15 July 1799: discovery of the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone laid bare the secrets of the pharaohs

Hieroglyphics – ‘sacred writing’ – was the ancient script used to adorn the tombs of Egypt’s pharaohs.

Their origin is a mystery – one possibility is that they evolved from Sumerian scripts 5,000 years ago. But what is certain is that by the fourth century AD, the use of hieroglyphics had died out – along with anyone who could read the script. For hundreds of years, all attempts to decipher it failed.

But in 1799, Pierre Bouchard, a lieutenant in Napoleon’s army, charged with demolishing a wall near the town of Rashid (AKA Rosetta) in the Nile delta, noticed an unusual slab of basalt.

It was quite damaged, and missing big chunks, but on the slab there could clearly be seen three sets of writing – one in Greek, one in the ancient Egyptian Demotic script, and one in hieroglyphics. Could this stone be the key to deciphering the pharaohs’ script?

Copies of the text were taken and sent to scholars throughout Europe. The Greek text was translated first, but it was not until 1822 that the first translation of the Egyptian texts was published. The secret of hieroglyphics had finally been cracked.

The text on the stone tells of the magnificence of King Ptolemy V, “the manifest god whose excellence is fine”, his generosity, and requests that he be worshipped as other gods are.

When the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, the stone was taken back to London and put on display in the British Museum, where it remains.

In recent years there have been calls for it to be returned to Egypt.

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