The Rosetta Stone is the key used to decipher Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Before its study, the ability to interpret Egyptian script was lost to modern scholars. Hieroglyphs were defunct by the fourth century AD, and it was not until the Rosetta Stone was found in the 1800s that the knowledge contained in the ancient symbols could be read again.
The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 by soldier Pierre-Francois Bouchard when members of Napoleon’s army were digging to lay the foundation for an addition to Napoleon’s fort. They were near the town of el-Rashid, which in French is Rosetta. Immediately, it was recognised what a contribution to the study of Ancient Egyptian the stone would be.
There are three inscriptions in the black granite of the Rosetta Stone. One is in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic, one is in demotic, and one is in Ancient Greek. All three of the inscriptions have near identical content. These three categories of script were dominant in Egypt at the time the Rosetta Stone was created. Hieroglyphs were the text of the priests, demotic the script used on a day to day basis, and Greek was the language of the rulers of Egypt. The content of the Rosetta Stone is a decree issued by King Ptolemy V.
Because Ancient Greek was not lost to scholars, they were able to read the Greek and then align it with the demotic with which they were also familiar to confirm that the stone was a translation, one passage to the next. After that confirmation, they started matching the Ancient Egyptian to the Ancient Greek and demotic to translate the hieroglyphs. This undertaking was not a process that could be hurried; it was not until 1822 that scholar Jean-Francois Champollion announced that he had successfully matched the scripts. Another contributor, Thomas Young, recognised the similarities between the demotic and the hieroglyphs, notably in the usage of phonetics in each to describe foreign names. Much more time and study was required before academics felt comfortable reading Ancient Egyptian.
The stone is smooth on its front and sides, and it is a fraction of a larger stone. The rest of the Rosetta Stone has not been found. However, other fragmented specimens of the same decree on different stones have been discovered, as well as similar treatments of different decrees, making the Rosetta Stone ultimately un-unique. This does not make it any less special to the study of Ancient Egyptian, though. Without the translations from the stone, it is questionable whether or not knowledge of hieroglyphics would have ever resurfaced. To underscore the important role the stone played, “Rosetta Stone” is now used as a term to indicate any piece of information that plays a key role in helping to understand something in any field of study.
There is some dispute regarding the nationality of the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone passed hands from French to British with the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801, so there are debates regarding whether or not the Rosetta Stone should belong in France or Britain. The two primary scholars who worked on the translation—Champollion and Young—were French and British respectively, so their nationalities add to the question of the stone’s rightful home. 2003 saw the start of the push for the return of the Rosetta Stone to Egypt.
Despite these debates, the Rosetta Stone has been housed at the British Museum since 1802, excepting when it was relocated to a safer location for the end of the First World War. To this day, it attracts the most traffic at the British Museum.