Of all the finds that can be called “keys” to the ancient languages, the Rosetta Stone occupies a very high position. The story is very fascinating, and is sketched below at some length along with much background information.
Background: Egypt was one of the most prosperous, technologically oriented, and literate countries in the ancient world. Scribes were held in very high esteem, and the people and the rulers of Egypt managed to leave copious amounts of written materials. Soft varieties of stones were available in plenty, which were hewn in geometrical shapes, with plain surfaces, and the surface was inscribed with history, stories, or any other information they cared to chisel on to it. Stone being infinitely more rugged than paper, the volume of inscriptions that became available from Egypt is more than the total output of all the contemporary nations put together.
A large number of Egyptian inscriptions in stone, practically imperishable, remained visible for thousands of years. But both the people of Egypt as well as outsiders almost completely forgot their language by the time of Christ. This happened when the Egyptians were influenced first by Persian intruders, then by Greek conquerors under Alexander, and then by the Romans. In 323 BC that the empire was divided after the death of Alexander, and Egypt fell to Ptolemy I, who was also called Pharaoh Ptolemy I. This was the last great Egyptian dynasty [32nd] and all of his male successors were called Ptolemy and all of his female succors were called Cleopatra.
The Ptolemies were Greeks who ruled Egypt for a very long time. They kept building temples in Egyptian style, but their language and lifestyle was exclusively Greek. As a consequence with the rise of Ptolemies, Greek began to dominate, with Egyptian still being used here and there but gradually falling out of use. Once the Romans conquered them, Latin became the prominent language, with an occasional Greek. Within a hundred years of Roman dominion, the Egyptian language fell dead. So much so that none was able to understand anything of the Egyptian, and some of the Roman thinkers even went so far as to claim that these inscriptions were only some kind of decoration and not in any way connected to any language. Since the pictorial language was made up of pictures resembling many real objects, it was natural for this viewpoint to go unchallenged. All was then forgotten for a long time, till the medical doctors developed a fascination for mummies.
In the Middle Ages, bitumen with ground up mummies, was a widely used cure for many ailments. This set up a big ring of smuggling from Egypt into Europe of excavated mummies. Obviously, the grave-robbers often came across things other than mummies. Often much more valuable than the mummies, these were also other discoveries such as artifacts made up of precious metals and stones. These artifacts found eager buyers in Europe, and with time Egyptian antiquities became a status symbol in Europe. With this there was an increased demand, now for attractive and displayable artifacts. This in truth brought a large number of artifacts with inscriptions to Europe.
With the rise of love for knowledge, many in Europe tried their hand upon discovering the Egyptian civilization. Hieroglyphics also received due attention, and unlike the Romans, many of them recognized them as picture-languages. However, the alphabet, vocabulary, and language was not so totally forgotten that only a miracle could give them a breakthrough. In 1633 a highly learned Jesuit priest named Anthanasius Kircher, who had a background in humanities, science, languages, and religion was finally able to decipher one word. The word was “autocrat” and he translated the world from Egypt by substituting ideas for the images that represented this word. This was a great beginning to decipher the Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
A vigorous debate ensued among scholars in 1600s and 1700s about the nature and purpose of Hieroglyphics. Some still maintained that they are not a language. However, most of them came to the conclusion that it is a picture-based language where the pictures represent real objects, symbols, or ideas. There was considerable debate as to whether they could also be considered as alphabets of the language.
Meanwhile, the interest in ancient civilizations was growing, and such study was becoming part of the mainstream. Some people thus began taking a deeper interest in ancient civilizations, one whom as Napoleon. And finally it was a discovery by one of his men which finally unlocked the mystery of Egyptian Hieroglyphic, and related scripts. The Rosetta Stone was the key to this breakthrough.
Detail of the Rosetta Stone by procsilas
The Discovery Of Rosetta Stone: In 1998 he troops went to Egypt for battle with the British who then controlled Egypt. He took 1000 civilians with him, of whom 167 were scientists, technicians, mathematicians, and artists. Their job was to study the art, architecture, and culture of Egypt during what was labeled “and extended vacation”. Napoleon reminded that several millennia of history is looking at them as they look upon the pyramids and monuments of Egypt.
The group did a thorough study, and from 1809 to 1828 published a 19-volume work called “Description of Egypt”. The books contained plenty of pictures and comments, and their circulation in Europe created a strong interest in Egypt and its antiquity. The stage was set for a new chapter in Archeology.
Back in Egypt, the soldiers paid little attentions to things related to Archeology, and indiscriminately dug up stones from pervious constructions for building/strengthening forts for their own purposes. In 1799, while working this way on the extension of a fortress near Rosetta [or Rashid, a small city near Alexandria] they stumbled upon a large stone with ancient inscriptions. It was a black basalt stone, three feet nine inches long, two feet four inches wide, and eleven inches thick. The black stone contained writing in three distinct languages, one after another. This was eventually called the Rosetta Stone. A portion of the upper section was missing, but a thorough search did not yield any result.
Providentially, the stone fell into the hands of Pierre-Francois Bouchar, a young French officer. Though he was unable to understand the writings, he felt it might be of quite some importance, the stone was sent to Cairo. There the scholars brought by Napoleon noticed that the stone contains inscriptions in Hieroglyphics, followed by Demotic [an easier script used later in Egypt, having great affinity to the Coptic language], followed by ancient Greek.
At Cairo Napoleon’s scholars were able to read the lowest, Greek, inscriptions without much difficulty. On doing so, the last statement caught their attention. It said “this decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred [hieroglyphics], native [demotic], and Greek characters”. This alerterted the French scholars to the possibility of some breakthrough in deciphering the dead languages. Napoleon then gave orders for copies of the trilingual inscription to be sent to Paris. Techniques of making accurate impressions of such inscriptions was were already available, so copies were sent to Paris. Scholars in many places were also able to obtain the impressions for study. Soon the scholarly world realized that this inscription might hold the key to the lost language of the Egyptians, and work began in earnest. However, it turned out to be more difficult that anyone could have guessed, but the end result was tremendously rewarding.
Meanwhile Rosetta Stone itself went through a sojourn of itself. One of Napoleon’s men acquired it as a souvenir, and it became a family property in Europe. The scholarly world had lost track of the original stone. It was passed on to several generations as a possession of one of their granddads. Eventually it was sold in a junk market, where an Oxford professor of Egyptology holidaying in France spotted it. He acquired it, brought to Oxford and showed it to to many. They were able to get some breakthrough, but none could decipher the hieroglyphics. The stone remained in the college for many years, when finally an under graduate student happened to examine it. He was stunned to notice that the stone contained the same passage inscribed in three languages, and hence possibly contained the key to Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Today the stone rests, with proper respect, in the British Museum.