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Back to the history of Rosetta stone

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The Rosetta stone holds a considerable place in our fascination with ancient Egypt. This archaeological treasure will have made it possible to understand several aspects of the ancient civilization.

The Western world has a real fascination with ancient Egypt. But we have to admit that few of us know the name of the current president of the country… Indeed, the public knows better the names of the pharaohs, the pyramids and the famous mummies. The fascination of Egyptologists for ancient civilization relates mainly to hieroglyphics. These special characters constitute a very complex writing system. Since their discovery, they have long remained indecipherable.

The decryption of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing would not have been possible without the Rosetta Stone. The stele continues to be one of the most important pieces in the British Museum.

From French hands to British hands

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Rosetta stone is granodiorite, which is a magmatic rock. Its dimensions make it a more or less imposing object. It is 112.3cm high and 75.7cm wide for a thickness of 28.4cm. The stone has an official decree engraved on it, making it an essential piece in our understanding of ancient Egypt. The message comes in three scripts: hieroglyphics, demotic and the Greek alphabet.

The Rosetta Stone is actually the fragment of a larger stele. Its text is incomplete, but will at least have allowed the decryption of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Hence its essential character for Egyptologists. Its engraving dates from 196 BC, during the reign of Pharaoh Ptolemy V. The stone is the work of the priests of a temple in Memphis to inform of their support for the pharaoh.

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The stele was discovered in July 1799 during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign. Soldiers found it in the foundations of Fort Jullien in Rosetta, an ancient Egyptian city in the Nile Delta. Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard, the officer in charge of the troops, realized the importance of the find. However, France will not remain the owner of the precious boulder for long. This fell into the hands of the British after the defeat of the first Emperor of the French.

Deciphering hieroglyphics

The Rosetta Stone landed in England in February 1802. British physician and physicist Thomas Young was the first to decipher ancient Egyptian writing within a year of the stele’s arrival in his country. French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion took over 20 years later. He officially announced the deciphering of hieroglyphics after two years of research in 1924. The work of Young and Champollion thus provided a better understanding of the literature of ancient Egypt.

The original version of the Rosetta Stone continues to be on display in the British Museum. Successive Egyptian governments are working to bring the stele back to Egypt.

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