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The Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone

Swinging through tombs, jumping into dark caves and discovering rare artifacts, Indiana Jones has a way with luck that surprises many people. Because of these characteristics, you’d expect someone like Indy to find something as culturally important as the Rosetta Stone. However, this Indy-worthy find was actually made by a French solider in 1799. Pierre Bouchard, who was simply trying to increase the size of a French fort in Rosetta, Egypt, stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone. It was located in an old wall that was being demolished for the expansion of the fort. Fortunately, the commanding officer recognized its importance and extracted the piece. At the time of its discovery, Napoleon, the emperor of the French, was invading Egypt, so the Rosetta Stone was claimed as French property until 1801. Soon after its discovery, the British defeated the French and claimed all of their important cultural artifacts. Since 1802, the stone is held in the British Museum for viewing. The ownership of the stone has caused a lot of controversy over the years. Many Egyptians feel that the stone belongs to their country and should be held in a museum on Egyptian soil.

How was the Rosetta Stone created?

rosettastone-detail

The Rosetta Stone was created in 196 BCE for Ptolemy V, the king of Egypt at the time. It is a black basalt slab with an inscription, also known as a stela. It measures about four feet by two and a half feet and it was originally a part of a bigger slab that was located in a temple at Sias, about 35 miles North of Alexandria. The stela presents a decree issued in Egypt that praises Ptolemy V for his achievements and states that a statue will be set up in his honour. The text further decrees that the king’s birthday and coronation date be celebrated with festivals and sacrifices. The Rosetta Stone was a landmark in understanding Egyptian culture. It was written in two languages, Greek and Egyptian, and three scripts. A script is a writing style using a particular alphabet. The scripts included Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic. In antiquity, all Egyptians used one language to communicate; however, priests and many elites used hieroglyphics and the common people of Egypt used demotic as their form of writing.

For years, archaeologists were unable to decode the writing of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but the Rosetta Stone gave them the answers they were looking for. The same passage was inscribed on the stone three times, in three different scripts. This allowed English scientist, Thomas Young and French scholar, Jean-François Champollion to decode the Egyptian hieroglyphic script. Thomas Young started the process by decoding a few symbols, but Jean-François Champollion is credited with deciphering the majority of the Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet using his knowledge on the ancient Greek language. At last, the culture of the Egyptians could be understood in its full context and the inscriptions on tombs, pyramids and other structures could be read. This was a momentous moment, not only for scholars, but the Egyptians as well. It allowed them to further understand their past and read the inscriptions of their late kings and queens. In the end, you could say that Pierre Bouchard, the French soldier who uncovered the Rosetta Stone, was just as lucky as Indy.

Written by Monique Gill for Adventures in Pop Culture Archaeology taught by Dr. Lisa Hodgetts, Western University.

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