The Rosetta Stone

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The ancient Egyptian civilization was one of the oldest civilizations that we know of on Earth. While there is much we know about them, knowledge of their system of writing, known as hieroglyphics had become lost by the middle ages.

Where there were different theories as to what the writing meant, no one was really sure how to read hieroglyphics.

All of this changed in 1799 when French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte discovered a stone that unlocked the secrets of the language.

Learn more about the Rosetta Stone, and how it decrypted Egyptian Hieroglyphics, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Egyptian hieroglyphics were the writing system used by ancient Egyptians, or to be more accurate, it was the system used by Egyptian priests and scribes. The vast majority of Egyptians were illiterate and writing was reserved for only a select few in Egyptian society. 

If you’ve seen hieroglyphics, it is very different from systems of writing that we might be used to today. It makes heavy use of symbols like birds and snakes. If anything it looks like a text message using a lot of emojis. There are over 1,000 different hieroglyphic characters that have been identified. 

Hieroglyphics can be found all over ancient Egyptian tombs and temples.

The writing system is believed to have its roots as far back as 4,000 BC and the first full hieroglyphic sentence that has been found dates back to around 2800 BC.

This makes hieroglyphics one of the oldest human writing systems, on a par with ancient Sumerian. 

Over time, another system of writing developed in Egypt. Around 400-600 BC, a new system developed that was in more common use called Demotic. This writing system looked very different than hieroglyphics. In fact, at first glance, it might look like a proto-Arabic system of writing. 

Hieroglyphics were still used by priests, but Demotic, which had far fewer characters, became the system used in commerce and daily life. Demotic and hieroglyphics were different writing systems for the exact same language. 

Over time things in Egypt changed. They were conquered by Alexander the Great and a Greek dynasty, the Ptolemies, controlled the country. 

Then, after the whole Mark Antony and Cleopatra thing, Egypt just became another Roman province. 

And finally, in the first and second centuries, Christianity started to rise in popularity. 

In 391, Roman Emperor Theodosius closed all pagan temples, and the last known use of hieroglyphics was written at the Philae temple in 394. 

Only about 50 years later, the last known use of Demotic was found, also at the Philae Temple, in 452.

After this, Coptic and later Arabic became the dominant writing systems in Egypt. 

Fast forward several centuries and the knowledge of how to read both of these languages were completely lost. 

Attempts to decipher and rediscover the secret to reading hieroglyphics began in the 9th and 10th centuries. The first scholars to attempt to relearn hieroglyphics were Islamic scholars. Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya were two of the first people to try to resurrect the language, but they failed.

In fact, for centuries, everyone who took a stab at trying to decipher hieroglyphics failed. 

Here I should note that linguists have roughly broken all writing systems down to roughly three types.

The first system uses phonograms. This is where characters represent sounds. Most of the world uses such systems today. This would include the Latin alphabet, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hangul, and Devanagari. 

The next system uses logograms. The is where a character represents a word. The best example of this would be Chinese, which has about 50,000 different characters in total, and 2-3,000 in common use.

The final system uses ideograms. This is where a symbol represents an idea. Emojis are an example of this. There are ancient writing systems in China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia where a fish, for example, is represented by an image of a fish. Today, the Chinese character for fish doesn’t look like a fish, it is just a symbol that means “fish”. 

I mention this because when the first attempts were made to decipher hieroglyphics, the assumption was that the symbols were not replicating sounds. That the symbols were either logograms or ideograms. 

This approach got them nowhere. 

In the 17th century, a German Jesuit scholar named Athanasius Kircher believed that maybe hieroglyphics did represent sounds. He was an expert in the Coptic language and felt that maybe Coptic was a direct descendant of hieroglyphics. 

It was a novel and important approach to the study of hieroglyphics, but it too didn’t lead anywhere. 

The problem was, there didn’t exist a single sample of hieroglyphics that was used with another language. If such a sample could be found, then it would be possible to finally figure out how the language worked. 

That moment, and the entire point of this episode, finally came in 1799. 

During Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt, a young French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard was assigned to rebuilding an old Mamaluke fort in the port city of Rosetta, known today as Rashid. 

In the process of shoring up the fortification, he found a black stone with three different systems of writing on it. He didn’t know what it was, but he was quite sure he had found something very important. The stone was part of a larger stele which had been broken off, and the stone had been used by the Mamalukes for the construction of the fort. 

He sent it up the chain of command and the stone eventually was in the hands-on Napoleon himself. It was given to French Egyptologists who were part of the expedition, who quickly spread the word of the discovery to other scholars in Europe.  

Rubbings and plaster casts of the stone were made and within a relatively short period of time, they were in the hands of scholars throughout Europe. 

The stone itself remained in Egypt, as Napoleon and his troops were stuck there. 

In 1801, when the British defeated the French forces in Alexandria, the Capitulation of Alexandria explicitly gave all of the antiques the French had to the British. This included the Rosetta Stone. 

In 1802 it was placed in the British Museum and it has been there ever since. It is the most visited object in the museum.

However, the story of the Rosetta Stone is not about a stone that sits in a museum. It is about deciphering an ancient system of writing. 

The three languages on the Rosetta Stone are Greek, Demotic, and Herioglyphic. 

The Greek was translated quickly. In 1803 Hubert-Pascal Ameilhon, published a paper in both Latin and French which gave the translation. Cambridge processor Richard Porson created an extrapolation of the Greek which was missing from the lower right corner of the stone which had broken off. 

It turns out that the stone was written during the reign of Ptolemy V in 196 BC, a year after he was coronated as a 13-year-old. It was written by priests and it was a listing of all the benefits bestowed upon the people by their king. Basically, it was an ancient form of propaganda. 

Once the Greek had been translated, that was the starting point for figuring out the rest of the stone. 

A Swedish scholar named Johan David Åkerblad had been studying what he called “cursive Coptic”, what is now called Demotic. He realized that this was the middle language on the stone. 

He and French researcher Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy set about trying to decipher the Demotic by comparing the Greek names used in the Greek text.  By comparing the words for “Alexnadira” and “Ptolemy”, they were able to make massive headway in figuring out Demotic. 

Deciphering the hieroglyphics took much longer. 

One of the biggest obstacles was that the assumption about hieroglyphics being symbols representing words wasn’t exactly right. 

One of the first breakthroughs was made by English polymath Thomas Young. He suggested that the cartouches, that being the parts of the hieroglyphic text surrounded by an oval, were a proper name and might be spelled phonetically. This could be compared to the name in Greek, and that might get you somewhere. 

It was a huge breakthrough. With this, they were able to figure out more about the Demotic text as well, and realized that Demotic wasn’t entirely phonetic, but also used ideograms that came from hieroglyphics. 

From this, they were able to figure out names on other cartouches in other temples around Egypt.

The real breakthrough occurred with Jean-François Champollion. His work from 1822 to 1824 figured out the secret to hieroglyphics.

It wasn’t a system of logograms, nor was it a phonetic system. It was both. It was a combination of characters representing sounds, and characters representing words. 

The closest thing I could use to describe it would be if you interspersed emojis into a text message. If you asked someone “do you want to get pizza or a hamburger”, and used emojis for pizza and hamburger, that would sort of representing what hieroglyphics are.

In hieroglyphics, there is a short vertical line next to characters that are logograms and they are mostly used for common nouns. 

As Champollion explained it in a letter he wrote in 1822,

It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word.

Basically, it was far more complicated than anyone ever imagined. 

Nonetheless, the riddle of hieroglyphics was finally figured out, and it was all due to one French army officer who found a stone while repairing a fort. Without it, we would still probably be in the dark today about hieroglyphics.

As for the stone itself, it is still in London. The Egyptians have asked for it back to put on display in their brand new Grand Egyptian Museum which is opening up in Giza in 2021. 

So far, the British have refused to return the stone, and many other artifacts taken from many other countries, under the international law doctrine of “finders keepers, losers weepers”.