Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cracking the Code - Champollion and the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.
© Hans Hillewaert / CC-BY-SA-3.0
On July 15, 1799 in the Egyptian village of Rosetta  Pierre-François Bouchard, Captain of the French expedition army on Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign discovered an unimpressive black stone with some written inscriptions on it. But this black stone, later referred to as the Rosetta Stone, should become the central key to deciphering the long lost secret of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

By the end of the 6th century AD, by the time of the fall of the Roman empire, the knowledge about the ancient tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphics was totally forgotten. Monumental use of hieroglyphs ceased after the closing of all non-Christian temples in the year 391 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Every try to decipher them later on was based on the wrong assumption that each of these 'holy signs' also should have a meaning of its own. Also famous German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher like many others before him, was hampered by the fundamental notion that hieroglyphs recorded ideas and not the sounds of the language. As no bilingual texts were available, any such symbolic 'translation' could be proposed without the possibility of verification.

But the situation changed, when the Rosetta Stone was discovered. The Rosetta Stone is inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BCE on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion Demotic script, and the lowest Ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (with some minor differences between them), it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. But it should take another 20 years to decipher the stone. It was Jean Francois Champollion, a Grenoble school teacher with an interest in ancient Egypt, who in 1822, saw copies of the brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions of another Egyptian artefact, the Philae obelisk, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names "Ptolemaios" and "Kleopatra" in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters k l e o p a t r a.  On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, which was the real breakthrough for reading Egyptian hieroglyphics.

On yovisto you can learn more about the Rosetta Stone and the first egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion in Andrew Robinson's lecture 'Cracking the Code'. Andrew Robinson is the author of a new book on Champollion 'Cracking the Egyptian Code'.

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