The Rosetta Stone
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The complete Rosetta Stone complied from three separate plates in the Description de l’Égypte Antiquités
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Inset of the Rosetta Stone, from Description de l’Égypte Antiquités

The Rosetta stone is a dark grey granite slab three feet tall with a pink vein running through the top left corner, and it is carved with writing in three scripts:  Greek, Egyptian demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphic. Because the text of each of the Egyptian scripts is the same as the Greek text, which scholars were able to translate quickly after discovery of the monument, the Rosetta Stone became the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is the most famous discovery made by the French forces in Egypt. When it was taken to Cairo and given over to the scholars of the Institute of Egypt, they recognized immediately that it was the single most important object in their care.

The stone was discovered in July 1799, one year after the French had arrived in Egypt. Captain François-Xavier Bouchard, an engineer and officer in Napoleon’s Egyptian army, was in charge of the demolition of an ancient wall in the city of Rosetta on a branch of the Nile, a few miles from the sea. The Rosetta Stone was built into the wall, but Bouchard recognized that the stone might make it possible to decipher hieroglyphics. So he saved it, and the stone was taken to the scientists in Cairo in mid-August 1799.

The text, for most people, is not particularly interesting, apart from its use in breaking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. The inscription is a priestly decree and it is only a fragment, since the original stele was at least twice as large as the piece that we call the Rosetta Stone. The decree was issued at Memphis, the principal city of ancient Egypt, and it concerns the young Ptolemy V Epiphanes, king of all Egypt (205-180 BC). It is the very last sentence of the Greek inscription that, when translated, confirmed to scholars that the stone preserved the same text in three different languages. The last sentence read:
“This decree shall be inscribed on a stele of hard stone in sacred [i.e., hieroglyphic] and native [i.e., demotic] and Greek characters and set up in each of the first, second and third — [rank] temples beside the image of the ever-living king.”

The original site where the stone was erected is unknown, but it was certainly not Rosetta. The land where it was found is built up from sedimentation that had accumulated only after the time of the stone’s creation. Scholars surmise that the stele was moved with other blocks as building material from a site further inland, and that it was probably already broken when it was moved to Rosetta. Attempts to find additional fragments of the stone at Rosetta have all been in vain. The original edges of the stone are preserved on the left, right and bottom sides, and the original shape of the complete stele is thought to have been generally rectangular, but slightly wider at the base and with an arched top, much like a tombstone. The original shape is shown in the last line of the hieroglyphs.

Although the French savants copied thousands of hieroglyphs and bas reliefs faithfully by hand for publication in the Description de l’Égypte, copying the Rosetta Stone’s slight incisions by hand proved difficult. The director of the Institute’s printing house suggested that the stone itself be used as a printing block. The surface was washed, brushed and dried, with all of the incisions left moist so that they would not take up any ink that was applied to the surface. A dampened sheet of paper was pressed onto the stone in contact with the raised surface and, in a kind of lithographic printing process, a reverse image of the writing was successfully produced with white letters on a black background. It could be read from the back side, or in a mirror.
rosetta stone detail rosetta stone detail
Detail of the Rosetta Stone, showing the cartouche containing hieroglyphs for Ptolemy. The elongated ovals, or cartouches, in the hieroglyphic section always contain a royal name; in this case, Ptolemy, from Description de l’Égypte Antiquités, v. 5 Detail of the Rosetta Stone, showing an image of the original stele on last line, from Description de l’Égypte Antiquités,v. 5

Nicolas-Jacques Conté, already known for his inventive skills, used the stone in the manner of a copper plate engraving to produce an image of the text by a different printing method. Ink was applied to the whole surface, including the incisions, and then the ink was cleaned off all of the raised surfaces. The resulting print, also in reverse, showed an image of the text in black letters on a white background. Copies of the prints reached Paris by the autumn of 1800, and additional prints were widely distributed throughout Europe in the early years of the nineteenth century. The significance of the Rosetta Stone as “key” to hieroglyphs was clearly realized. The full-sized reproductions of the text eventually appeared on three plates in the Description de l’Égypte, in volume 5 of the Antiquités, published in 1822. Even using the largest size paper available for printing, the stone was too large to reproduce on a single sheet.

A sulfur cast of the Rosetta Stone made by Arien Raffeneau-Delile in Egypt was used to make the engravings in the Description de l’Égypte of the demotic (middle) and Greek (lower) sections. The upper part of the stone with the hieroglyphics was reproduced from a plaster cast. It was made in London by Edme Jomard, editor in chief of the Description de l’Égypte, who traveled to England in 1815 to study the stone, which was by then in the British Museum.

The Rosetta Stone came to London and to the British Museum (where it remains) in 1802, after the French surrender to the British forces in Egypt. Though defeated, the French were reluctant to surrender the stone. The scientists of the Institute of Egypt held their final meeting in Cairo on March 22, 1801, and then moved to Alexandria. The Rosetta Stone went with them. Under the terms of the treaty, however, all of the Egyptian antiquities that had been collected by the French, including the Rosetta Stone, were to be handed over to the British forces. All arguments and attempts by the French to keep the stone out of British hands failed and it finally left Egypt on board an English ship bound for Portsmouth, where it arrived in February 1802.

By the time the engravings of the Rosetta Stone were published in the Description de l’Égypte in 1822, scholars had already spent years on the problem of decipherment. Among these, Thomas Young in England and Jean-François Champollion in France were the leading figures, not to say rivals. Ultimately it was Champollion who unlocked the code that allowed the hieroglyphs to be read, publishing a short report of his research in 1822 and a full exposition in 1824 that was the decisive analysis for decipherment. He did this without ever having seen the stone itself, and instead worked with a copy from the Description. In 1824, Champollion made a brief trip to England and to the British Museum. It was the only time he ever saw the Rosetta Stone itself.
view of rosetta
View of Rosetta, from Description de l’Égypte État moderne, v. 1


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This exhibition is made possible with the generous support of the J.E. Dunn Construction Company.