Background, History, Deciphering, And Significance Of The Find
Dr. Johnson C. Philip
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.
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.
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.
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.