For many non-archaeologists, one of the best-known artifacts is the Rosetta Stone. In the summer of 1799, French troops in the Egyptian city of Rosetta (Rashid) discovered this artifact as they were rebuilding the walls of a fifteenth-century fort. Carved into the stone were the terms of an agreement between a synod of Egyptian priests and the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V. The agreement, made in 196 BCE, was inscribed on the stone’s surface in three scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs (known as “the writing of the divine words”), Egyptian demotic (known as “the writing of documents”), and ancient Greek (known as “the writing of the Ionians”). The French officers, sensing that the stone might be important, sent it to the Institut d’Egypt in Cairo. In 1802, the Rosetta Stone fell into the hands of the British who sent it to London.
In London, the Society of Antiquaries created four plaster casts of the inscriptions, which were given to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, and to Trinity College in Dublin. Prints of the inscriptions were circulated to European scholars. At this time, new inscriptions were added to the stone reading “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” and “Presented to King George III” (probably surprising the French with this claim).
The Rosetta Stone is actually a fragment of a larger stele, although the rest of the stele has either been destroyed or still remains undiscovered. It is about 45 inches (114.4 centimeters) high, about 28.5 inches (72.3 centimeters) wide, and 11 inches (27.9 centimeters) thick. It weighs approximately 1,700 pounds (760 kilograms).
The stele itself was probably a donation stele which depicts the reigning monarch granting a tax exemption to a resident priesthood. This type of stone had been erected in Egypt for more than 2,000 years. The stele containing the Rosetta Stone had most likely been erected originally at a temple in the royal town of Sais, farther inland from Rosetta. This temple was probably closed in 392 CE when the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius I ordered the closing of all non-Christian temples of worship. It was common for building materials used in the ancient temples to be re-used in new construction. In the fifteenth century, the Rosetta Stone was incorporated into the foundation of a fortress constructed by the Mameluke Sultan Qaibay.
In London, European scholars, Egyptologists, and linguists were able to study the Rosetta Stone and use it to unlock the door to the ancient Egyptian language. This enabled Egyptologists to read the Egyptian history which had been left on temple walls, on ancient papyrus manuscripts, and other places.
The two scholars who are considered most important in unlocking the secrets of the Rosetta Stone are Thomas Young and Jean-François Champillon. Young was a British Quaker, educated in Edinburgh, Göttingen, and Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. While Young was a doctor of medicine, he was also a student of languages. Champillon, on the other hand, was a French Egyptologist and student of languages. He began his formal study of languages at the age of nine in Grenoble where he studied Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac. When Champillon was only sixteen years old he had announced to the Grenoble Society of Sciences that he intended to decipher Egyptian and reconstruct the history of the Pharaohs.
In his studies of the Rosetta Stone, Young focused on the similarities between the hieroglyphic texts and the demotic tests. He noted 80 such similarities and concluded that the demotic script was only partly phonetic and contained characters imitated from the hieroglyphs. In 1814, he exchanged correspondence about the Rosetta Stone and his findings with Champillon.
In 1819, Young published materials showing the relationships between the demotic scripts and hieroglyphs. In 1822, at a meeting of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Letrtrres, Champillon outlined the hieroglyphic alphabet he developed from the Rosetta Stone.
Champillon is shown above.
While Young and Champillon only met a few times, they knew each other’s work very well. Champillon admitted the importance of Young’s earlier discoveries and Young acknowledged the groundbreaking discoveries of his younger colleague. In addition to Young and Champillon, a number of other European scholars contributed to our understanding of the hieroglyphs. As with many archaeological discoveries, the understanding of the Rosetta Stone was an international undertaking.
Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has been on display at the British Museum in London. In 2003, the 250th anniversary of the British Museum, the Egyptian government requested that the Rosetta Stone be return to Egypt. James Cuno writes:
“The Egyptian government has called for the Stone’s return, claiming that it is important to Egyptian identity, although at the time of its taking there was no independent state of Egypt and wouldn’t be for more than one hundred years.”The Egyptians, however, feel that the Rosetta Stone is an icon of Egyptian identity and should, therefore, be housed in Egypt. In 2005 the British Museum presented Egypt with a full-sized replica of the Rosetta Stone which was initially displayed at the Rashid National Museum.
The Egyptian request for the return of the Rosetta Stone raises an important question for museums around the world: Who owns the past? Museum curator James Cuno, in his book Who Owns the Past? Museums and the Battle Over Our Ancient Heritage writes:
“National museums are of local interest. They direct attention to a local culture, seeking to define and legitimize it for local peoples. Encyclopedic museums direct attention to distant cultures, asking visitors to respect the values of others and seek connections between cultures. Encyclopedic museums promote the understanding of culture as always fluid, ever changing, ever influenced by new and strange things—evidence of the overlapping diversity of humankind.”
The Rosetta Stone on display in 1874 is shown above.