15 Solid Facts About the Rosetta Stone

Discovered by French soldiers during their occupation of Egypt on July 15, 1799, the Rosetta Stone is a most fortunate find. Weighing nearly one ton and covered in three columns of alternating script, the stone provided the key to deciphering hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian script that had puzzled scholars for centuries. But while many know its value as a translation tool, few know the turbulent history surrounding its discovery and translation—or what it actually says.

1. IT’S A ROYAL DECREE VENERATING A TEENAGE KING.

The Rosetta Stone is part of a larger display slab, or stele, that broke apart centuries ago and was likely situated inside a temple near el-Rashid (Rosetta), where it was discovered. Written in 197 BCE, it’s a bit of ancient propaganda—officially known as the Memphis Decree—affirming the legitimacy and goodness of then-king Ptolemy V, who had assumed the throne at the age of 5 (after his parents were murdered in a court conspiracy) and received his official coronation at age 12. Given his youth and swirling turmoil in the empire, Ptolemy probably needed a boost from his priests. “[He] has dedicated to the temples revenues in money and corn,” they wrote on the stone. “And has undertaken much outlay to bring Egypt into prosperity.”

2. IT CONTAINS THREE DIFFERENT SCRIPTS.

Despite its incomplete state, the Rosetta Stone crucially preserves the three languages from the original stele: hieroglyphics, the sacred script of the empire; Egyptian demotic, the common language; and Greek, which was the official language under Macedonian-ruled Egypt. All three convey the same royal decree, with slight variations, indicating the message was widely read and circulated. In modern times, this meant the stone could serve as a translation key, with the Greek portion, in particular, helping scholars crack the hieroglyphics, which had died out around the 4th century after Rome’s rulers declared it a pagan art.

3. IT SPENT CENTURIES LODGED INSIDE A FORTRESS WALL.

Many of Egypt’s temples were destroyed in the 4th century under Roman emperor Theodosius I, and for years afterwards the ruins served as quarries for the country’s occupiers. Before the French recovered it in the late 18th century, the immensely valuable Rosetta Stone was part of a wall inside an Ottoman fortress.

4. A FRENCH ENGINEER DISCOVERED IT.

During the Napoleonic Wars, French forces moved in to Egypt with the goal of colonizing the country. While reconstructing portions of the Ottoman fort, which the French renamed Fort Julien, engineer Pierre-Francoise Bouchard noticed a slab of granite sticking out of the ground. Upon closer inspection, he saw it contained varying lines of script. Realizing the value of his find, he informed general Jacques-Francoise Menou, the chief general in Egypt who just happened to be at the site. Soldiers excavated the stone, and months later it was presented for inspection to none other than Napoleon himself.

5. NAPOLEON DESERVES A LOT OF CREDIT.

Despite his colonizing aims, the French ruler didn’t want to run roughshod over Egypt. Recognizing the country’s rich history and loads of valuable artifacts, he dispatched dozens of scientists, historians and other bright minds to north Africa, where they formed a scholarly organization called the Institute of Egypt. Napoleon also instructed soldiers and commanders to be on the lookout for anything valuable—an order that was front-of-mind for Bouchard when he discovered the stone.

6. THEN THE BRITISH TOOK IT.

Photo circa the 1800s. Getty

After defeating Napoleon’s forces at Alexandria in 1801, the British commandeered many of the Egyptian artifacts the French had collected during their occupation, including the Rosetta Stone. General Manou actually tried to claim the stone as his personal property, but the English recognized its value and made its transfer part of the official surrender.

7. IT’S BEEN IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM SINCE 1802.

After the British secured the stone, they took it to London’s British Museum, which had opened in 1757 as the world’s first public national museum. The original location was a 17th century mansion, but the Rosetta Stone and other artifacts soon proved too heavy for the home’s structure, and were moved to the current location in South Kensington.

8. VISITORS USED TO BE ABLE TO TOUCH IT.

Visitors viewing the Rosetta Stone in 1932 at the British Museum. Getty

For decades, the Rosetta Stone sat uncovered in the museum. Although they were discouraged from doing so, visitors would walk up and touch the stone, often tracing the writing with their fingers—a scenario that would no doubt horrify most modern curators. Eventually, the museum realized this probably wasn’t good for the longevity of the artifact, and placed it beneath a glass case.

9. IT TOOK SCHOLARS MORE THAN TWO DECADES TO DECIPHER IT.

Scholars were able to quickly translate the 54 lines of Greek and 32 lines of demotic inscribed on the stone. But fully deciphering the 14 lines of hieroglyphics took years. Part of the problem was a prevailing notion that hieroglyphics were a symbolic writing system when in fact it was a largely phonetic one. British scholar Thomas Young made a major breakthrough when he discovered the significance of the cartouches, which were circles drawn around proper names. He published his findings in 1814. Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion took up the mantle and delivered a full translation in 1822. From there, further understanding of Egyptian language and culture flourished.

10. THERE’S A NATIONALIST FEUD SURROUNDING THE TRANSLATION.

While many accounts of the stone’s translation emphasize the complementary efforts of Young and Champollion, critics on both sides of the English Channel have jockeyed for the importance of one scholar’s contributions over the other. According to some (mainly British) sources, Young’s efforts are overshadowed by Champollion’s translation. Some have even leveled the charge of plagiarism against the Frenchman. Many others, meanwhile, point out that the full translation came through the combined efforts of numerous scholars, in addition to Young and Champollion.

11. CHAMPOLLION FAINTED AFTER MAKING A CRUCIAL DISCOVERY.

The French Egyptologist made slow, painstaking progress towards decoding hieroglyphics. One day, he had a major breakthrough: A sun symbol, he realized, corresponded to the Egyptian word “ra,” or “sun,” which formed the beginning of “Ramses,” the name for the sun god. Realizing this meant hieroglyphics was a primarily phonetic language, Champollion raced to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, where his brother worked. “I have it!” he supposedly cried upon entering his brother’s office, and promptly fainted.

12. IT SPENT TWO YEARS IN A TUBE STATION.

During World War I, bombing scares prompted British Museum officials to move the Rosetta Stone, along with other select artifacts, to a nearby Postal Tube station (think railroad for mail) situated 50 feet underground.

13. FRANCE GOT TO HAVE IT FOR ONE MONTH.

After discovering the stone, then losing it, France finally got its chance to host the artifact in 1972. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Champollion’s Lettre a M. Dacier, which outlined his translation of the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphics. Housed at the Louvre in Paris, the stone drew crowds from far and wide. Despite rumors that France might just hold onto the Rosetta Stone, the Louvre returned it to the British Museum after one month.

14. THERE’S NO DEFINITIVE ENGLISH TRANSLATION.

The Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum. Nick Mehlert via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Because each of the Rosetta Stone’s three sections is slightly different, and because of the subjective nature of translation in general, there’s no single, authoritative translation of the royal decree. Here’s a translation of the Greek portion. Don’t expect a riveting read.

15. EGYPT WANTS IT BACK.

In 2003, the country requested the return of the Rosetta Stone to its original home, citing the artifact as a key piece of Egyptian cultural identity. Officials, including prominent archaeologist and former Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass, continued to press the British Museum in subsequent years. The museum has politely declined each request, but did gift Egypt a full-size replica in 2005.

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Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

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15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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