Rosetta Stone: the key that unlocked the secrets of Egyptian civilization

Today, although there are still many mysteries to be unraveled about ancient Egypt, we know many things about this fascinating civilization, such as the dynasties and pharaohs that reigned over the millennia, what was the everyday life of Egyptian society and how. what were the various customs of this culture.

However, until the 19th century, Ancient Egypt and all its secrets were completely unknown. This is because, until 1822, hieroglyphics were an incomprehensible enigma to linguists, historians, archaeologists, and explorers, and held the key to decoding all the unknowns related to this civilization. Everything changed thanks to the discovery of a granodiorite fragment - a black granite-like stone - in 1799.

Wars and discoveries

According to Dory Gascueña, in an interesting article for the OpenMind portal, between 1798 and 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte led a (failed) campaign to conquer Egypt, and during this period the French and English forces clashed on land. Egyptians and Syrians for control of the territory.

Napoleon's Campaign in Egypt

But Napoleon, who had a real fascination with these lands, in addition to leading his soldiers to fight, had the good sense to create a special group to accompany the troops: the Commission of Sciences et des Arts - or Commission of Sciences and Arts. - formed by engineers, astronomers, chemists, painters, economists and other scientists.

Then, in July 1799, while French Army Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard led excavations to reinforce a defensive zone in the village of Rashid - or Rosetta - about 80 kilometers from Alexandria, the soldiers came across a curious artifact. They found a black stone 112.3 cm long, 75.7 cm wide and 28.4 cm thick, and weighing some 760 kilos buried in the sand.

The Rosetta Stone

But not only that: the piece contained a lot of things engraved on its surface. More precisely, the stone bore 14 lines filled with hieroglyphics, as well as 32 lines written in demotic - a dialect derived from the hieroglyph - and 54 lines written in Greek. As such, the staff of the Committee on Science and Arts immediately recognized the importance of the artifact.

The object was taken to the Egyptian Institute, located in Cairo. However, the French did not have much time to devote to discovery, as the English won the war and the stone passed into the hands of the British Empire. Incidentally, the artifact remains in possession of the English to this day, and is on display at the British Museum in London.

Lost language

According to Dory, the hieroglyphic language was lost in time after the Roman Empire took control of Egypt around 30 BC, and its decoding did not happen immediately after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone no. It was almost two decades before anyone could break the code written in the artifact!

No one understood what the symbols used by the ancient Egyptians meant

After the stone was discovered, many scholars and scientists received transcripts of the texts on its surface, and few made any significant advance in its translation. Well, that until the reproductions fall into the hands of Jean François Champollion.

The Frenchman was completely obsessed with everything related to ancient Egypt, and when he was only twelve he met the physicist and mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, one of the members of the French expeditions to Egyptian lands. At the time, the scientist was working on a work commissioned by Napoleon called “Description of Egypt, ” and saw in Champollion a brilliant apprentice.

Undecipherable codes

The boy wanted to know all about Egypt, and took the opportunity to know this fascinating land through Fourier's eyes. The scholar, in turn, gave the young man all the knowledge he can - and it was thanks to the master that Champollion was able to decipher the texts engraved on the Rosetta Stone.

Breaking codes

As we mentioned, the Rosetta Stone contains texts engraved in hieroglyph, demotic, and Greek - and the passage in that third language was easily translated. However, as each excerpt has a number of different lines (14, 32, and 54), as well as a large discrepancy in the number of words, none of the scholars who tried to decipher the messages had realized that it was the same text written in three languages. different.

The history of ancient Egypt was contained in an indecipherable code.

Champollion broke the code due to his knowledge of Coptic - a language composed of the Greek alphabet and some demotic characters. The demotic, in turn, consisted of a language derived from the hieratic, which in turn was a simplified version of the hieroglyph often used to compose stone messages.

Jean François Champollion

What Champollion did was to identify the first names recorded in the messages and realize that the names of the kings were surrounded. He also realized that, contrary to what many other linguists before him believed, the hieroglyph was not a purely ideographic language, that is, composed of meaningful symbols.

So Champollion set up a table with 300 hieroglyphics and icons of the hieratic and demotic, and from there on, translated the texts in just 13 days. The messages on the Rosetta Stone consisted of a royal decree promulgated in 196 BC in the city of Memphis on behalf of Pharaoh Ptolemy V, and say that when Champollion finally broke the code, he rushed into his brother's office, shouted, “ found out! ”and fainted with emotion.

Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum

I could too! The Frenchman was able not only to discover what the three messages said, but to decode the - until then - indecipherable language used by the ancient Egyptians, making it become the tool that allowed the secrets of their civilization to be revealed and their history to be revealed. finally rewritten.