For many years no one knew what the strange signs on the walls of Egyptian graves were or what they said. Scientists and archaeologists were baffled. In 1799, a stone was discovered with Egyptian hieroglyphic, Egyptian demotic, and Greek all with the same message written in each language. Not until 1822 was the code cracked however, and only then were we able to read this ancient text. This stone has been the key to seeing what the hieroglyphics mean and it is thanks to Jean-Francois Champollion’s determination. Since then, there have been great leaps in understanding this early civilization.
From about 2600 B.C. to 500 A.D, the Egyptian hieroglyphic language was used. It is one of the oldest known languages of the world. Comprised of pictographs it uses them to convey figurative, symbolic, and phonetic sounds. Quite complex, the language can have a picture of a crocodile literally meaning crocodile, while it can also stand for the sound “msh.” The direction that the script was written varied, sometimes it was written from left to right, others right to left and sometimes it was even written running from top to bottom, but you can always tell the direction it is written because all of the animals and people face the starting point of the line. The Egyptians believed that writing was invented by their god Thoth and they called their writing “god’s words.” For the most part, the hieroglyphic language was used for formal writing and tomb inscriptions. Some were fully colored, while others were merely outlines. For everyday writing, the Egyptians used the hieratic script. Hieratic is much more simplified and mostly written for everyday transactions and such. Hieroglyphs are equivalent to cursive script and hieratic writing is equivalent to standard print script. From what we know, both were created at about the same time. The hieroglyphic writing looks very elaborate and stunning and we can truly appreciate the complexity of this civilization when looking at it.
The Rosetta stone was carved in 196 B.C. and is a text written by the priests commemorating all of the great things that the Pharaoh had done. It was subsequently lost until the Rosetta stone was revealed in 1799 A.D. by a French soldier named Pierre-Francois Bouchard. As soldiers were strengthening the defenses of Fort Julien, a few miles to the north Lieutenant Pierre-Francois Bouchard who was in charge of the remodel, was informed of a slab with inscriptions on one side found by the soldiers. Finding it significant, the discovery was announced to Napoleon’s newly founded scientific association in Cairo. It was the first bilingual text recovered in modern times and aroused a ton of publicity and curiosity. It was deemed so significant that Napoleon himself examined it. Many copies were made of the text and sent to numerous scholars throughout Europe to see if they could decipher it, but they only succeeded in decoding the Greek portion. When the British troops defeated the French in Egypt, the Rosetta stone was confiscated and sent to the British Museum in 1802, where it has been since. There is still some speculation as to the true owners of the Stone and whether it should be returned to Egypt.
For 23 years the Stone’s hieroglyphic carvings remained a mystery. One of the first men to try to translate the Stone was Antoine Isaac Silvestre De Sacy of France; unfortunately he made no major accomplishments in the demotic characters. Again a British physicist and medical doctor, Thomas Young took a whack at it and advanced the idea that the hieroglyphs were not only pictures, but sounds too. He recognized a few names, but other than that the stone remained a mystery still. It wasn’t until the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, saw the Rosetta stone and set his mind to it, that the Stone’s secrets were finally unveiled. He discovered that there were three forms of Egyptian writing, hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. After he revealed this, he also built off of Young’s idea that hieroglyphs had sounds as well as picture meanings. Using the Greek, he translated the hieroglyphs leaving only 14 incomplete lines. This incredible accomplishment has opened the doorway to Egypt.
Once the Rosetta stone was found, the world knew that it was something extremely important. In spite of this, it took many years to realize what it actually said. If Champollion had never spent the time and effort to translate the Rosetta stone, we might to this very day still be baffled by one of the greatest ancient civilizations. Thankfully, he persevered and we now know how to read hieroglyphs. This attractive language is very complex and was not easy to read and so we are even more amazed at the work of Champollion. The Rosetta stone truly was the key to an entirely new world.