Biblical Archeology Free Online Course 3, Lesson 3

Biblical Archeology Free Online Course 3, Lesson 3
Deciphering The Rosetta Stone Inscription


A History Of Deciphering The Rosetta Stone:  After Napoleon’s scholars made an informal translation of the Greek text, they sent the text as well as impressions of the stones to scholars in France, and soon it reached the scholarly community in the rest of the Europe. Reverend Stephen Weston produced the first scholarly and formal translation, and presented it in a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in London in April 1802.  During the same year, the French orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy started working on the Demotic Script.

The Egyptians had used hieroglyphic script for almost 3500 years, till the arrival of the Greek pharaohs. It was a tough language, with a minimum of 1000 alphabets. At the peak they had as many as 6000 symbols used as alphabet. Once Greek began to be used widely in Egypt, a simplified form of the Egyptian language evolved, often called the Demotic. It was a script using Greek alphabet, with seven additional characters derived from hieroglyphics. In this form it was known as Coptic. This had many similarities with modern Coptic, and that helped the scholars. At the same time it should not be forgotten that only the script was Greek, and the language was the unknown Egyptian. Thus a straightforward understanding was not easily possible.

1. The Demotic Script: Sylvestre de Sacy began his work with the assumption that the cursively written demotic script was alphabetic in nature. Alphabetic languages have a sound associated with each alphabet, while pictographic languages have a meaning associated with each symbol.  Using this assumption, he tried first to identify proper names in the demotic script that corresponded to the already identified proper names in Greek. This was easier said than done as the correspondence between the demotic and Greek was mostly in name and not in pronunciation. Further, they did not have spacing between words, or punctuation marks between sentences, leaving the scholar to decide where to break each word. The mistake of just one symbol would throw the whole study off course. Finally he was able to identify the names of Ptolemy and Alexander, but was unable to identify the pronunciation of individual letters in this name and gave up.

John Akerblad, a Swedish diplomat and a  pupil of  de Sacy then began working on the demotic, and made some more breakthroughs. He knew modern Coptic language, which was used by the Coptic Church of Egypt.  He was able to identify all the proper names that occurred in the Greek letters used in the demotic script, and from them constructed a “demotic alphabet”  of twenty-nine letters. Using this alphabet, he was able to identify some words such as him, his, temple, and love. By doing this he also demonstrated that the demotic script was was phonetic, and that it was translatable.  This was a great breakthrough, and eventually half of the alphabets identified by him stood the test of time.  The only serious error made him was his assumption that the entire demotic script was alphabetic, and later breakthroughs corrected this error. However, this happened only AFTER they hieroglyphic script was deciphered.

Akerblad, de Sacy, and even Jean-Francois Champollion contributed much to decipher the demotic script, but none was able to get the final and complete breakthrough. The person who made the final breakthrough was the German scholar Heinrich Karl Brugsch. After years of research, he published a complete translation of the demotic writing in 1850.

2. The Hieroglyphic Text: A copy of the Rosetta Stone came to the attention of the British physicist Dr. Thomas Young, who took deep interest in deciphering the scripts. In the light of previous work and their inability to get a complete breakthrough, he made the following assumptions:

1. At least some of the demotic signs were NOT alphabetic
2. Some of the demotic signs were simpler derivatives of hieroglyphic signs
3. The  Egyptian characters for Ptolemy would have the same sound as the Greek letters

He began developing his work on the basis of the above assumptions. He was successful in determining that foreign names could not be represented by pure pictographic or idiographic symbols because symbols are based upon the regional words used in a language. Thus foreign names had to be spelled phonetically. On the basis of this he assumed that the cartouches, characters enclosed in an oval boundaries, must be proper names of foreigners, spelled phonetically. Using these assumption he was able to decipher five cartouches. Publication of this information had far-reaching results in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Meanwhile he was able to get help from an obelisk excavated at Philae in 1815. On this obelisk he was able to identify the hieroglyphic symbols for Bernice and Cleopatra. This in turn helped him to establish a partial “alphabet” for the hieroglyphic script. He could not make any more progress due to his [and the contemporary] wrong assumption that the demotic and hieroglyphic scripts were primarily symbolic languages where the picture of a hawk refers to a hawk and so on.

Finally the young French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion is the one who was able to crack the Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was 18 years old when he started his working 1808, and it took him 14 years to study to conclude his work in 1822. He based hi work on the following brilliant assumptions:

1. The later Egyptian Coptic script represented the final stage of the ancient language of the pharaohs.
2. Hieroglyphs were used both as ideograms [pictures that represent a concept or thing] and as phonograms [pictures that represent sounds].
3. Hieroglyphs enclosed in a cartouche [an oval shaped loop encircling a group of hieroglyphs] were phonetic transcriptions of the Pharaoh’s names.

Many others had come to the same or similar conclusions, but none of them had come to the complete framework laid down by Champollion. Further the erroneous assumptions of earlier researchers interfered with the correct assumptions they had made. Champollion was able to use the collective wisdom of his forerunners and hindsight to come to the best possible assumptions. He knew Coptic, so by looking at the demotic script [Old Coptic] of the text, he was able to figure out what the seven demotic signs in coptic were. He then used these to study their corresponding symbols in hieroglyphics, and that was the first breakthrough. Each insight helped him to inch into the text, and finally he was able to read almost the whole of the hieroglyphic. In 1822 new inscriptions from a temple of Abu Simbel on the Nile came to Europe, and Champollion was able to correctly identify the name of the Pharaoh Ramses who had built the temple.

The result of the breakthrough was announced in 1822 in a letter he sent to the French Royal Academy of Inscriptions. In this letter he explained basic concepts of the hieroglyphic scripts, and the world of Egyptology has never been the same after that. Utilizing his knowledge of Coptic he continued to translate the hieroglyphics, making the art of deciphering  Egyptian hieroglyphics ever more accurate.


The Value Of The Rosetta Stone: Studying ancient civilizations related to the Bible has become a compelling need for Christians. On the other hand, it is a compelling hobby for lovers of knowledge. But both of them need breakthroughs in critical areas if they have to objectively interpret what now remains from these objectively.

Inscriptions from a culture furnish the most objective information. Further, they preserve for us what cannot be seen in artifacts, such as history of the nation. However, the languages of almost all ancient civilizations is already dead. Even the language in which the New Testament was written is no longer spoken anywhere. Thus nobody can read the inscriptions unless one is able to decipher them.

Though a vast number of inscriptions from Egypt were available, it became possible to read them only because of the Rosetta Stone. Thus it has a very high position in the annals of archeology.

A Note On Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

Hieroglyphs are signs that indicate sound [called phonograms] or even complete words [called ideograms]. Like the ancient Hebrew, it used only consonants. Thus “in the beginning God” would look like “NTHBGNNNGGD”  in these languages, making the task of reading [and deciphering] extremely difficult. The task becomes all the more difficult when only the same consonants are there for more than one word without vowels. For example in such a language GD can represent God, good, goad etc. Since the context in which a certain ancient Egyptian record was produced in not always known, it is difficult to find the right word out of the possible words. Fortunately the Egyptians did have a way indicating the difference, using symbols that are now called the determinatives.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions usually written in rows from right to left. However, some wrote from left to write, and even in vertical columns, making the task of reading difficult for modern researchers. The direction towards which animals or people faced usually told the direction of writing. Three kinds of hieroglyphic scripts were used by the Egyptians:

Hieroglyphs: this was a formal script, used for inscriptions on tombs, temples, commemorative stall, official or religious dedications, etc.

Hieratic: this was a simpler, cursive, form of hieroglyphs. It was easier and faster to write in this script, so it was employed liberally in everyday administrative and business writings.

Demotic:  this was a popular version of the script. During the reign of the pharaoh Ptolemies, [330 BC to 20 BC], this became the most common form of Egyptian-language writing. Thus it is the second script on the Rosetta stone, immediately after the hieroglyphic writing.

Biblical Archeology Free Online Course 3, Lesson 3
Deciphering The Rosetta Stone Inscription

3 comments for “Biblical Archeology Free Online Course 3, Lesson 3

  1. hanningtone omondi ohito
    June 5, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    very good information!

  2. Wesley Rose Dr Ley
    February 1, 2009 at 6:39 am

    The magnitude of this work is so difficult to realize as I sit here contemplating the material. I am just astounded at this almost miraculous work and drive necessary to complete such a mind boggling array of interpretations and insights into what must have been a formidable mystery and challenge. Few today would adept to such a challenge.
    Dr Ley

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