Napoleon Bonaparte is a man who is known for being many things: a political leader in the French Revolution, a prominent military figure, but also, less knowingly, indirectly discovered the first Egyptian Hieroglyphs. In 1799, during his Egypt campaign, a group of Napoleon’s army engineers found a slab of stone inscribed with the same message three times, repeated in different languages (Figure 1). The stone’s inscription consisted of Demotic, similar to hieroglyphs but more casual; hieroglyphs, which were mainly used by priests and in formal settings; and ancient greek. Due to the stone containing ancient greek, something which scientists and archaeologists could already understand, the Rosetta Stone became a crucial component in deciphering ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs (The British Museum 2017).
In addition to its clues regarding human literacy, the Rosetta stone aided archaeologists in the significance of symbols and what they have been used for throughout human history. In September of 1822, Jean-François Champollion expressed his achievements in translating the Rosetta Stone, announcing the different hieroglyphs used to identify non-Egyptian rulers. This discovery, along with the fact that alphabetic symbols were used for both Egyptian and foreign names, was vital in the process of being able to read the stone entirely (Scalf n.d.).
Due to the work of Jean-François Champollion, the stone was eventually deciphered and deemed a decree made by a royal council of priests. The decree is part of a succession of sentiments confirming the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V in 196 BC, the first anniversary of his coronation (Scalf n.d.). According to the stone’s inscription, it was meant to be placed in every temple of significance across Egypt (Figure 2). With the knowledge of these sentiments, the stone can be sorted into two different archaeological categories of symbols: establishment of place and regulation of human relations with higher powers (The British Museum 2017). As the stone was meant to be installed inside temples, it provides evidence of the symbolic value the stone holds. In addition to this, rather than solely marking a town or community center, the stone specifically marks places of religious importance, showing its connection to a higher ruling power, specifically royal cults (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 260).
In a society, written symbols are used by individuals to regulate and communicate with people, describe surroundings, organize the whole of society, and pass on accumulated knowledge (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 273). The significance of the Rosetta Stone revolves around language and, therefore, cognitive ability. Symbols of depiction throughout history provide us with one of our most clear understandings of an individual’s or society’s cognition during pre-literate periods (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 272). In biology, a human’s ability to use literary symbols is what cognitively separates us from other species, and this discovery significantly bettered our knowledge regarding the origins of more complex forms of language and literary symbols.
“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Rosetta Stone.” The British Museum. Accessed October 1, 2022. https://www.britishmuseum.org/blog/everything-you-ever-wanted-know-about-rosetta-stone.
Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2018: 252-275.
Scalf, Foy. “The Rosetta Stone: Unlocking the Ancient Egyptian Language.” ARCE. Accessed October 1, 2022. https://www.arce.org/resource/rosetta-stone-unlocking-ancient-egyptian-language.
How do controversies over the rightful ownership of the Rosetta Stone complicate our interpretation of it as an archaeological artifact?
Since 1802, the Rosetta Stone has been housed in the British Museum in London. Due to its cultural value, there have been many urgent requests throughout the past decade to have to stone returned to Egypt, the stone’s original country of origin. When surrounded by such controversy, it blurs the focus of the stone’s original significance in regard to the human development of language and symbols. When the news surrounding the stone revolves mainly around its current location rather than its cultural value, then its archaeological importance tends to be looked over.