Discovery of the Rosetta Stone Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The discovery of the Rosetta stone provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian system of writing, and so recaptured and revealed the rich culture and history of the forgotten civilization.

Summary of Event

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, general of the French military and a national hero, had defeated most of the enemies of the French Republic except for Britain. He believed that a successful invasion of Britain could not be accomplished until British trade with India was disrupted. To that end, Napoleon planned to conquer Egypt Colonization;French of Egypt and use it as a military base. Napoleon also had a personal interest in the country and wanted to exploit its wealth, strategic value, and potential for development as a French colony. He decided to take 167 scholars along with his Army of the Orient Army of the Orient (France) when he left France for Egypt in May, 1798. [kw]Discovery of the Rosetta Stone (July 19, 1799) [kw]Rosetta Stone, Discovery of the (July 19, 1799) [kw]Stone, Discovery of the Rosetta (July 19, 1799) Rosetta stone Hieroglyphics;Egyptian [g]Egypt;July 19, 1799: Discovery of the Rosetta Stone[3400] [c]Anthropology;July 19, 1799: Discovery of the Rosetta Stone[3400] [c]Communications;July 19, 1799: Discovery of the Rosetta Stone[3400] [c]Historiography;July 19, 1799: Discovery of the Rosetta Stone[3400] Napoleon I Napoleon I;Rosetta stone [p]Champollion, Jean François Young, Thomas

By 1798, foreigners had ruled Egypt for centuries. The Persians conquered Egypt in 525 b.c.e., were driven out by 380 b.c.e., and returned by 343 b.c.e. The Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered Egypt in 332 b.c.e. By the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.), Egypt no longer spoke its own language. Greek eventually gave way to Latin, which was replaced by Arabic. When Napoleon’s expedition arrived, Egypt had been under the control of the Ottoman Turks for three hundred years, and the Arabs had ruled for nine hundred years prior to the Turks.

The scholars that Napoleon brought to Egypt Egyptology included specialists from all branches of the sciences and arts: astronomers, engineers, linguists, painters, draftsmen, poets, musicians, mathematicians, chemists, inventors, naturalists, mineralogists, and geographers. During a three-year period, these scholars recorded massive amounts of information and provided valuable drawings and sketches that helped spark a renewed interest in Egypt. On August 22, 1798, Napoleon established the Egyptian Institute of Arts and Sciences Egyptian Institute of Arts and Sciences, Cairo at Cairo, where the scholars conducted research and studied the country’s history, industry, and nature.

On July 19, 1799, a soldier named d’Hautpoul, who was working to demolish a ruined wall at Fort Rashid (renamed Fort Julien), discovered a dark gray stone slab with inscriptions Writing;early forms on one side. He reported the discovery to Lieutenant Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, who then informed his superior, Michel-Ange Lancret. Lancret recognized one of the three scripts as Greek and another as hieroglyphic. The third script was unknown. Bouchard transported the stone to Cairo so that the scholars at the Egyptian Institute could examine it. The scholars copied the inscriptions using rubbings, drawings, and casts and sent them to other scholars throughout Europe, so they could begin working on translating the hieroglyphics. The scholars named the object the Rosetta stone (pierre de Rosette).

The Rosetta stone was a basalt slab, 3 feet, 9 inches long by 2 feet, 4.5 inches wide by 11 inches thick. It weighed three-fourths of a ton. The stone was damaged, especially the upper portion with the hieroglyphics. The middle section was the unknown language, later identified as demotic script, and the bottom portion was Greek.

In ancient Egypt, there were two types of writing: hieroglyphic, used in formal writing, and hieratic, Hieratic writing a cursive form of hieroglyphics—simplified and faster—used for everyday writing. By 650 b.c.e, the hieratic script and language had changed so much that it acquired a new name, “demotic.” The last known use of hieroglyphics dated from 394 c.e., at a temple in Upper Egypt. Although they were used for more than three thousand years, by 1799 no one had been able to read or understand hieroglyphics for fifteen hundred years. As a result, ancient Egyptian civilization was a mystery, lost to contemporary knowledge, even though written records of the civilization remained on papyrus scrolls, temples, and monuments.

By Roman times, approximately 250 c.e., Coptic Coptic was in use. Coptic was a mixture of demotic and Greek used by Christian Egyptians and marked the first time that vowels were written. Eventually, the Coptic language was replaced, but because it existed in formal Christian religious documents and practices, scholars could understand its spoken and written forms.

The Greek text on the Rosetta stone was a decree by the priests of Memphis, dated 196 b.c.e., commemorating Ptolemy V Ephiphanes, who ruled Egypt from 204 to 180 b.c.e. According to the decree, Ptolemy V restored the economy and peace, reduced taxes, and was a just ruler, so statues were to be erected and festivals held in his honor. The most exciting text, however, was the conclusion, which indicated that the decree would be inscribed in holy (hieroglyphic), native (demotic), and Greek. Since all of the different scripts recorded the same information, the savants believed that the secret of reading hieroglyphics would be quickly and easily solved.

Napoleon left Egypt in August, 1799, to return to France. He took only a few soldiers and some of the scholars back with him, as he needed to travel quickly and did not want to appear to give up the Egyptian military campaign. The campaign had failed once the British cut off the supply line, but Napoleon presented the expedition as a success. With severe economic problems fostering a climate for a governmental coup, Napoleon became part of a triumvirate of consuls governing France. In December, 1804, he declared himself emperor of the French.

The troops and scholars remaining behind in Egypt negotiated with the British to leave in early 1800 but were delayed until late 1801. The British wanted to keep the records and collections gathered by the scholars, but they eventually relented. The British did take the major items, including the Rosetta stone, back to Britain. Several of the scholars decided to go to Britain in order to retain control over the records and collections that the British had claimed. Eventually, twenty volumes of the Description de l’Égypte Description de l’Égypte (description of Egypt) were published between 1809 and 1828, based on the information collected by the scholars. The work covered the monuments, natural history, and modern Egypt as of 1800, and it also included the first comprehensive Western map of Egypt.


In early 1802, the Rosetta stone arrived in Britain and was taken to the Society of Antiquaries Society of Antiquaries (England) in London, where plaster casts were made for universities and engravings were distributed to academic institutions throughout Europe. The stone itself was housed in the British Museum by the end of 1802. The Rosetta stone was the first known example of a text written in both a known language and hieroglyphics. Although it was discovered in 1799, it would take twenty-three years before hieroglyphics were translated successfully. The Rosetta stone was vital for launching modern Egyptology, the study of Egyptian antiquities. Egypt;antiquities

Although scholars across Europe worked at translating hieroglyphics, the two main contenders for success were Jean François Champollion of France and Thomas Young of England. Both men came to their conclusions independently, and both contributed greatly to understanding hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic writing.

Champollion was in Paris by 1807 at age seventeen and working on a copy of the Rosetta stone inscriptions. He concluded that hieroglyphics were not merely pictorial (representing a thing or idea with a picture) but also phonetic (representing a spoken word or sound). Eventually, he understood the relationship between hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic script, and experienced a breakthrough on September 14, 1822. He later established that hieroglyphics were based on pictograms, ideograms, and phonetic symbols, as well as signs used in special ways. Champollion became the first person in more than fifteen hundred years to read hieroglyphics.

Young began his work on hieroglyphics in 1814. He also concluded that not all hieroglyphics were pictorial: Some would indicate plurality or otherwise express numbers. He also determined that demotic script used letters to spell out foreign sounds but was not entirely alphabetic, as some scholars believed. Young’s work on hieroglyphics was published anonymously as a supplement to Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1819. Although Young’s system of deciphering did not work, he was the first scholar to study demotic script seriously, and his work was invaluable in that regard.

Once the ancient Egyptian system of writing was understood, the history of Egypt and its people was revealed to the modern world. A tremendous amount of written material had survived, and it provided a level of insight into Egyptian culture previously unknown. Travel to Egypt, as well as the collection and preservation of ancient monuments and artifacts, became even more important. Continued discoveries in Egypt over the next century yielded remarkable findings about the complexity of ancient Egyptian civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adkins, Lesley, and Roy Adkins. The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. An excellent presentation of the history, people, places, and politics involved with hieroglyphics. Illustrations, maps, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brier, Bob. “Napoleon in Egypt: The General’s Search for Glory Led to the Birth of Egyptology.” Archaeology (May/June 1999): 44-53. Well-written overview of the importance of the work of the French scholars. Illustrations and side article on the Rosetta stone.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. Focuses more on the personalities and early lives, but does include background on Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta stone.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weissbach, Muriel Mirak. “Jean Francois Champollion and the True Story of Egypt.” 21st Century Science and Technology (Winter, 1999/2000): 26-39. Focuses mostly on Champollion and his system of decipherment. Includes information about the Rosetta stone and its significance.

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