The Rosetta Stone

September 15, 2022

Yesterday (September 14, 2022) marked the 200th anniversary of the date that Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) cracked the code of the Egyptian hieroglyphic script. The granodiorite stela, which dates to 196 BC, is written in Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic (cursive Egyptian) and Greek, and is displayed in the British Museum. Previously I posted an article here.

Rosetta Stone, British Museum, London. Photo ©Leon Mauldin

The Biblical Archaeology Society made an informative post yesterday — click here.

Fant and Reddish have the following information:

The Rosetta Stone is the most visited object in the enormous British Museum, viewed by millions of visitors since it was first displayed to the public in 1802. It has been called “the most famous piece of rock in the world.” Unlike many famous ancient artifacts, such as the King Tut treasures, the fame of the Rosetta Stone does not derive from its intrinsic value or beauty, nor from the message of its inscription, as is the case, for example, with the Code of Hammurabi. Yet this inscription has yielded incalculable value for an understanding of ancient history, as it provided the key to unlocking the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics. As a result, scholars have been able to decipher the meaning of countless historical writings previously lost to civilization. The inscription itself is unremarkable, a flattering decree issued by the priests of Memphis that granted a royal cult to the young King Ptolemy V, only thirteen years old at the time, in exchange for certain favors. It was written in three languages, representing the languages used by the powerful and literate groups of Egypt at that time: hieroglyphics, understood stood and used only by the priestly class; demotic, the cursive script used by the literate population at that time; and Greek, the language of the ruling government. Since ancient Greek was a language understood by modern scholars, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone enabled them to compare the Greek letters against the hieroglyphic signs and therefore solve the mystery of hieroglyphics.

(Clyde E. Fant; Mitchell G. Reddish. Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums. Kindle Locations 587-592).

The Lexham Bible Dictionary makes the following observations:

In addition to renewing interest toward Egypt, Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt resulted in the recovery of the Rosetta Stone, which would prove to be of immense importance to the future of Egyptology (Pope, Decipherment, 60). The Rosetta Stone was commissioned by Ptolemy V in 196 BC, and featured a message written in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (a cursive form of Egyptian), and Greek (Pope, Story, 62). The triscript monument would provide the key to deciphering the previously unintelligible Egyptian language.

Prior to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, linguists had hypothesized that Coptic (which could be read) was a late form of Egyptian, some hieroglyphs were consonantal, and cartouches demarcated royal names. Several scholars used this information and the Rosetta Stone to decipher Egyptian language. English linguist T. Young made great strides toward deciphering Egyptian, but he was impeded by his belief that hieroglyphs were mostly symbolic rather than phonetic (Bard, Introduction, 33). French philologist J. Champollion proved most successful. His identification of the name Ptolemy in the hieroglyphic portion of the inscription enabled him to begin compiling a list of consonantal hieroglyphic signs. Soon he successfully detected the name Cleopatra on an obelisk from Philae as well as the name Xerxes on a Persian vase inscribed with both hieroglyphs and Persian cuneiform (Pope, Decipherment, 70–75). He published his findings in Precis du systeme hieroglyphique in 1824 (Pope, Story, 76). Subsequent linguists expanded on Champollion’s work, and by the end of the 19th century, scholars were producing translations of entire Egyptian texts.

The decipherment of hieroglyphs was a vital element in the progress of Egyptian archaeology. Egyptian tombs, temples, and public monuments were usually inscribed with a record of who built them and why (see Chavalas and Hostetter, “Epigraphic Light,” 53–58). Funerary texts were written both on the walls of tombs and on scrolls placed within them. Excavators were no longer dealing with just stones, statues, and pots, but with intelligible texts.

Harmon, J. A. (2016). Egypt, Archaeology of. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, L. Wentz, E. Ritzema, & W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

Click image for larger view.

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