Two hundred years ago, a young Frenchman told the world (well, France) that he had begun translating the hieroglyphs on the artifact we know today as the Rosetta Stone.
On 27 September 1822, Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) presented an eight-page draft of his translations to “a packed room” of members of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. In late October 1822, the final version of his paper was 44 pages long and featured four illustrated plates.
The journey to his translation was long and windy.
At age 16, Champollion was “familiar” with Amharic (a Semitic language from Ethiopia), Chinese, Coptic, Greek and Latin. In addition to his native French.
He had presented a paper 16 years earlier linking Coptic (an African language) with Egyptian. That hypothesis wasn’t “quite correct (Coptic is not identical to ancient Egyptian, but derived from it),” but it began his investigation into one of the greatest mysteries of the 19th century.
But the journey goes much further back in time.
After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE, Greek became the language of government. Resentment followed (no surprise, that). “By Ptolemy V’s reign in 205 BCE the country was in open revolt and the Rosetta stone was one of many that Ptolemy commissioned as a piece of political propaganda.”
Jump forward a millennium.
A French captain, Pierre-François Bouchard, discovered that bit of carved propaganda on 15 July 1799 CE, after Napoleon invaded Egypt. Captain Bouchard found the block of basalt at “Al Rashid (known to the Italians and French as Rosette).”
The broken slab of basalt was inscribed with three different types of writing: hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. It contained 14 lines of hieroglyphic script, 32 lines in Demotic and 53 lines of Ancient Greek.
In February 1802, the Rosetta stone landed in England after Napoleon lost his fight with England. It has subsequently been on display in the British Museum except for a break during World War I.
In the early years of the 19th century, scholars began the work of deciphering the stone. English physicist Thomas Young (1773–1829) was one of the first to find a crack. He identified the names of king Ramses.
Champollion’s breakthrough is celebrated as one of history’s great “lightbulb” moments: It occurred on September 14, 1822, when he fully deciphered the name Ramses in a hieroglyphic text from the Abu Simbel temple complex built by Ramses II (“the Great”). Champollion realised the name was formed by a combination of “figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once.” Filled with joy, he cried, “Je tiens l’affaire—I’ve got it!” Days later, he wrote his “Lettre à M. Dacier,” the secretary of the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris with a list of 25 confirmed phonetic signs in demotic script and hieroglyphs.
We now know that the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is “a decree passed by a council of priests… that affirm[s] the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation (in 196 BCE).”
According to the inscription on the Stone, an identical copy of the declaration was to be placed in every sizeable temple across Egypt. Whether this happened is unknown, but copies of the same bilingual, three-script decree have now been found and can be seen in other museums. The Rosetta Stone is thus one of many mass-produced stelae designed to widely disseminate an agreement issued by a council of priests in 196 BC. In fact, the text on the Stone is a copy of a prototype that was composed about a century earlier in the 3rd century BC. Only the date and the names were changed!
Champollion, 41, died in Paris in 1832.
His 1824 Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens contains 400 pages of discussion and a separate volume of plates with words, signs, and sign groups in hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Coptic, and was the greatest contribution to hieroglyphic research of any scholar at that time. Champollion’s opening up of hieroglyphics enabled Egyptologists to eavesdrop on the thoughts of the ancient Egyptians, and to understand in ever greater depth the religious and social composition of their world.