The Rosetta Stone
In 1798, Napoléon sent an invasion force to Egypt. In fact, the word
cartouche was coined by these French soldiers. The oval shapes enclosing
hieroglyphic images reminded them of the cartridges (cartouches) in their
guns, hence the name.
Fortunately, Napoléon wasn’t just interested in conquest. His soldiers
were accompanied by French scholars and artists, charged with preserving
artifacts of historical significance. In July of 1799, a squad of soldiers
made one of the greatest discoveries in Egyptian history—the
famous Rosetta Stone. The officer in charge, recognizing the importance
of this magnificent artifact, had the stone moved to Cairo. In 1899, copies
were made and distributed to scholars across Europe for deciphering.
The Rosetta Stone is a very large slab that was probably part of a wall
in the village of Rashid (Rosetta). It weighed about three-quarters of
a ton, but measured just three feet, nine inches tall and two feet, four
and a half inches wide. Much of the weight came from its thickness—a
whopping eleven inches. On the face of the stone is an inscription written
in three different scripts. Scholars recognized the lower one as Greek
and the top one as hieroglyphs. The middle script wasn’t recognized right
away, but was later identified as a cursive form of hieroglyphs, known
Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, linguists and historians
could not read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. They were thought to be a
symbolic form of writing where the images represented concepts, not actual
letters and words. The Greek inscription on the stone made it clear that
all three scripts said basically the same thing, a decree issued on the
first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V. The names of Ptolemy,
Alexander, and Alexandria occur in the inscription.
Scholars looked for repeating characters in the middle demotic script
which corresponded with the approximate location of the name Ptolemy in
the Greek inscription. As they studied the demotic script, they thought
it, like Greek, was written alphabetically. Unfortunately, this was a
false assumption and brought the translation to a halt.
The First Breakthrough
In 1814, an English linguist, Thomas Young, began to work on the stone.
He noticed a definite similarity between the demotic characters and the
hieroglyphic symbols. Young concluded the demotic script was a combination
of alphabetic characters and hieroglyphic symbols. Someone was finally
on the right track, but Young, too, made errors in his translation.
Young found the cartouches in the hieroglyph section contained royal
or religious names and were spelled alphabetically. But, here’s where
he made his mistake. He continued the assumption that hieroglyphs symbolized
concepts but, since Ptolemy was a Greek name, there were no "symbols"
to represent, hence the need to spell it alphabetically.
We have Jean-François Champollion to thank for the real breakthrough in
1823. An obelisk with a bilingual inscription was unearthed in Philae
and moved to Britain. William Banks sent Champollion a copy of its inscription
which contained two names, Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Champollion discovered
two cartouches representing Ptolemy, one longer than the other. He assumed
this longer one contained royal titles.
Champollion assigned sound values to the hieroglyphs and noticed that
while both Ptolemy and Cleopatra contained the letter t,
different symbols were used to represent the sound. He came to the correct
conclusion that the two signs were homophones (different signs with the
same sound value, i.e. can and kind). Using other cartouches from the
Rosetta Stone and various reliefs and inscriptions from ancient Egyptian
temples, he began to build a table of the various symbols and the sounds
The Language of Hieroglyphs
From Champollion’s work we now know Egyptian hieroglyphs are a mixture
of symbols and phonetic signs representing sounds. Some hieroglyphs are
pictures representing an object such as a hand or bird. But that doesn’t
mean the pictogram means what is represented in the picture. For instance,
the t sound in Cleopatra’s name is represented by a picture
of a hand. Hieroglyphs rely heavily on context to determine whether an
image is read as a sound or symbol.
It’s also interesting to note hieroglyphs are not always read from left
to right or right to left. They’re read both ways, with the characters
flipped when read in the opposite direction.
Back to the Present
Because the key to finally unlocking the meaning behind hieroglyphs came
from the Rosetta Stone, today its name is used as an euphemism to represent
the key or clue to a mystery.
The original Rosetta Stone eventually ended up in Britain’s hands and
is displayed in the British Museum. Small-scale reproductions can be purchased
from various museum gift catalogs. We are pleased to own one of these
reproductions. They’re quite accurate, right down to the large chip missing
in the Greek inscription. Our’s is on display in our Clearwater office.
Most of the information for this month’s topic was pulled
from a fantastic book for anyone interested in writing over the ages.
It’s The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson (© 1995 Thames and
Hudson Ltd., London)