Discovered by French soldiers during their occupation of Egypt on July 15, 1799, the Rosetta Stone is a most fortunate find. Weighing nearly one ton and covered in three columns of alternating script, the stone provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian script that had puzzled scholars for centuries. But while many know its value as a translation tool, few know the turbulent history surrounding its discovery and translation—or what it actually says.
1. IT’S A ROYAL DECREE VENERATING A TEENAGE KING.
The Rosetta Stone is part of a larger display slab, or stele, that broke apart centuries ago and was likely situated inside a temple near el-Rashid (Rosetta), where it was discovered. Written in 197 BCE, it’s a bit of ancient propaganda—officially known as the Memphis Decree—affirming the legitimacy and goodness of then-king Ptolemy V, who had assumed the throne at the age of 5 (after his parents were murdered in a court conspiracy) and received his official coronation at age 12. Given his youth and swirling turmoil in the empire, Ptolemy probably needed a boost from his priests. “[He] has dedicated to the temples revenues in money and corn,” they wrote on the stone. “And has undertaken much outlay to bring Egypt into prosperity.”
2. IT CONTAINS THREE DIFFERENT SCRIPTS.
Despite its incomplete state, the Rosetta Stone crucially preserves the three languages from the original stele: hieroglyphics, the sacred script of the empire; Egyptian demotic, the common language; and Greek, which was the official language under Macedonian-ruled Egypt. All three convey the same royal decree, with slight variations, indicating the message was widely read and circulated. In modern times, this meant the stone could serve as a translation key, with the Greek portion, in particular, helping scholars crack the hieroglyphics, which had died out around the 4th century after Rome’s rulers declared it a pagan art.
3. IT SPENT CENTURIES LODGED INSIDE A FORTRESS WALL.
Many of Egypt’s temples were destroyed in the 4th century under Roman emperor Theodosius I, and for years afterwards the ruins served as quarries for the country’s occupiers. Before the French recovered it in the late 18th century, the immensely valuable Rosetta Stone was part of a wall inside an Ottoman fortress.
4. A FRENCH ENGINEER DISCOVERED IT.
During the Napoleonic Wars, French forces moved in to Egypt with the goal of colonizing the country. While reconstructing portions of the Ottoman fort, which the French renamed Fort Julien, engineer Pierre-Francoise Bouchard noticed a slab of granite sticking out of the ground. Upon closer inspection, he saw it contained varying lines of script. Realizing the value of his find, he informed general Jacques-Francoise Menou, the chief general in Egypt who just happened to be at the site. Soldiers excavated the stone, and months later it was presented for inspection to none other than Napoleon himself.
5. NAPOLEON DESERVES A LOT OF CREDIT.
Despite his colonizing aims, the French ruler didn’t want to run roughshod over Egypt. Recognizing the country’s rich history and loads of valuable artifacts, he dispatched dozens of scientists, historians and other bright minds to north Africa, where they formed a scholarly organization called the Institute of Egypt. Napoleon also instructed soldiers and commanders to be on the lookout for anything valuable—an order that was front-of-mind for Bouchard when he discovered the stone.
6. THEN THE BRITISH TOOK IT.
Photo circa the 1800s. Getty
After defeating Napoleon’s forces at Alexandria in 1801, the British commandeered many of the Egyptian artifacts the French had collected during their occupation, including the Rosetta Stone. General Manou actually tried to claim the stone as his personal property, but the English recognized its value and made its transfer part of the official surrender.
7. IT’S BEEN IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM SINCE 1802.
After the British secured the stone, they took it to London’s British Museum, which had opened in 1757 as the world’s first public national museum. The original location was a 17th century mansion, but the Rosetta Stone and other artifacts soon proved too heavy for the home’s structure, and were moved to the current location in South Kensington.
8. VISITORS USED TO BE ABLE TO TOUCH IT.
Visitors viewing the Rosetta Stone in 1932 at the British Museum. Getty
For decades, the Rosetta Stone sat uncovered in the museum. Although they were discouraged from doing so, visitors would walk up and touch the stone, often tracing the writing with their fingers—a scenario that would no doubt horrify most modern curators. Eventually, the museum realized this probably wasn’t good for the longevity of the artifact, and placed it beneath a glass case.
9. IT TOOK SCHOLARS MORE THAN TWO DECADES TO DECIPHER IT.
Scholars were able to quickly translate the 54 lines of Greek and 32 lines of demotic inscribed on the stone. But fully deciphering the 14 lines of hieroglyphics took years. Part of the problem was a prevailing notion that hieroglyphics were a symbolic writing system when in fact it was a largely phonetic one. British scholar Thomas Young made a major breakthrough when he discovered the significance of the cartouches, which were circles drawn around proper names. He published his findings in 1814. Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion took up the mantle and delivered a full translation in 1822. From there, further understanding of Egyptian language and culture flourished.
10. THERE’S A NATIONALIST FEUD SURROUNDING THE TRANSLATION.
While many accounts of the stone’s translation emphasize the complementary efforts of Young and Champollion, critics on both sides of the English Channel have jockeyed for the importance of one scholar’s contributions over the other. According to some (mainly British) sources, Young’s efforts are overshadowed by Champollion’s translation. Some have even leveled the charge of plagiarism against the Frenchman. Many others, meanwhile, point out that the full translation came through the combined efforts of numerous scholars, in addition to Young and Champollion.
11. CHAMPOLLION FAINTED AFTER MAKING A CRUCIAL DISCOVERY.
The French Egyptologist made slow, painstaking progress towards decoding hieroglyphics. One day, he had a major breakthrough: A sun symbol, he realized, corresponded to the Egyptian word “ra,” or “sun,” which formed the beginning of “Ramses,” the name for the sun god. Realizing this meant hieroglyphics was a primarily phonetic language, Champollion raced to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, where his brother worked. “I have it!” he supposedly cried upon entering his brother’s office, and promptly fainted.
12. IT SPENT TWO YEARS IN A TUBE STATION.
During World War I, bombing scares prompted British Museum officials to move the Rosetta Stone, along with other select artifacts, to a nearby Postal Tube station (think railroad for mail) situated 50 feet underground.
13. FRANCE GOT TO HAVE IT FOR ONE MONTH.
After discovering the stone, then losing it, France finally got its chance to host the artifact in 1972. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Champollion’s Lettre a M. Dacier, which outlined his translation of the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphics. Housed at the Louvre in Paris, the stone drew crowds from far and wide. Despite rumors that France might just hold onto the Rosetta Stone, the Louvre returned it to the British Museum after one month.
14. THERE’S NO DEFINITIVE ENGLISH TRANSLATION.
Because each of the Rosetta Stone’s three sections is slightly different, and because of the subjective nature of translation in general, there’s no single, authoritative translation of the royal decree. Here’s a translation of the Greek portion. Don’t expect a riveting read.
15. EGYPT WANTS IT BACK.
In 2003, the country requested the return of the Rosetta Stone to its original home, citing the artifact as a key piece of Egyptian cultural identity. Officials, including prominent archaeologist and former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, continued to press the British Museum in subsequent years. The museum has politely declined each request, but did gift Egypt a full-size replica in 2005.