The Old Stone

Because the Rosetta Stone was (is) a document of a very important decree, it was carved into granite; however, its preservation into the modern era (it was found in 1799) is an accident of circumstance. Without it, we would not have the term “Rosetta stone,” and then where would we be?

Because it is the document of a very important decree, it has a date on it, a date that may have been as important to its readers as July 4, 1776, is to some Americans. The date is given as 18 Meshir during the ninth year of Ptolemy’s reign; that date is March 27, 196 BC.

Because it is a document of a very important decree, a declaration by important priests of Ptolemy’s divinity (to protect and preserve his power during a politically trying period), it was carved in multiple languages. One of the languages is Greek, Ancient Greek, which is a version of Greek that can be studied and translated into contemporary Greek almost completely.

The other languages are Egyptian, and this is the reason the idiomatic expression “Rosetta stone” exists as a phrase in any language: before the discovery of the stone, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, that picture-language that covers so many objects from Egyptian antiquity, were not understood. It is now known that by the 4th Century AD, no one in Egypt could interpret the pictographic language of their ancestors; by 1799, theories for interpreting hieroglyphs abounded, but many scholars had a sneaking suspicion that these were wrong for the most part.

They were correct in that sneaking suspicion.

When the stone was found, its importance was immediately apparent: if the Ancient Greek could be interpreted correctly, then the Ancient Egyptian (non-hieroglyph) section above it could be translated, and then the hieroglyphs at the top of it might finally be readable. Ancient Egypt’s mysterious picture-language might finally be open to reading after almost two millenia of obscurity.

The stone contains huge chunks of all three languages, which is great, but this is also the object’s challenge: it presents pieces of a document. It is a fragment of a much larger obelisk, and none of the remaining sections have been found to complete the texts. As it is, it is a huge object, 44 inches tall by 30 inches wide (at the tallest point and the widest point), three-quarters of a ton in weight, and it gave to its translators 54 lines of the Greek section (some complete, some partial due to it being broken), an almost-complete 32-line-section of Ancient Egyptian (non-hieroglyphs), and most frustrating, only 14 lines of hieroglyphs, all of them incomplete. But this was enough to make a start at translating. There were enough proper names and names of places repeated in the three sections to help.

It took a quarter of a century for the first attempt to be published, by Jean-François Champollion in 1822. Two other (also broken) stones with the same decree were found later, which aided in correcting the translation.

The most complete section is the middle, the Demotic Egyptian section. The demotic script is a rendition of the spoken language of Egypt at the time, like most written languages are. The hieroglyphics are a hybrid of pictures representing concepts and a limited alphabet to present a rendition of speech, and it is not obvious which glyphs are concepts and which are letters. The Rosetta stone gave scholars their first opportunity to read the hieroglyphs, but that almost complete section, the ancient Egyptian, needed translating to do it. Because so much of the decree is made up of Ptolemy’s many titles to establish his supreme importance and legitimate divinity, it reads like a comedy routine of exaggerations and puffery, but because it is all proper names and place names, it helped Champollion and the others immensely.

The British Museum, where the stone rests, provides a translation by R.S. Simpson, and it is laugh-out loud funny, even though young King Ptolemy V probably loved hearing this again and again and again:

[Year 9, Xandikos day 4], which is equivalent to the Egyptian month, second month of Peret, day 18, of the King ‘The Youth who has appeared as King in the place of his Father’, the Lord of the Uraei ‘Whose might is great, who has established Egypt, causing it to prosper, whose heart is beneficial before the gods’, (the One) Who is over his Enemy ‘Who has caused the life of the people to prosper, the Lord of the Years of Jubilee like Ptah-Tenen, King like Pre’, [the King of the Upper Districts and] the Lower Districts ‘The Son of the Father-loving Gods, whom Ptah has chosen, to whom Pre has given victory, the Living Image of Amun’, the Son of Pre ‘Ptolemy, living forever, beloved of Ptah, the Manifest God whose excellence is fine’, son of Ptolemy and Arsinoe, the Father-loving Gods, (and) the Priest of Alexander and the Saviour Gods and [the Brother-and-Sister Gods and the] Beneficent [Gods] and the Father-loving Gods and King Ptolemy, the Manifest God whose excellence is fine, Aetos son of Aetos; while Pyrrha daughter of Philinos was Prize-bearer before Berenice the Beneficent, while Areia daughter of Diogenes was [Basket]-bearer [before Arsi]noe the Brother-loving, and while Eirene daughter of Ptolemy was Priestess of Arsinoe the Father-loving: on this day, a decree of the mr-sn priests and the hm-ntr priests, and the priests who enter the sanctuary to perform clothing rituals for the gods, and the scribes of the divine book and the scribes of the House of Life, and the other priests who have come from the temples of Egypt [to Memphis on] the festival of the Reception of the Rulership by King Ptolemy, living forever, beloved of Ptah, the Manifest God whose excellence is fine, from his father, who have assembled in the temple of Memphis … —Simpson, Demotic Grammar in the Ptolemaic Sacerdotal Decrees (Oxford, 1996), 258-71

You get the idea.

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This first appeared in April 2015.

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