Recognizable at a glance and star of the souvenir shop of the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone has a history full of twists and turns. The translation of his texts will forever change the knowledge of ancient Egypt. A look back at the history of an emblematic archaeological artefact.
It was in 1799 that the stele was discovered in the town of RosetteRosette – or Rashid – in Egypt. It has been more than a year since the Egyptian military campaign led by General Bonaparte began there. During work, a certain Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard noticed this strange black stone and summoned the mission’s scientists to try to find out more. It is quickly decreed that the stone can be interesting since it has several texts: one in hieroglyphs, one in demotic which results from a simplification of the hieroglyphic system, and finally a text in ancient Greek.
In addition, the dimensions of the stone are far from trivial. Standing over a meter tall and weighing over 760 kilograms, the Rosetta Stone turns out to be incomplete. Indeed, it is a fragment of a more imposing work, but the other parts were not discovered at the time of the work. The stone begins its journey by being first deposited at the Cairo Institute, founded by Bonaparte, where several scholars and printers work.
The stone of all desires
As soon as it was discovered, the stone aroused much covetousness. French scientists see in it the possibility of better understanding the ancient Egyptian writings which were still not deciphered at the dawn of the 19th century.e century. And yet, while the French think they can keep it and bring it home to enrich their collections, it is a military event that will change the fate of the stele. In January 1800, the Egyptian campaign was shaken and, quickly, all the scholars embarked the artefacts in Alexandria to take the boat in the direction of the Metropolis. Slowed down in their escape, the scientists are trapped by the English army which decides to recover all the archaeological objects to send them to London. This is how the Rosetta Stone arrived in England in 1802.
The decryption of texts
The major interest of the Rosetta stone lies in its three texts. At the beginning of the XIXe century, we can decipher ancient Greek but not hieroglyphs or demotic. Many orientalists and linguists will, thanks to the various copies of the texts, try to take up the challenge. It was in 1822 that the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion managed the difficult translation and in 1824 he published the Precis of the hieroglyphic system of the ancient Egyptians. Its discovery will give birth to Egyptology as a science and the light is finally put on centuries of writings never deciphered. By comparing the Greek text to the other two, Champollion understood that the hieroglyphs were ideograms but that some could also have a phonetic value. The text is a royal decree that dates back to 196 BCE known as the “Memphis Decree”.
The Rosetta Stone, still on display at the British Museum been the subject of several refund requests. Will the iconic object return home one day? The future will tell.