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The Rosetta Stone held the key to understanding Egyptian hyeroglyphs

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, History, Language on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about Ancient Egypt originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

The Rosetta Stone, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon brought in scholars to solve the secrets of the ancient languages of the Rosetta Stone by C L Doughty

A soldier’s spade found a black slab of stone 3 ft. 9 in. long, 2 ft. 4 ½ in. wide and 11 in. thick. This was the vital clue to a mystery that the best brains in Europe had failed to solve during centuries of brow-furrowing thought.

For hundreds of years the Ancient Egyptians had been regarded as a mysterious people. Fanciful stories and legends abounded about them. Mediaeval scholars, magicians and alchemists believed that the ancients of Egypt had solved all the mysteries of the Universe, understood all the secrets of life and death, had made contact with the life beyond, and could summon up the Powers of Darkness and strange gods of good and evil.

Certainly the Egyptians were master-builders, or, in the modern term, “civil engineers.” The Pyramids have remained for 28 centuries as undeniable proof of this.

Carvings of fabulous animals of gigantic size slept for eons half-buried in the sands of the North African desert. There were statues and pillars all with lengthy inscriptions painstakingly chiselled by long-dead scribes on the plinths of these great mysterious memories from the past.

The inscriptions would explain all . . . if only they could be read.

The strange fact was, that for all the might of Egypt that had endured for 30 centuries or more, the language had died. The reading and writing of that ancient empire was a forgotten art. All knowledge of it had been lost, and until it was found again, the myriad of careful carvings would remain as meaningless as Chinese to a South American Indian.

The death of the ancient Egyptian language had been a gradual process. It began when the Greek, Alexander the Great, invaded the land and founded the flourishing city of Alexandria. Greek traders introduced their own simple alphabet for business transactions, as did the Hebrew traders who also set up in the new city.

Eventually Egypt became a province of Rome, and Latin was used as well as Greek, but the picturesque Egyptian writing did survive for formal purposes until the end of the 4th century A.D. The spoken word vanished with the sweeping advance of the Moslems in the 7th century, and since then Arabic has been the language of Egypt.

Thus, ancient Egyptian became a dead and baffling tongue, and remained so until the early years of the 19th century, when the key to the riddle was found by a combination of accident and genius.

This is not to say that many brilliant minds had not been applied to the problem of solving the Egyptian mystery beforehand.

Many had tried but none had succeeded, for most of them followed the belief that the sketches of birds, plants, men, snakes etc. were not letters, or even words. The scholars were blinded with their own belief of the mysteriousness of the Egyptians. Mysterious people would write in a mysterious way, so their little drawings must be ideas, symbols for mystical and magical thoughts that could not be deciphered.

In the year 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt. As a military base Egypt was intended as a stepping stone to wealthy India. As a storehouse of ancient relics and knowledge it was beyond price.

Along with his soldiers, the French conqueror took droves of scholars and men of letters, whose task it was to delve into the wonderful past of that ancient land and solve all its mysteries for the honour of France.

The French professors ranged about the land like small boys let loose in a toy shop. Statues and obelisks were hauled off to France, careful copies were made of inscriptions and pictures that could not be carried away.

Yet for all their wit and learning the scholars failed to find the most important thing of all – the key to the language riddle.

In the second year of occupation Captain Bouchard, of Napoleon’s Army of the Nile, was in charge of a working party extending a fortress at the small coastal town of Rosetta (Rashid). The new fort was to be called Fort Julien, and part of the old works were pulled down and new foundations were dug. One of the soldiers dug out a hefty chunk of flat stone that would be worth saving for use in the new building.

As he did so, it was seen that the underside was filled with a hundred lines of neat carving. Fifty-four lines were in Greek, 32 were in demotic (a long-hand version of Egyptian) and the remaining badly broken lines were in the troublesome hieroglyphs.

The Greek was easily translated by the scholars. It showed that the tablet was the work of priests at Memphis paying a tribute to Ptolemy V in the year 196 B.C.

However, the Rosetta stone did not remain in French hands for very long. Napoleon abandoned Egypt – and most of his army – in a hurry, and under the conditions of the Treaty of Alexandria the Rosetta stone was sent to England, where it may now be seen in the British Museum.

It was still no easy task to unravel the mysterious texts. Thomas Young, a brilliant Englishman who made languages one of his many hobbies, made some progress. He managed to decipher the royal names, but then his interest was taken up by other subjects.

The genius who really turned the key and opened up the closed language of ancient Egypt was a French scholar – Jean-Francois Champollion.

He had been a brilliant child. He taught himself to read at five, and had learned Latin and Greek by 11, had written a book at 12 and at 17 was promoted from pupil to teacher by his headmaster.

He was only nine when the first Egyptian relics arrived home with the French soldiers. He saw some of the mysterious hieroglyphs and vowed that one day he would be able to read them.

To this end he learned ancient Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, some Chinese and Coptic, this last being a very much altered form of Egyptian, now dead, but still surviving in Champollion’s day as a Church language in Upper Egypt.

It took this brilliant young man several years of dedicated work, calling upon all his knowledge of ancient and eastern tongues to translate his copy of the inscriptions on the Rosetta stone.

By 1822 he had succeeded.

He went on to build up the beginnings of the Egyptian “alphabet” which consists of over 700 symbols. At the time of his early death at 41, he was writing a grammar of the very complicated and difficult language.

It is thanks to the soldier’s spade and Champollion’s brain that the written secrets of Egypt have been revealed. Alas for the magicians’ hopes, they are not a series of magical and mystical spells. For the most part they are laws and decrees, or the listing of a pharaoh’s captives and booty in battle – the fascinating story of a proud and powerful people.

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