In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard came across a granite slab a couple of miles from a port city named Rosetta. The slab – about 112cm by 75cm in size – was densely filled with ancient inscriptions on one face of it. But strangely, there were three distinct languages written on the slab: Egyptian hieroglyphs, an unknown script and Greek.
The discovery of this stone sparked immediate scientific interest. Up until this point, no scholar had been able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs had not been used formally for almost 1800 years, so the way to read it had been lost to time. Europe was going through an “Egyptomania” at the time, with great interest in this ancient civilisation. However, little was known about the culture as the ancient texts could not be read.
People quickly noted that there was a strong chance that the so-called “Rosetta Stone” contained the same text in three different languages, which meant that if you could translate one of the languages, then you could decipher the alphabet of the other two. This proved to be true, with the text being a royal decree exempting priests from taxation. Numerous scholars from all over Europe pored over the Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The first step was to translate the Greek version, as ancient Greek had already been studied in depth by scholars.
Around a similar time, a Swedish linguist named Johan David Åkerblad figured out that the middle, unknown script was Demotic, a cursive script used in ancient Egypt. Åkerblad was able to decipher the Demotic alphabet by comparing it to the Greek script, particularly through comparing names, as both languages were largely phonetic, meaning the characters used to write the name will have the same sounds in the two languages.
The final step – deciphering hieroglyphics – proved to be much harder. It was theorised that hieroglyphs were not phonetic, but ideographic, meaning each letter represented a whole word or concept (similar to Chinese) rather than a sound. If this is true, then it is impossible to decipher the hieroglyphic alphabet just by comparing it to the phonetic Demotic and Greek scripts.
But then, one scholar named Silvestre de Sacy realised that foreign names would have been written phonetically, much like Chinese scripts. This allowed him to zero in to Greek names in each script, such as Ptolemaios, thus creating a skeleton for the phonetic alphabet for both Demotic and hieroglyphs. Scholars could then use the phonetic reading of hieroglyphs to make more headway into reading the Rosetta Stone.
After 20 years of exhausting research, the Rosetta Stone was finally fully deciphered. The Rosetta Stone is famous because it was the key required to decipher the entire Egyptian hieroglyph system, while birthing the new field of Egyptology. Being able to read hieroglyphs allowed us to better understand the ancient Egyptians’ way of life. Nowadays, the term Rosetta Stone is also used as a symbol of a key to understanding an entirely new field of knowledge.