What’s the story behind the Rosetta Stone?
When most people think of the Rosetta Stone, the first thing that comes to mind is the language learning software packages. No wonder, their bright yellow boxes with their name and oddly shaped blue logo are nearly ubiquitous. Not to turn this blog into an ad for the product (unless of course you’re from the company in which case please feel free to offer cash or product), but I’ve heard many great things about the software (although where’s the Welsh and Armenian?) My brother, who admittedly is a more gifted linguistic than I, swears by their Russian and Arabic programs. No, what I wanted to talk about was their name and logo. What’s the connection between them and a suite of software programs for learning foreign languages?
Some of you may know the story, but you may not know all of it. As part of his effort to outflank the British and threaten their hold on India, in 1798 Napoleon occupied Egypt. To keep the British navy off the Nile, which would have spelled the end of the whole operation, the French seized a string of Ottoman forts. Originally built by the Mamluk Sultan Qait Bey in the 15th century, the Ottomans had done little to upgrade them for modern 18th century warfare. With a British counterstrike imminent, Napoleon’s engineers hastily upgraded the forts.
During the reconstruction of Fort Julien, near the town of Rosetta at the mouth of the Nile, Pierre-Francois Bouchard uncovered a stele. A stele is typically a stone slab that’s taller than it is wide. They were used throughout the ancient world (Middle East, China, the Mediterranean, and Central America) to denote boundaries, commemorate events, or mark sacred areas. Apparently, Qait Bey’s engineers appropriated it, probably from a temple in nearby Sais, to use in their original construction. The stele was inscribed with a decree issued in 196 BC by Ptolemy V. The message, which concerns restoring tax privileges to temple priests, isn’t what makes the discovery so important. The stele was inscribed in three scripts: one in Ancient Greek, another in Demotic script, and the topmost section in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Scholars quickly recognized (1799) that the scripts were different versions of the same text. The first translation of the Greek appeared in 1803, but it took until 1822 for Jean-Francois Champollion’s transliteration of the Egyptian scripts. Several other Egyptian steles with multi-lingual inscriptions have since been discovered, but the Rosetta stone was the key to our understanding of Ancient Egyptian.
How did the Rosetta Stone end up in London? The cement used in the hastily rebuilt forts did not have time to fully cure, which allowed the British to breach their walls with smaller cannons and the fort, along with the Rosetta Stone, fell on 19 April 1801.
I liked this little factoid so much, that I incorporated it into one of my favorite scenes in Misaligned: The Celtic Connection. Below is an excerpt from a conversation between Ms. Morgan, who’s searching for an ancient Welsh text to use against Penny (the protagonist) and a shady antiquities dealer known only as Boethius.
“Fair enough, but what makes you believe I can help you?” asked Boethius.
“Your reputation stands above the others in your field,” she answered. This brought the deepest smile yet to the face of Boethius. Yes, she thought, a little flattery never hurt, especially with men whose egos were as strong as that of Boethius. “I was hoping you might find something in these references that I have missed or haven’t understood.”
“Ah, you’re looking for a Rosetta stone moment.”
In most cases when people compared something to the Rosetta stone discovery, they were overstating their case. The Rosetta stone was one of the greatest archeological finds of all time. In 1799, a French soldier discovered a stele inscribed with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic script, and ancient Greek. Since all three inscriptions were the same text, it provided the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone was captured by the English when they defeated the French in 1801 and has been in the British Museum since 1802, where it is the most visited object. This time she agreed with the comparison. If anything, it understated the importance of finding a copy of Cyfnodau. The book would provide the key to granting her access to time travel.
Of course, she couldn’t share those thoughts with Boethius, so she simply nodded her head silently, again playing to his ego.
“I don’t know whether I can help you or not, but I will try. Mind you, it will cost you either way.” He paused a moment waiting for her acknowledgement.
Again she reached into her pocket, but this time she pulled out an envelope, which she placed on the table. She opened the envelope, took out £500, placed it on the table and passed the bills across to Boethius.
He stared down at the stack of notes and without picking them up said, “I’m afraid you’re a bit short. The going rate is £1,000.”
“Perhaps, but I’m offering you £500 now and the second half after I hear your information.”
“Not too trusting, are you? I won’t pretend to be insulted. Frankly I don’t have a great deal to share with you, but I trust you will find it useful.”
Thanks for reading.
Links for more information on Misaligned: The Celtic Connection (note the link to Amazon is via my affiliate with them)