The Rosetta Stone is the most important (and possibly the only) way we were able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, thereby gaining a vast amount of knowledge about ancient Egypt. But the circumstances regarding the creation and discovery of the Rosetta Stone were largely based on luck. So, let’s take a look at the incredible luck behind the Rosetta Stone.
What’s on It?
The Rosetta Stone’s simplicity is part of what makes it so fascinating. The message on the stone is merely a decree from the priests of an Egyptian temple avowing loyalty to Ptolemy V, their pharaoh. And… that’s it. The message itself is relatively inconsequential, but if it had never been written and sent out, we may never have found a way to translate hieroglyphics.
The reason that the Rosetta Stone has been so useful for translation is that this exact message was written three times on the same slab of stone: once in hieroglyphics, once in Demotic, and once in Ancient Greek. Writing decrees in multiple languages wasn’t a common practice in ancient Egypt, so the fact that this one was turned out to be a lucky coincidence for historians.
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was also a lucky coincidence. During Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign, which lasted from 1798 to 1801, a group of soldiers in his army became stranded in the town of Rashid in the Nile Delta after a military setback. Knowing that they would be stranded for a while, the soldiers began digging and excavating with the intent to build a fort for themselves.
While they were digging amidst the foundations of a crumbling fort, a soldier happened upon an inscribed stone that had been built into one of the walls. The officer in charge of the unit recognized the importance of the inscriptions and decided to hold onto the stone for safekeeping.
Deciphering the Text
When the British defeated Napoleon in 1801, the stone was transferred to their possession and has been exhibited in England since 1802. Seven scholars were put to the test to decipher the Rosetta Stone, one of whom was an Englishman named Thomas Young.
Young was the final lucky piece of the Rosetta Stone puzzle. If ever one was born to do something, then he was born to translate the Rosetta Stone. As a brilliant physician and physicist, he was possessed of a brilliant and curious mind, and had been fascinated with Egyptology since childhood.
When Young arrived on the scene, attempts to translate the stone had already been made, but all designated scholars had gotten stuck on the hieroglyphics. The common theory at the time was that every image stood for a specific word or phrase, and scholars hadn’t been able to move forward as a result of this erroneous belief.
In 1814, Young began studying the texts of the Rosetta Stone in his leisure time and was able to achieve a breakthrough in the translation process by correctly identifying the cartouche in hieroglyphics—an oval loop inscription used to symbolize royalty.
Young found Ptolemy’s name written in the Greek portion of the stone and used that to identify the hieroglyphics for the letters p, t, m, y, and s. This also showed him the correct way to decipher the text. His discovery ultimately led to the complete translation of the Rosetta Stone.
In the end, a minor decree, stranded French soldiers, and a talented scholar all led to the incredible discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. If it weren’t for this lucky string of events, we may never have gotten the same chance to understand the inner workings of ancient Egypt.