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Rosette Stone on show in 1874

The Rosetta Stone

In the British Museum in London there is a slab of black stone called the Rosetta Stone that is famous worldwide. What is it that makes this piece of stone so famous? The story of the Rosetta Stone starts in Ancient Egypt in 196 BC, in the times of the later Egyptian kings. It is a block of black basalt stone that had lain hidden in the sands of Egypt for many centuries until just over 200 years ago, in the late 18th century, when the French and British were battling for power in Europe.

In May 1798 an expedition under Napoleon Bonaparte sailed from Toulon in southern France, heading for Egypt. It was really a military expedition that was specifically connected with the war against Britain, although of course, Napoleon said he had come to help the Egyptian people!

World politics don’t change do they?

Actually, Napoleon, because of setbacks in his campaigns to dominate Europe, had decided against an invasion of England, but now he hoped that by occupying Egypt, he could damage British trade and its growing empire, especially to threaten British connections with India. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt was however accompanied by a team of scholars, and it was this French occupation of Egypt that led to the finding of more than one important archaeological artifact.

But the British knew what Napoleon was up to and Nelson's fleet attacked and totally destroyed his fleet at Aboukir Bay, in what has gone down in history as the Battle of the Nile, leaving Napoleon himself and the French forces cut off in Egypt! The French were now in a state of siege and they could see the British warships out at sea, so they set about building defensive positions to combat a possible landing of British troops.

Scene from the Battle of the Nile in Napoleonic times.

The year was now 1799 and we go to a small Egyptian town, named Rashid (or Rosetta), situated on a north-west branch of the River Nile, eight miles (13 km) southeast of its entrance into the Mediterranean. Just north of Rosetta, an officer of the French forces, Lieutenant Bouchard was in charge of squads of soldiers building what became known as Fort Saint-Julien.

Diagram map of Rosette in Egypt

As they demolished existing buildings and dug new foundations for their fort, saving what materials they found for re-use, the soldiers started to attack a black slab of stone that was perhaps the doorstep or plinth of an ancient building. As they freed it and levered it over and let it drop, they noticed through the dirt on the other side of the stone that it was covered in strange writing. The officer, Bouchard, was near enough to stop the soldiers smashing it up and brushing away the dust, he could see three forms of writing carefully carved into the slab! It was an irregularly shaped stone of black basalt 114 cm long and 72 cm wide and quite heavy the stone had obviously been misused and bits broken off during the time that had passed from when the lettering had been carved on it. It had been used and possibly re-used a number of times in building works.

The Rosette Stone, British Museum, London.

Black Basalt, by the way is a fine grained volcanic rock, in some cases so fine the mineral grains cannot be seen and it can be polished up to give a smooth attractive surface. This piece of stone became named after the Egyptian village near where it was found - the Rosetta Stone! This French officer was astute enough to realise that they had found something worth preserving. But without knowing it, he and his soldiers had found a relic that was to unravel a mystery that had taxed the minds of scholars for centuries!

It wasn't long before the French scholars that had come with Napoleon's army came hurrying to Rosetta to have a good look at this find but it wasn't long either before events stopped them in their studies of this artefact!

In 1801 the British forces landed and the French forces, weakened by disease surrendered. Napoleon himself somehow managed to evade the British troops and ships and escape back to France. After the French surrender, and under the terms of the Treaty of Capitulation, the British made the defeated armies and scholars hand over all the objects they had found and at first they demanded all their notebooks and sketchbooks as well! But when the French scholars threatened to burn them, the British allowed them to keep their paper work, but all the objects were to be handed over.

In an act of generosity, the British did allow the French to take plaster casts of many of the objects, including the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone itself and other items were duly handed to the British authorities, shipped to England, and given into the care of the British Museum in 1802. So now the British had the real stone and the French had the plaster cast impressions of this writing on the Rosetta Stone, and the scholars on both sides of the Channel got busy studying the wording.

This ancient Egyptian stone had a number of inscriptions on it of three types but what did all those strange pictures and symbols in the top section mean? The script at the top is "Hieroglyphic" writing. The word "Hieroglyphic" is made up of two Greek words, meaning "sacred" and "carving". The "Hieroglyphic writing" is a system that employs characters in the form of pictures that may be read as pictures, as symbols of pictures or as symbols for sounds! Hieroglyphic writing had been seen and copied by visitors to Egypt previously, but no one had got anywhere in trying to understand it.

Same words in three languages
Unlocked Hieroglyphic words for the first time

The second language on the stone, is an Egyptian script known as "Demotic", that’s from another Greek word "Demotikos", meaning "for the people" or "common use".

The word "Democracy" comes from the same Greek word. This "Demotic" script is a cursive form of the hieroglyphic writing. Cursive means flowing writing, running or coursing, as most of us do when we are handwriting today, flowing the strokes of successive characters, joining them up and rounding them.

This "Demotic" script was used in Egypt in handwritten texts from the early 7th century BC and by the 5th century BC, was in use everywhere in Egypt for business and literary purposes. This style of writing though began to be replaced by the last section of writing on the Rosetta Stone, Greek. This section of writing is in Greek Uncial letters or capitals.

This change to the use of Greek writing came about following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great but it was later, after Alexander's death in 323 BC, when his empire eventually broke up into four parts with each area ruled by the most powerful of his military commanders.

In Egypt, this allowed the setting up in 308 BC of a new ruling dynasty by one of those generals, named Ptolemy. He became King Ptolemy I (Soter). That strangely is what the writing carved on this Rosetta Stone is about. It is about one ruler in this Ptolemaic dynasty. It turns out that it is a copy of a decree issued by an assembly of Egyptian priests in Memphis, to celebrate the anniversary of the coronation of one of the kings of this dynasty, Ptolemy V (Epiphanes 204 - 180 BC)

In Britain and France in the early 19th century, there were plenty of scholars who could read Greek, so it didn't take long to find the reason for the existence of the Rosetta Stone and what it meant. It proved to be a commemorative memorial, carved on stone, as a means to remember something for posterity, just as memorials are still carved in stone nowadays.

But even with those other two types of writing on the stone, nobody knew yet what the Hieroglyphics meant. These on the Rosetta Stone weren’t the first hieroglyphics to be seen, as we have already noted. Samples had been copied and passed to scholars in many countries – but nobody had been able to crack the code, you might say!

But now with these two other languages beside the hieroglyphics, together on the same stone, you would think it would now be easy to see what this mystery Egyptian picture-writing meant! Some had tried to work it out, but didn't get very far, most gave up, but two men didn't.

In England there was a renowned physician and physicist named Thomas Young (famous for establishing the principle of interference of light). Young was also an Egyptologist and in 1814, with the Rosetta Stone readily available to him, he was able to study the texts. After obtaining additional hieroglyphic writings from other sources, he succeeded in providing a nearly accurate translation within a few years and so contributed greatly to deciphering the ancient Egyptian language.

Young noticed that the hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone contained six identical cartouches (oval figures enclosing hieroglyphs) and he deciphered the cartouche as the name of Ptolemy and proved his long held assumption that the cartouches found in other inscriptions were the names of royalty. By noting the direction in which the bird and animal characters faced, Young discovered the way in which hieroglyphic signs were to be read. Unfortunately he never officially published his findings.

On the other side of the English Channel, the other man, a distinguished French scholar named Jean-François Champollion, who it is said, could read six Oriental languages by the age of sixteen, was also one of those who had been trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphic writing for some time. Even though the Rosetta Stone had been handed to the British Museum, Champollion managed to use those plaster cast impressions of the writing on the Rosetta Stone, to get to work on interpreting the whole thing.

In 1821, Champollion, starting where Young left off, began to publish papers on the decipherment of hieratic and hieroglyphic writing based on his study of the Rosetta Stone. Eventually, Champillion managed to work out and publish an entire list of hieroglyphic signs with their Greek equivalents. He was the first Egyptologist to realize that some of the signs were alphabetic, some syllabic, and some determinative, standing for the whole idea or object previously expressed. He also established that the hieroglyphic text of the Rosetta Stone was a translation from the Greek, not, as had been thought, the reverse.

It took him fourteen years, but he did it without ever seeing the stone itself! So by 1822, Champillion published papers that completed the work on the Rosetta Stone started by Young some years earlier. The work of these two men established the basis for the translation of all future Egyptian hieroglyphic texts.

Twenty three years after it was found, the Rosetta Stone at last revealed its secrets! The successful decipherment was the key which then led to the understanding of hieroglyphic writing – which was also found in abundance on many of the Egyptian temples, statues, obelisks and papyri.

And this is what it was, that made this piece of black basalt stone so exciting to Biblical scholars, even though at first it had no seeming connection to the Bible at all! It meant that it was now possible to go back to all those other samples of Hieroglyphic writing in Egypt and interpret what they meant. That now gave the Rosetta Stone a valuable connection to the Bible. It meant that some parts of the Biblical record would now be compared with the Egyptian hieroglyphic records and in some cases confirm the accuracy of the biblical statements.

For example, on the great Egyptian temple at Karnak some of the hieroglyphic writing carved in the stone structures could now be read.

On one section the carvings were found to describe the invasion of the land of Judea by one of the Pharaoh's in the reign of King Rehoboam. Remarkably it describes the same incident that the Bible records, in these words;

"And it happened in the fifth year of King Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem…with twelve hundred chariots, sixty thousand horsemen, and people without number . . . And he took the fortified cities of Judah and came to Jerusalem . . . So Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, and took away the treasures of the house of the LORD and the treasures of the king’s house; he took everything. He also carried away the gold shields which Solomon had made."

  • 2 Chronicles 12. 2-4, 9

These verses and the hieroglyphics carved on the Karnak Temple tell us of the same event, the story of Shishak king of Egypt (Sheshonq I. 945-924 BC) who attacked Israel in 925 BC, taking all the fortified cities, then taking Jerusalem, stripping the temple and the King’s palace of their treasures.

The invasion of Israel by this Pharoah is also confirmed by the finding of another smaller piece of stone at Meggido, one of the cities he conquered. On the stone is a triumphal inscription with the name of Shishak in hieroglyphic symbols carved on it.

The later Rosette Piece

As an aside, this invasion happened not too long after the death of Solomon, and it has been suggested that all the gold the Bible tells us about that Solomon had accumulated during his reign, was now taken down to Egypt, and this could account for the abundance of gold that was used so liberally in Egypt.

But the important part is that the record in hieroglyphic writing, that was indecipherable before, was now as a result of finding the Rosetta Stone, able to verify absolutely a record of the same historical event written in the Bible. This has confirmed the confidence that true Biblical scholars have always had in the Bible’s authenticity.

Other examples on Egyptian buildings and memorials are still being interpreted. Recently Professor Kenneth Kitchen, a renowned Egyptologist, claimed that another sample of hieroglyphic writing at Karnak has also been identified as having the name of King David carved on it. That is being disputed by the Bible's critics, but who knows what else may yet be found among the Egyptian hieroglyphics to further confirm the accuracy of God’s Word ?

As a final point, it is quite possible that there are Israelites mentioned in the Bible, who in their time, could read and understand hieroglyphic writing, one was probably Joseph, who was second only to the Pharaoh of his time, but perhaps more so, Moses. He was, we are told, "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians"

  • Acts 7.22

One could reasonably conclude that his learning and wisdom included a knowledge of hieroglyphic writing.

Ken Dennis
Kent, UK
Source Light on a New World reprint from Volume 20.5
Further information Wikipedia on the Rosetta_Stone

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