The most useful public notice in history
216 years ago today, a French soldier in Napoleon’s army in el-Rashid, Egypt found a block of granite inscribed with three sets of text, each in a different language. The first section was written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the second in Demotic, a form of phonetic Egyptian script, and the last was in ancient Greek. In 1799, only the final section of what would come to be known as the Rosetta Stone could actually be read, but that was enough to solve some long standing mysteries about ancient Egypt.
Imagery as language
Hieroglyphics were somewhat mysterious, as they had faded from use in Egypt with no points of reference to study it from. Many of pictographs used in the writing system bared strong similarities to artwork from the same time period, but those figures are often imitating the concepts of the language, not the other way around. The flat, “stiff” figures and faces were created to show idealized and codified concepts. Larger painting and statues were meant to be “read” like the hieroglyphics themselves, but this didn’t provide enough context to help decipher specific messages.
As the hieroglyphics became ever more sophisticated and specialized, they also became less accessible to readers. Their usage declined and eventually ceased by 396 AD. Without any dictionary or manuals to help translate them, it seemed that the specifics these ancient inscriptions would never be understood.
The first breakthrough with the Rosetta Stone was when scholars realized that all three sections were copies of the same message. With that starting point, they could use their understanding of Greek to start translating the other two sections, eventually unlocking the ancient Egyptian glyphs. The Demotic section yielded key breakthroughs when it phonetic spellings of foreign names were found, locking down more reference points in each line.
A political proclamation
Despite the critical importance it has played in archaeology, the Rosetta Stone was not designed for future generations to understand ancient Egypt. While we now use ‘Rosetta Stone’ as shorthand for key clues in deciphering information, it was originally created as an official notice to the public. In 205 BC, Ptolemy V had to make a number of compromises with a politically powerful priest class, and this was one of multiple public proclamations to spread the word about theses legal changes and support Ptolemy V’s reign. The message was written in multiple languages just to ensure all citizens would be aware of it, much like many government forms today are written in a variety of languages. While not quite as grand a document as the Rosetta Stone, perhaps secrets of our civilization will someday be unlocked thanks to DMV notices or a reminder that employees much all wash their hands before returning to work.
Source: In a nutshell: Rosetta Stone by Jonny Wilkes, History Extra