Decoding the Rosetta Stone

A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of the Rosetta Stone, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 196 B.C.E., granodiorite, 112.3 x 28.4 x 75.7 cm (The British Museum)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] The British Museum has just opened, but already there’s an enormous crowd circling the glass case that holds the Rosetta Stone.

[0:13] So, we’re not looking at this object in a museum because it’s a work of art.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:17] And it’s certainly not beautiful.

Dr. Zucker: [0:18] We value this ancient object largely for its modern history, as the key to deciphering the writing system that the Greeks called “sacred writing”: hieroglyphics.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] The Rosetta Stone is located in the middle of the gallery that contains ancient Egyptian art, and as we look around it’s so clear how important writing was to ancient Egyptian art. There’s almost no ancient Egyptian work of art that doesn’t also include writing.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] Writing that we couldn’t read.

Dr. Harris: [0:48] Although we look back more than 5,000 years, the beginnings of ancient Egyptian culture.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] This was made during the reign of Ptolemy V, in a period that we call the Ptolemaic period, a period that follows Alexander the Great’s conquest of ancient Egypt. Egypt at this point was ruled by a dynasty known as the Ptolemies.

Dr. Harris: [1:08] So we have Egypt being ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty, and that essentially means that Egypt is controlled by Greek rulers.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] The Greek city of Alexandria had been founded in Egypt. Greek law had been imposed.

Dr. Harris: [1:22] The Ptolemies rule Egypt for almost three centuries until ancient Rome takes over in 30 B.C.E.

Dr. Zucker: [1:30] In order to understand the Rosetta Stone, it’s important to understand the political situation in Egypt at this moment. Ptolemy V, the reigning king, came to power when he was six years old.

Dr. Harris: [1:41] As you can imagine, there was a fight for power.

Dr. Zucker: [1:44] All of which is to say that this young king needed as many allies as he could get. He was looking to the ancient priestly class to help him assert his power and to stabilize the kingdom.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] During the reign of the Ptolemies, there’s a separation between the Greek-controlled government and the priestly class, the only ones who could read and write in hieroglyphics. Greek had become the official language of ancient Egypt.

Dr. Zucker: [2:11] By this late date, those Egyptians — other than the priests — who were literate would have written the Egyptian language in a different script, one known as Demotic. This stone reflects this historical moment in Egypt.

Dr. Harris: [2:25] At the very top, we’ve got hieroglyphics, the sacred writing of the priests; in the center, the Demotic script; and at the bottom, we have ancient Greek. It was the recognition that we had the same text in three different scripts that allowed scholars to recognize that the Rosetta Stone held the key to translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] The stone is also a reflection of this historical moment. When the language of government was Greek, it’s this fracturing that allows us access to ancient Egyptian text, because the same decree is repeated in all three. In the 18th century, Europeans could read ancient Greek.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] This is a decree that speaks about the victory of Ptolemy V over some Egyptians who were rebelling against Greek rule. Because there is this tension within Egyptian culture at this moment between the priests and the Greek government, what we’re seeing in this decree is also a kind of compromise.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] On the one hand, it’s the assertion of Ptolemy V’s power. But it also gives concessions to the priests.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] Before this, once a year the priests had to travel to the capital of Alexandria, which was Greek in essence, even though it was in ancient Egypt. This decree allowed them not to do that and to remain in Memphis, which was a historically great ancient Egyptian city.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] It also gives the priests a tax cut. The third Memphis Decree, written on this stone in two different languages and three different scripts, is first and foremost a political compromise. What we’re seeing in the British Museum is only a fragment of what was originally a large stele, and one of numerous steles that were set up around Egypt with this same message.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] Let’s jump about 2,000 years to 1798, to the time of Napoleon and the British Empire. At this point, Egypt is in a strategic location for both the British and the French, who begin to vie for control of Egypt. Critically, Napoleon travels not only with his army but also with scholars, and when the stone is discovered, they quickly realize its historic importance.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] Word of this discovery makes its way to Lord Elgin, a high-ranking British diplomat. Now, the British quickly defeat the French navy, but it’ll take the British a couple of years to oust the French land forces. When they do, the British look for the Rosetta Stone.

Dr. Harris: [5:01] But the French have hidden it. It is ultimately found. In the terms of a treaty ending these hostilities, the Rosetta Stone is mentioned as now being the property of the British.

Dr. Zucker: [5:12] It lands in the British Museum in 1802. Scholars almost immediately began to study the stone in an effort to read its hieroglyphs. Thomas Young made some headway, but it was really the French scholar, Champollion, that cracked the code.

Dr. Harris: [5:26] So for the last almost 200 years, thanks to a remarkable series of events through history, we’ve been able to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and understand so much more about ancient Egyptian culture.

[5:39] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Decoding the Rosetta Stone," in Smarthistory, June 28, 2020, accessed April 17, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/decoding-the-rosetta-stone/.