Saturday, September 16, 2017

Romancing the (Rosetta) Stone

The Rosetta Stone. Picture used with the permission and courtesy of the British Museum. (C) Trustees of the British Museum. I have a link to the translation at the end of the piece.  

A brief summary of the story of the Rosetta Stone.

Napoleon kicked off his Egyptian/Syria campaign in June 1798, roughly speaking, with the naval invasion of Malta. The idea for his personal National Lampoon’s Egyptian Vacation came out of POLITICS AND ECONOMICS. (There’s a lot to that point, but honestly, I don’t want to get into it because that’s not the purpose of this post. It is pretty interesting -like most of history- and the French vs British/Ottoman Empire dynamic had severe ramifications some argue are still haunting us today. I wholeheartedly recommend starting your own education on the subject.) 

Where were we…ah yes! A couple of things about Napoleon. 1. He was not short. That’s a complete myth. He was about 5’ 6.5” or 7” tall. Average height for his time. Blame British political propaganda and differences in measurement systems for this nonsense. For context, he would have stood eye-to-eye with Tom Cruise. 2. He liked science*. Remember, he was born in the latter period of The Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. (Now I have Thomas Dolby’s Valley of The Mind’s Eye in my head. Love that song.) So, when he wanted to go Walking in Memphis he brought scientists, historians, and engineers. Granted his army would have had engineers anyway like most large, modern military forces, but these men were also products of their Age. Thus entered Lt. Pierre-Fran├žois Bouchard.

July 19ish, 1799 found Bouchard in modern day Rashid, known then as Rosetta, set with the task of refurbishing a small fort. During the work Bouchard noticed a thick, broken stone embedded in one of the walls. It was covered with writing. That in and of itself was not rare, nor even uncommon in Egypt. Recycling stone from older constructs into new ones was a time-honored practice. What caught his eye, and what could have been easily overlooked or ignored by others, was that part of the writing was in Greek. Bouchard was educated. He knew how to read Greek. The rest of the visible text consisted of Hieroglyphic and Demotic. Two of the several scripts ancient Egyptians used for writing. Here’s the bit that grabbed him by the short and curly fries: it said the message was written in sacred, native, and Greek characters! That meant it was the same message written in Hieroglyphs (sacred script), Demotic (native or average Jane/Joe script), and Greek because the Greeks ruled Egypt when it was carved. Bouchard thought this stone (This Rosetta Stone) important so he let his superiors know about it and what made it special. Good job, Bouchard!

Flash forward a few years. Napoleon lost the war and the Rosetta Stone sits in England eating kippers. Dozens, if not hundreds, of copies of the inscription are made via ink rubbings. They are scattered to the academic corners of Europe with a speed not seen again until the advent of cat videos, leaked celebrity nudes, and political memes.

Thanks, whomever made this. Damn, Agent Smith. You are creepy.

Lots of people worked on the puzzle of Hieroglyphs, though one person is generally given credit for opening the flood gates of time. Having said that, we’re talking about HISTORY. History is a story requiring constant poking with pointy sticks to make sure the plot stays solid. Furthermore, it must be accompanied by thorough delousing to keep the characters free from parasites. There is still some academic debate over how to weigh the contributions of those involved. For example, the sources I used (including but not limited to: Wikipedia, Bob Brier, Ph.D., the BBC, online encyclopedias, and book excerpts from the late 1800’s by E.A.Budge) had conflicting accounts of varying degrees of who did what and how and when and with what! Again, there is someone who gets the primary credit for cracking Hieroglyphs but there was an unaffiliated, unorganized group effort at work so to give 100% credit to only one person is simply not accurate. Therefore, I will present the two people I think deserve most of the credit. Spoiler Alert: I tend to agree with Dr. Brier. 

Get your pointy sticks ready.

Thomas Young (and the Restless). England. 1814

But what are Hieroglyphs, anyway? There was ongoing debate at the time over whether they were a type of alphabet or picture writing. Thomas was a doctor by training. He also enjoyed physics, languages, optics, and listening to Europop. That last one surprised me, too. Anyway, Thomas knew there was an idea floating about that the oval cartouches (from the French word for bullet) might hold the names of kings. So, given the Rosetta Stone was about Ptolemy V, then how could it be picture writing? The symbols within the cartouche were not unique. In fact, they were common glyphs found many times spread out on the Stone amongst the others. That implied they might be letters. That then implied that if it was treated like a substitute cipher (my words) starting with the letters in Ptolemy’s name as a basis, then perhaps the remaining symbols could be matched with their Greek and Demotic counterparts. Such was his thought. Turned out, Young was correct. He was able to figure out what several glyphs sounded like (based on their Greek counterparts) while expanding a bit about what was known about demotic. Sound is important! (For the record, Demotic comes from the Greek root words ‘demos’ from which we get democracy.) Tommy Boy is better known for his work on the fundamental understanding of light and color. Just saying.

Jean-Fran├žois Champollion. France. 1822. 

By all accounts, Champollion was an extremely gifted thinker and linguist. He had a solid grasp of several languages including an ancient language from Egypt called Coptic. For background, Africa contains some of the oldest Christian populations. Perhaps you’ve heard that a small church in Ethiopia holds the Holy Grail? Yeah. That’s a real, centuries old claim by a real, centuries old church. That’s how far back Christianity has roots in Africa. Coptic was and is a language used by Christians in Egypt largely in religious services. It took Egyptian words and wrote them out in Greek using their phonetic equivalents. (This is a simplified explanation, obviously.) So, while Young cracked the walls around what some Hieroglyphs and Demotic letters might sound like and mean, Champollion tore them down and used the debris to build a comfy patio. I must give him props for the difficulty of his work. He took what was known about Egyptian languages and scripts then painstakingly cross referenced possible meanings/translations while comparing possible pronunciations with words from Coptic which could then be compared to Greek and some Arabic- which he was also proficient in. AND! He was only 19 when he started this! 1822 rolled into town to find him gathering his work into the first comprehensive guide to Hieroglyphics. Corrections were made in the following years as more examples of multi-script steles were found; however, it was his own work which made these corrections possible. Ergo, Champollion is considered the Bruce Lee of early Egyptology.  

Sounds about right.

In conclusion: the Rosetta Stone was a gift to Egyptian tourism surpassing even the oversight of the tomb raiders who missed King Tutankhamun’s condo made of stona. It boosted awareness of Egyptian culture worldwide giving birth to the Ankh Necklace industry in order to feed the voracious jewelry needs of countless students, hipsters, New Age guru’s, hippies, and Neil Gaiman fans. Without it, Dr. Zahi Hawass might never have had his fiery exchanges with Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval. I shudder to think of all the Robert Clotworthy (2) voiced ancient alien theories we would have lost had Bouchard turned his gaze at the wrong moment.

In conclusion again: Thanks to the hard work of many and the sharp eye of one the larder of human knowledge received a shipment of discontinued product feared lost forever.

And in final conclusion: Everything you see, hear, touch, and use has a story. Every name in every poisonously boring history text has a story behind it. Better still, everything in history is STILL HAPPENING. That means you, gentle reader, are a cause and an effect. Be a good one. 

Be seeing you, 


The text, carved in 196 B.C. is a gushing ‘thank you’ note to the local Greek ruler Ptolemy V for giving a tax-break to the priests and a few other good works. Or put another way: a special interest group snuggling up to the government. See? There is nothing new under the sun. Tax-breaks in 196 B.C.In all seriousness, it is very poetic.

Want to hear Coptic? Here you go: 

(2) Read my interview with Robert here ---->