years to copy them."
Whatever the scholars examined, were covered with
these mysterious symbols that they could not read. It became obvious
that the key to understanding Egypt was understanding this strange
A Dead Script
The French were not the first to visit Egypt and
puzzle over these strange symbols. As far as anyone knows, the
last time Egyptian hieroglyphs were chiseled into stone was August
of 394 AD. Over the next 1,528 years, the ability to read this
ancient script vanished. When Greek scholars visited Egypt in
the seventh century AD, they saw the picture writing and called
them "sacred carvings" which in Greek is the word "hieroglyphs."
No Egyptian alive at that time could read them as the ancient
language had been replaced first by Coptic, used by Egyptian Christians
and later, after the Arabs conquered Egypt in 642 AD, by Arabic.
One of the scholars, a priest named Horapollo, published a book
on the writing called Hieroglyphika. He argued in it that
unlike other western languages, which are phonetically based (that
is each symbol stands for a sound) each Egyptian hieroglyph stood
for an idea, or sometimes one of several ideas. "When they mean
a mother, a sight, or boundaries or foreknowledge they draw a
vulture. A mother, since there is no male in this species of animal"
[of course, Horapollo is completely incorrect in this statement]
"It stands for sight since of all animals the vulture has the
sharpest vision. It means boundaries because when war is about
to break out, the vulture limits the place in which it will be
fought by hovering over the area for seven days and it stands
for foreknowledge because, in flying over the battlefield, the
vulture looks forward to the corpses the slaughter will provide."
Horapallo based his conclusion that each hieroglyph stood for
one or more ideas on little or faulty evidence. Because of this,
his book would hinder the understanding of the Egyptian writing
for almost a thousand years.
In the 18th century the French Scholar C.J. de Guignes
advanced the theory that the oval outlines (which he called cartridges,
or in French, cartouche) which contained several hieroglyphs
were probably meant to draw attention to important names, like
that of a pharaoh. His guess was right, but some of his other
ideas were just as equally wrong. Since de Guignes agreed with
Horapallo that hieroglyphics was a form of picture writing, he
theorized it was related to Chinese. In fact,
of three different scripts on the Rosetta Stone - Top: Heiroglyphs;
Middle: Demotic; Bottom: Greek.
he suggested that the Egyptians must have colonized
China in ancient times, an idea that turned out to be totally
Finding the Stone
Scientists puzzled over the riddle of hieroglyphics
with seemingly no real answer in sight until July of 1799. Napoleon's
forces were still trying to take control of Egypt and to this
end a company of soldiers was assigned to clear an area next to
Fort Julien at a place called Rosetta, located about 35 miles
north of Alexandria, in preparation for building an extension
to the fort. According to one version of the story, embedded in
an old wall they found a black stone with a message engraved in
three different languages. Almost immediately the officer with
the company, Pierre Francois Xavier Bouchard, realized that this
could be an important archeological find.
The stone was soon sent to the Institute of Egypt
in Cairo to be examined by Napoleon's scholars. They became very
excited. The rock, which was thereafter referred to as the "Rosetta
Stone," apparently had the same message written on it in three
different scripts: At the very top were fourteen lines of hieroglyphs,
then just below that thirty-two lines of another Egyptian script
that had become known as "demotic," and finally fifty-four lines
written in Greek. Neither of the Egyptian scripts could be read,
but most of the scholars had learned Greek in school so it was
easily translated. The message was a proclamation from some priests
saying that in return for giving them money they would be building
statues of Egypt's then current ruler, Ptolemy V, in all their
temples and that they would worship the statue three times a day.
At the time the slab of rock (or stela) bearing the message
was erected, Egypt was ruled by Greeks, so it was logical to write
the proclamation in multiple languages in order to be read by
both Egyptians and Greeks. Although the stone was broken on the
top and right side and none of the scripts carried the complete
message, the scholars expected the stone would soon help unravel
the mystery of the hieroglyphics that had troubled them so.
Rosetta Stone was put on display at the British Museum.
Before they could do much with the stone it was
first apparent to the French scholars that they needed to get
it out of Egypt and back to France. The war in Africa had turned
against the French and Napoleon had left the continent to attend
to political problems in Paris. By spring, 1801, the French Army
with the scientists and their collections (including the Rosetta
Stone) were forced to retreat to Alexandria. They were soon besieged
by the British and forced to surrender in September. As part of
the surrender agreement the scholars were forced to hand over
their collections. General Menou, who was in charge, tried to
retain the stone, claiming it as personal property, but was finally
forced to turn it over to the British. The Rosetta Stone was already
considered so valuable that the French officer in charge of handing
it over to the British recommended that they take the Stone and
leave the city immediately before French troops realized what
was happening. Colonel Turner of the British army immediately
took it with him on board the HMS L'Egyptienne arriving
at Portsmouth, England, in February of 1802.
So, if the war had just gone a bit differently,
the Rosetta Stone would might have found a permanent home in the
Louve in Paris, rather than were it sits today in the British
Museum in London. In either case, scholars in Europe now figured
they had everything they needed to finally solve the mysterious
meanings behind hieroglyphics. They were wrong. The one thing
they lacked was a genius. Many bright men attacked the problem
of the Rosetta Stone only to fail. One described the problem as
"too complicated - scientifically insoluble!" It would not be
until 1822, almost a quarter of a century after it had been found,
that the secrets of the Stone would finally be unlocked.
Part II: The Race to Decipher
Copyright Lee Krystek
2006. All Rights Reserved.