Romancing the Stone

An Egyptologist explains the Rosetta stone's lasting allure

(Eric Jaffe)

Nearly two centuries after a Frenchman decoded hieroglyphs on an ancient granite stone, opening the proverbial door into the arts, language and literature of Egypt's 3,000-year-old civilization, the allure of the Rosetta stone has yet to fade. Egyptologist John Ray of Cambridge University, the author of a new book, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, explains why.

Today, many people regard the Rosetta stone as little more than a metaphor. How is it that the actual artifact retains its significance?

I think the Rosetta stone is really the key, not simply to ancient Egypt; it's the key to decipherment itself. You've got to think back to before it was discovered. All we knew about the ancient world was Greece, Rome and the Bible.

We knew there were big civilizations, like Egypt, but they'd fallen silent. With the cracking of the Rosetta stone, they could speak with their own voice and suddenly whole areas of history were revealed.

The stone was discovered by the French during a battle with the British in Egypt in 1799 and taken to the tent of General Jacques Menou. When was the stone's significance fully understood?

Even Menou, and some of the people with him, understood it. Napoleon took with him not only soldiers and engineers, but a whole team of scholars.

Now some of the scholars were in the tent with Menou and they could read the Greek. The Greek text is at the bottom of the Rosetta stone. At the very end of the Greek text, it says copies of this decree are written in hieroglyphs and in demotic—which is the language of ordinary Egyptians of that time—and in Greek, and will be placed in every temple.

So that was the "eureka" moment? If you could read the Greek, you could decipher the other two languages?

The Greek text was saying that the funny hieroglyphs at the top of the Rosetta stone said the exact same thing as the Greek text. Suddenly there was a very strong hint that the Rosetta stone was the key.

Did the decoding of the stone instantly open up a window on an entire ancient culture? Did ancient Egypt and all its literature suddenly emerge as a kind of open book, there for the translating?

About Beth Py-Lieberman
Beth Py-Lieberman

Beth Py-Lieberman is the museums editor, covering exhibitions, events and happenings at the Smithsonian Institution. She has been a member of the Smithsonian team for more than two decades.

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