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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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History
9 Victims of King Tut's Curse (And One Who Should Have Been)
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When King Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered on November 26, 1922—after more than 3000 years of uninterrupted repose—some believed the pharaoh unleashed a powerful curse of death and destruction upon all who dared disturb his eternal slumber.

Like any urban legend or media sensation, the alleged curse grew to epic proportions over the years. Here are nine people who might make you believe in such things, and one who should have been a direct recipient of Tut's wrath but got off with nary a scratch.

1. GEORGE HERBERT, 5TH EARL OF CARNARVON

The man who financed the excavation of King Tut's tomb was the first to succumb to the supposed curse. Lord Carnarvon accidentally tore open a mosquito bite while shaving and ended up dying of blood poisoning shortly thereafter. This occurred a few months after the tomb was opened and a mere six weeks after the press started reporting on the "mummy's curse," which was thought to afflict anyone associated with disturbing the mummy. Legend has it that when Lord Carnarvon died, all of the lights in his house mysteriously went out.

2. SIR BRUCE INGHAM

Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb, gave a paperweight to his friend Ingham as a gift. The paperweight appropriately (or perhaps quite inappropriately) consisted of a mummified hand wearing a bracelet that was supposedly inscribed with the phrase, "cursed be he who moves my body." Ingham's house burned to the ground not long after receiving the gift, and when he tried to rebuild, it was hit with a flood.

3. GEORGE JAY GOULD

Gould was a wealthy American financier and railroad executive who visited the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1923 and fell sick almost immediately afterward. He never really recovered and died of a pneumonia a few months later.

4. AUBREY HERBERT

It's said that Lord Carnarvon's half-brother suffered from King Tut's curse merely by being related to him. Aubrey Herbert was born with a degenerative eye condition and became totally blind late in life. A doctor suggested that his rotten, infected teeth were somehow interfering with his vision, and Herbert had every single tooth pulled from his head in an effort to regain his sight. It didn't work. He did, however, die of sepsis as a result of the surgery, just five months after the death of his supposedly cursed brother.

5. HUGH EVELYN-WHITE

Evelyn-White, a British archaeologist, visited Tut's tomb and may have helped excavate the site. After seeing death sweep over about two dozen of his fellow excavators by 1924, Evelyn-White hung himself—but not before writing, allegedly in his own blood, "I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to disappear."

6. AARON EMBER

American Egyptologist Aaron Ember was friends with many of the people who were present when the tomb was opened, including Lord Carnarvon. Ember died in 1926, when his house in Baltimore burned down less than an hour after he and his wife hosted a dinner party. He could have exited safely, but his wife encouraged him to save a manuscript he had been working on while she fetched their son. Sadly, they and the family's maid died in the catastrophe. The name of Ember's manuscript? The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

7. RICHARD BETHELL

Bethell was Lord Carnarvon's secretary and the first person behind Carter to enter the tomb. He died in 1929 under suspicious circumstances: He was found smothered in his room at an elite London gentlemen's club. Soon after, the Nottingham Post mused, "The suggestion that the Hon. Richard Bethell had come under the ‘curse’ was raised last year, when there was a series of mysterious fires at it home, where some of the priceless finds from Tutankhamen’s tomb were stored." No evidence of a connection between artifacts and Bethell's death was established, though.

8. SIR ARCHIBALD DOUGLAS REID

Proving that you didn't have to be one of the excavators or expedition backers to fall victim to the curse, Reid, a radiologist, merely x-rayed Tut before the mummy was given to museum authorities. He got sick the next day and was dead three days later.

9. JAMES HENRY BREASTED

Breasted, another famous Egyptologist of the day, was working with Carter when the tomb was opened. Shortly thereafter, he allegedly returned home to find that his pet canary had been eaten by a cobra—and the cobra was still occupying the cage. Since the cobra is a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, and a motif that kings wore on their headdresses to represent protection, this was a rather ominous sign. Breasted himself didn't die until 1935, although his death did occur immediately after a trip to Egypt.

10. HOWARD CARTER

Carter never had a mysterious, inexplicable illness and his house never fell victim to any fiery disasters. He died of lymphoma at the age of 64. His tombstone even says, "May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness." Perhaps the pharaohs saw fit to spare him from their curse.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Scientists Discover a Mysterious Void in the Great Pyramid of Giza
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iStock

The Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest in all of Egypt, was built more than 4500 years ago as the final resting place of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), who reigned from 2509 to 2483 BCE. Modern Egyptologists have been excavating and studying it for more than a century, but it's still full of mysteries that have yet to be fully solved. The latest discovery, detailed in a new paper in the journal Nature, reveals a hidden void located with the help of particle physics. This is the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

The ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, has been using noninvasive scanning technology like laser imaging to understand Egypt's Old Kingdom pyramids. This discovery was made using muon tomography, a technique that generates 3D images from muons, a by-product of cosmic rays that can pass through stone better than similar technology based on x-rays, like CT scans. (Muon tomography is currently used to scan shipping containers for smuggled goods and image nuclear reactor cores.)

The ScanPyramids team works inside Khufu's Pyramid
ScanPyramids

The newly discovered void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it: the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long, 26-foot-high inner area of the pyramid that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi said in a press briefing. Its size and shape were confirmed by three different muon tomography techniques.

They aren't sure what it would have been used for yet or why it exists, or even if it's one structure or multiple structures together. It could be a horizontal structure, or it could have an incline. In short, there's a lot more to learn about it.

In the past few years, technology has allowed researchers to access parts of the Great Pyramid never seen before. Several robots sent into the tunnels since the '90s have brought back images of previously unseen areas. Almost immediately after starting to examine the Great Pyramid with thermal imaging in 2015, the researchers discovered that some of the limestone structure was hotter than other parts, indicating internal air currents moving through hidden chambers. In 2016, muon imaging indicated that there was at least one previously unknown void near the north face of Khufu's pyramid, though the researchers couldn't identify where exactly it was or what it looked like. Now, we know its basic structure.

A rendering shows internal chambers within the Great Pyramid and the approximate structure of the newly discovered void.
ScanPyramids

"These results constitute a breakthrough for the understanding of Khufu's Pyramid and its internal structure," the ScanPyramids team writes in Nature. "While there is currently no information about the role of this void, these findings show how modern particle physics can shed new light on the world's archaeological heritage."

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