Major Archaeological Discovery Rosetta Stone

About the major archaeological and linguistic discovery the Rosetta Stone, history of the tablet essential to language deciphering.

Discovery: ROSETTA STONE

Year: 1822

Location: Rosetta, Egypt, on the west side of the Nile delta

Decipherer: Jean Francois Champollion

Findings: Striving to cut Britain's ties with India, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 and brought with him more than 100 of France's finest scholars. Their directed task was to find and seize--for the glory of France--every cultural object worthy of removal. Aware of his emperor's command, Lt. Pierre Bouchard came across an unusual black basalt slab built into the wall of an ancient Arab fort which he'd been assigned to tear down. The stone fragment carried three parallel inscriptions. One, in Greek, identified the passage as a decree issued by Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. The other two, written in hieroglyphics and demotic script--both indecipherable--appeared from their nearly equal lengths to represent translated versions of the Greek text.

The three texts were copied and dispatched for study by scholars all through Europe. The stone itself, together with other cultural spoils of war, was intended originally for shipment to the Louvre Museum in Paris. When they gained control of Egypt through their defeat of Napoleon in 1801, the antiquity-minded British wrote a clause into the articles of surrender which redirected the prize discovery into the British Museum.

News of the mysterious find reached 12-year-old Champollion the next year. The precocious schoolboy, vowing to solve the problem of the puzzling hieroglyphs, began an intensive, self-taught study of ancient languages. Within eight years he mastered Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, and Coptic, a tongue closely related to old Egyptian. By 1822 he had announced his initial translating successes in a letter to the Parisian Academy of Inscriptions.

Champollion's work, although done independently, owed much to important clues pointed out by Dr. Thomas Young, an English scholar. Young focused attention on certain hieroglyphic groupings marked with oval encirclings, contending that these cartouches had a special importance. He also theorized that the hieroglyphs were phonetic in nature and established, by comparing them with the Greek, that they had an alphabetical base. Working also with the bilingual text inscribed on a granite obelisk discovered at Philae, Egypt, by W. J. Bankes in 1815, Young developed a partial alphabet for the hieroglyphs. Then followed a brilliant, deductive analysis of groupings common to both the Rosetta Stone and the Philae obelisk. Young translated two of the cartouches as "Ptolemy" and "Cleopatra," a triumphant breakthrough that gave him a working basis for further empirical analysis.

Champollion, applying his own knowledge of Coptic--for which he had compiled an extensive vocabulary--laboriously compared variant texts to correct Young's errors. Eventually, he formed a complete system of decipherment rules and a basic grammar for the Rosetta translation.

Jealousy among his colleagues prevented total acceptance of his amazing achievement. The physical strain took its toll, and he died from a stroke at age 42, with his work still being criticized. Not until discovery of the bilingual stone called the Decree of Canopus in Egypt 30 years later did Champollion receive his just recognition. The decipherment techniques he had worked out were applied to the new stone and produced an acceptable translation.

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