The Rosetta Stone
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The Rosetta Stone was discovered in Egypt, at Fort St Julien in el-Rashid, known as Rosetta. It dates from the Ptolemaic Period, 196 BC.
The Rosetta Stone is one of the most important objects in the British Museum as it holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs – a script made up of small pictures that was used originally in ancient Egypt for religious texts. Hieroglyphic writing died out in Egypt in the fourth century AD. Over time the knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs was lost, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and its subsequent decipherment.
The Stone is a tablet of black rock called granodiorite. It is part of a larger inscribed stone that would have stood some 2 metres high. The section that remains is roughly rectangular. It measures just over a metre high, 72 centimetres wide and almost 30 centimetres from front to back. The top part of the stone has broken off at an angle – in line with a band of pink granite whose crystalline structure glints a little in the light. The back of the Rosetta stone is rough, where it has been hewn into shape, but the front face is smooth and crammed with text, inscribed in three different scripts. These form three distinct bands of writing. The top band consists of fourteen lines of hieroglyphs: symbols such as an eye, a seated man, a reed and a basket. The middle band is made up of thirty-two lines of a curvilinear script called demotic, the everyday language used in ancient Egypt. At the bottom are over fifty lines of tightly compressed Greek writing.
The inscriptions are three translations of the same decree, passed by a council of priests, that affirms the royal cult of the thirteen-year-old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation. In the early years of the nineteenth century, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on this stone as the key to deciphering the others.
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