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The Rosetta stone: 1799

In July 1799 French troops are demolishing an old wall at Rashid, a village near the mouth of the Nile known to Europeans as Rosetta, when they find built into it a slab of black basalt with an inscribed text in three scripts. One is Greek, the other two are Egyptian.

Pierre Bouchard, the officer in change of the party, recognizes the potential value of the Greek text in the task of deciphering the hieroglyphs. The stone is taken to Cairo and is placed in an institute founded by Napoleon. Copies of its inscriptions are made by two lithographers brought out to Egypt in Napoleon's scientific section. These copies are distributed to leading scholars in European countries.


When Egypt falls into British hands in 1801, the stone is one of the treasures taken from the French. By the end of 1802 it is in the British Museum.

Nevertheless, if the French are physically deprived of their precious rarity, the honour of unravelling its secrets finally goes to a Frenchman. Many scholars do much of the preliminary work (in particular Thomas Young), but Jean François Champollion in 1822 is the first to decipher the hieroglyphs in a scientific manner which can be applied to other texts. The inscription, in Greek and two Egyptian scripts (hieroglyphic and demotic), dates from 196 BC. It describes the honours bestowed on the pharaoh, Ptolemy V, by the temples of Egypt in return for their listed privileges.


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