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 as demotic.

The Significance
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 they represented.

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)


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