The Rosetta Stone – World’s First Translation Ever?

The Rosetta Stone is one of the most iconic symbols of decipherment and translation in modern history. The Rosetta Stone is a gray granite stone found on July 19, 1799, by Napoleon’s troops during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition.

The Stone remained in French territory until it was taken by the British in 1801. The Rosetta Stone was transferred to the British Museum, where it remains until this day.

Rosetta Stone – the Full Story


The Rosetta Stone is one of the most iconic symbols of decipherment and translation in modern history. The Rosetta Stone is a gray granite stone found on July 19, 1799, by Napoleon’s troops during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition.

Some historians indicate that Napoleon himself ordered his soldier, Pierre Francois Bouchard, to explore the area and look for educational and cultural artifacts in the area. According to Rose Eduard, “Several geologists accompanied the army of Napoleon Bonaparte that landed in Egypt in 1798 – indicating that perception of the military value of geology is almost as old as Earth science itself.” (Edward, 2004: 24-29).

However, the most known reports indicate that the Stone was found accidentally by Pierre Francois Bouchard when his troop was digging the foundations for a fort near Rashid’s city and noticed the Stone.

Meaning of “Rosetta”

The city’s name Rashid means Rosetta, the reason for the name Rosetta Stone. The town of Rashid (Rosetta) is located in the Nile Delta area east of Alexandria. The Stone remained in French territory until it was ceased by the British in 1801. The Rosetta Stone was transferred to the British Museum, where it remains until this day (Urbanus, 2017,51).

Physical Structure

Another aspect of the Rosetta Stone that interests most people is how the Stone was created and how it was preserved to this day. Andrew Middleton and Dietrich Klemm go into detail to explain the geological specifications of the nature of the Stone in their article “The Geology Of The Rosetta Stone.” According to Middleton, the Rosetta Stone measures “approximately 114 cm in height, 72 cm wide and 28 cm thick and its weight has been estimated to be more than 750 Kg.” (Middleton and Klemm 2003,1).

The authors also explain that “The inscriptions are lightly incised into the smoothed front surface, but the sides are not smoothed, though relatively even; the back was left with a rough finish that was presumably not intended to be seen once the stela had been erected” (Middleton and Klemm 2003,1). The recovered Stone is a broken part of a larger stone slab . In the same article, the authors says that “After a more recent “petrographic examination and analysis of the Rosetta Stone using a fragment piece of the Stone shows that the Rosetta Stone it made of fine-grained granodiorite, perhaps modified by metamorphic and/or metasomatic processes.

Although finer-grained, it is otherwise similar chemically and mineralogically to the so-called ‘black granite’ (i.e. granodiorite) from Aswan. It is most probable that it originated from Ptolemaic quarrying sites to the south of Aswan, where dark-colored rocks such as this, sometimes cut by veins of pink granite, are to be found” (Middleton and Klemm 2003, 205). This article confirms that, interestingly, this description correctly matches the French description of the Stone. The French initially described it as “une pierre de granite noir” which translates as “a black granite stone” this description matches the correct specification of the Stone, differently from the British description that mistakenly suggested for many years that the rock was made of “basalt’. (Middleton and Klemm, 2003, 205).

The message carved into the granite is written in three different types of Ancient script. The symbols carved are in a light color that looks like white or light gray to the naked eye, which contrasts with the Stone’s dark color. Part of the text is missing from the top of the Stone. The recovered Stone has 14 lines written in the hieroglyphic script, 32 lines in Demotic script, and 53 lines written in Ancient Greek. Archeologists believe that “The stone was part of a series of carved stelas that were erected in locations throughout Egypt during the Great Revolt (206-186B.C.)” (Urbanus,2017,51). The message written in the Stone describes the good deeds of the Egypt King Ptolemy V. The statement written in the stone is also known as “Third Memphis Decree issued by Egyptian priests in Memphis during the year of 196 B.C. In celebration of Ptolemy V’s achievements and to the young King’s royal cult” (Urbanus, 2017,51).

Contrary to popular belief, Jason Urbanus says that “the Rosetta Stone is viewed less for its linguist’s serendipity and more as a propagandistic document created for all to see in a tumultuous time” (Urbanus, 2017,51). Ptolemy V, was, in reality, Greek and defeated a group of native Egyptians that revolt against his rulings during the great revolt of the natives against the Hellenistic rules . Jason Urbanus also explains that “Specifics of the revolt remain obscure, the little that is known has been drawn from the few surviving texts including the Rosetta Stone itself” (Urbanus, 2017,51). Recent excavations also suggest that the great revolt was a violent period that lasted for over 100 years (Urbanus, 2017,52).

To better understand The Rosetta Stone, one must learn more about the events that lead to its creation. The Rosetta Stone was carved and erected during Ptolemy V’s reign. Ptolemy V’s was a young king; he came to power by the age of six years old when his father Ptolemy IV died (222-205 B.C). Ptolemy V was around 14 years old when the Stone was written. (Urbanus, 2017,51). Archaeologists believe that the Rosetta Stone was a propaganda piece in favor of the King and that the Stone was erected to share information about the King for all to see. The scripts were written first in hieroglyphic script, which was considered a sacred form of writing done only by priests, and then translated into two other common scripts giving the stones a greater importance to those that saw it (Urbanus, 2017,51).

The Hieroglyphic Scripts

The hieroglyphics scripts used by priests to record historical or religious text could not be understood for many years because no one understood it in modern society. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia describes the hieroglyphic language as “The first used Egyptian language and hieroglyphic as a form of writing that underwent several stages of development in the course of the centuries” (Anon, 2020,1). Jason Urbanus also explained in his article In the Time of The Rosetta Stone that “One of the difficulties to understand hieroglyphics was determining whether Egyptian hieroglyphics even constituted a spoken language. Did the written characters and pictures denote letters, syllables, or words, or were they solely ideographic symbols representing an idea or action like today’s “no smoking” icons or emojis. These convey concepts but do not represent speech” (Urbanus 2017, 53). It is also important to note that the Rosetta Stone was not the only ancient script recovered; many other scripts and monuments were left by ancient Egyptians that could not be understood. The Rosetta Stone was not important just for imparting a message. It was a key to understand hieroglyphics, which opened the door to understand a part of history that was a mystery for many years.

The Demotic Egyptian language

The second line of scripts engraved in the Rosetta Stone is written in the Demotic Egyptian Script. The Demotic Egyptian language was the language spoken by the common people in ancient Egypt. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia explains that “From hieroglyphics evolved an Egyptian cursive handwriting known as hieratic; and from hieratic, a simplified script called demotic, in which was recorded the form of the Egyptian language also called demotic” (Anon,2020, 1).

The Ancient Greek

The last part of the text was written in Ancient Greek, a language that could be fully understood, opening the door to crack the code to understanding ancient scriptures finally. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, “some scholars regard Coptic as the fifth period of ancient Egyptian, although others classify it as a different language descended from the ancient tongue. If Coptic, which is written in a modified version of the Greek alphabet, is considered a continuation of the Egyptian language, a written record of the latter may be said to cover an unbroken span of at least 40 centuries, the longest such record known for a language.” (Anon, 2020, 1). This information also helps the reader to understand more about the demographics of that period.

Cracking the code was not easy. The Hieroglyphics were challenging to understand because it did not represent a phonetic alphabet as most languages do. It did not have a specific grammar, or even an order. The text could go in several directions with many possible symbols. It was also difficult to decipher the writings because some pictures represented a single letter or sound. In contrast, others represented a whole word, line, or syllables, making it virtually impossible to understand the text. After the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, two men started to study the Stone in an attempt to understand the scripts. The men working on this task were Thomas Young and Jean François Champollion. (Anon, 2020, 98). Thomas Young (1773–1829) was an English physician, polymath, and one of the brightest in his generation (Urbanus, 2017,53). He contributed to studies in the field of vision, mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony, and Egyptology among other subjects.

The other person was Jean François Champollion, 1790–1832. Champollion was a French linguist and Egyptologist. He is considered the founder of the science of Egyptology. His first important accomplishment was his two-volume work on the geography of ancient Egypt, which was written when he was 24. In 1821 by use of the Rosetta Stone, he established the principles for deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Later Champollion became the director of the Egyptian museum at the Louvre and professor of Egyptian Antiquities at the Collège de France. (Anon, 2020,1). The Fact that the Rosetta stone had the same inscriptions carved on it in three languages helped Champollion guess the meaning of the rounded boxes known as cartouches within the hieroglyphic section contained names. He suspected the cartouches contained Ptolemy’s name (spelled in Greek as “Ptolemaios”) since that Pharaoh’s name appeared many times in the Greek section. Another well-known stone script contained a cartouche that he suspected spelled out the name “Cleopatra”. He selected the letters that both scripts had in common and “L” “O” “P” and “T” and confirmed that they matched. This process also gave him clues about the other symbols. (Anon, 2020, 1,2).
On the other hand, in the article Thomas Young and the Rosetta Stone, Andrew Robinson suggests that more credit should be given to Thomas Young’s work. Robinson explains that Young was the first person to publish a partially correct translation of the Rosetta Stone. A recent BBC television dramatization rekindled the controversy by presenting Champollion as a ‘lone genius’ who succeeded independently of Young. While there is no doubt that Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphic script as a whole, the evidence suggests that Young’s early detailed study of the Rosetta Stone created the conceptual framework that made possible Champollion’s later breakthrough. (Robinson 2007, 59-64).

The Rosetta Stone is a reminder about the importance of studying and keeping cultures and languages alive. It also reminds us how much cultural, geopolitical, and even geographic information can be extracted from one single item or script. Therefore, it explains the importance of anthropological studies and how it can help us learn more about ourselves and those that came before us. The Rosetta Stone opened the door to an ancient language and made it possible for us to understand more about Egyptian history. Thanks to the curiosity and efforts of those that came across it, took notice of it, and took the time to learn from it so that all of us can better understand important facts about what happened in the past and use it to better understand ourselves.

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