Reading the past with the Rosetta Stone

The British Museum is one of my favourite museums in the world. Yet, like many museums in the western world, the British Museum should probably return some of the artefacts to their country of origin.

One of these is the Rosetta Stone, a stele from 196 BC. It belongs, if not in Rosetta, at least in Egypt. I think it would be marvellous in Alexandria, in the new Biblioteca Alexandrina.

Reading the past

Discovered 212 years ago in the present-day town of el-Rashid (near Alexandria) by Napoleon’s soldiers, the black granite stone was surrendered to Britain after his defeat. The British Museum has been its home since 1802.

The Rosetta Stone transgresses the boundaries of time and promotes human understanding.

When French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion translated the text, he solved one of the world’s great mysteries: how to read the hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians.

The Rosetta Stone, you see, is written in three scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic and classical Greek. Why? Well, hieroglyphic was the script of kings, demotic the everyday script and Greek the administrative language of the time.

The stele relates a decree issued during the reign of 13-year-old king Ptolemy V. The full translation of the demotic text of the Rosetta Stone is here (be warned, it’s a bit long).

I always end up spending forever in front of this stone, wondering who might have carved it. Would he have known the significance of his work?

Just think how much less we would have known today, had it not been for this single rock.

What is your favourite museum piece?


41 Responses to “Reading the past with the Rosetta Stone”

  1. Green Beauty Girl 2 September 2011 0506 #

    Yes, it is amazing how much one stone can reveal. The Egyptian pyramids is one set of stones that are utterly astonishing. The precision of these structures are so precise, it definitely tells us a great deal about history.

  2. Italian Notes 2 September 2011 0831 #

    Fascinating story. Makes you thankful for the invention of the keyboard.

  3. Kerry Dexter 2 September 2011 1131 #

    thanks for the photo and post, Sophie. it’s good to be reminded how much we know has come from the Rosetta Stone and those who figured out how to translate it.

    one of my favortie museum pieces is a pair of shoes said to belong to Saint Bridgid, in the National Museum in Dublin. probaly time for me to write a post about that…

  4. Klara 2 September 2011 1448 #

    luckily the ancient people didn’t write on paper, in this case we won’t have any written resources from the alexandra library, because of the fire. And thanks to Mr Champollion we already can translate it. It’s interresting, that he had transleted the whole text, altough it was in 3 different scripts in it. the hierogliphic, the hieratic and the demothic characters were for the readers of any social place.

  5. Lisa 2 September 2011 1509 #

    The Rosetta Stone is truly an amazing museum piece. It will be interesting to see in the coming years if The British Museum returns it or any of the other pieces whose ownership is in dispute to their countries of origin.

  6. Anne Patrone 2 September 2011 1557 #

    Fabulous photos, but not completely sure artifacts should always go back to the country of origin- still shuddering over the destruction of so many artifacts in Afghanistan when the taliban took over. Favorite museum? The Met in NY

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 September 2011 1615 #

      @Anne – Fair point. There are two sides to that discussion, at least. And what taliban did to the Buddahs at Bamiyan and other artefacts hardly bears thinking about. One can certainly argue the security of invaluable artefacts.

      Now going way beyond your point, Anne: I don’t think we should assume that non-Western countries automatically can’t take care of their cultural property, that they’d be stolen and sold off to private collectors. Another argument I don’t agree with is that these important artefacts belong to the world, and should remain where they are. The fact is, Western nations looted and just because time has passed, doesn’t mean the goods should no longer be considered stolen goods.

  7. I am embarrassed to say that I have never actually heard the history behind the Rosetta Stone. Thanks for sharing it with us today.


  8. Ana 2 September 2011 1643 #

    I agree with the opening paragraph. It was my first reaction every time I visited the great museums of the world.

    I was so excited to see the Rosetta Stone in person! As I was the first time I saw the Hammurabi Code at the Louvre. How wonderful is it that we get to see these legendary objects?

  9. wandering educators 2 September 2011 2021 #

    great photo – and i love the rosetta stone. we have a REALLY hard puzzle that we haven’t been able to finish, of this. it’s 1,000 pieces and it is hard to tell which language is which, on tiny puzzle pieces.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 September 2011 2100 #

      @Jessie – Wow, a 1000-piece pizzle of the Rosetta Stone! That’s quite impressive. Finishing that, you could probably translate like Champollion :).

  10. Nicole at Arrows Sent Forth 2 September 2011 2127 #

    My husband and I could have spent our entire trip to London in the British Museum. Amazing place!

  11. Jessica 3 September 2011 2304 #

    Love the description you wrote for this post! Of course, it makes me think of the Easter Island sculpture that is right near the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. I will always remember that because my jet lagged kids stood there and said “Dum, dum, me want gum, gum” from Night at the Museum and laughed hysterically. After that, I just couldn’t get them interested in the Rosetta Stone. 🙂

  12. robin 4 September 2011 1118 #

    Yes, I would take issue with Anne here – Egypt is not Afghanistan and is pretty much at the forefront of archaeology and conservation. There would seem to be very little argument to support the position that stolen property should remain where it is in European and American museums.

    Also, probably the worst losses the world has experienced recently in relation to valuable artifacts of heritage was due to the looting and vandalism of Iraq’s museums, and that took place at a time when US and coalition forces were responsible for their safekeeping, so it can very convincingly be argued that, in our time, the West’s track record is the worst of all.

    Iraq is the cradle of civilisation and we lost so much there.

  13. Graham GlobalGrasshopper 4 September 2011 1242 #

    I also love the British Museum. It has an amazing collection (controversial I know), but is free to view, and is inspiring for so many kids. As a designer and typographer, I have a soft spot for the Rosetta stone symbols 😉

  14. InsideJourneys 4 September 2011 1659 #

    It would be great it artifacts could be returned so people in the areas where they were found could also get to see and appreciate them.
    I wonder, though, if the Rosetta Stone would have gained the popularity it has. Would it have become part of the English lexicon? Probably.
    I’ll put it on my list for the next time I go to London.
    Thanks for this post.

  15. Abby 4 September 2011 1818 #

    The mystery is certainly astounding! I remember seeing the Stone for the first time as a child. It really is amazing.

  16. jenjenk 4 September 2011 2229 #

    gosh – i can’t believe i still haven’t seen the rosetta stone! I’ll have to remember that the next time i’m in london!

  17. Christina 4 September 2011 2247 #

    As a person fascinated with languages I love the Rosetta Stone. The British Museum is my second favourite London museum, after the V&A, and I could marvel at all their things all day long, especially in the Japanese section – all the swords and clothes!

  18. Vera Marie Badertscher 5 September 2011 0055 #

    I would like to spend at least a week in the British Museum. And although I don’t think that museums need to return EVERYTHING from other cultures, I believe the British Museum bases their decisions on economics rather than moral principles. The Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon marbles, for instance, draw thousands of dollars from people paying for audio guides and buying replicas, etc. If the museum was looking at what was RIGHT, the Parthenon marbles would immediately go back to the fantastic new Acropolis Museum in Athens because they are so closely tied to the Greek identity.
    I did a whole week’s series on the Parthenon at A Traveler’s Library when the new Acropolis Museum opened. Yes, I feel strongly on that one!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 5 September 2011 0340 #

      @Vera Marie – Yes, the marbles are an excellent example. No reason they should remain in the British Museum. I’ll certainly have a look at your Parthenon series.

  19. inka 5 September 2011 0629 #

    I always try to imagine what Mr. Champellion must have felt when he was finally able to decipher the text and it emerged before his eyes.Like you, I have looked at the Rosetta stone many times.

  20. The Travel Chica 5 September 2011 1522 #

    When I saw this, I had to fight the crowds to even get a glimpse of it.

  21. Turkey's For Life 6 September 2011 0904 #

    I’ve never been to the British Museum but there are many really important artefacts in there from this area of Turkey that I suspect Turkey would like returned…
    Would love to see the Rosetta Stone though.

  22. Barbara - The Dropout Diaries 6 September 2011 1201 #

    I spent a wonderful day at the British Museum too. It was a quiet day, no other tourists in the Rosetta Stone section. I stood in front of the stone and thought “wow, I can’t believe I’m looking at the real Rosetta Stone. It’s amazing.”

    And then after five minutes I realised I was looking at a replica. The real Rosetta Stone was about five metres away, much smaller and not so impressive-looking.

  23. Sherry 6 September 2011 1304 #

    While I don’t necessarily disagree with you about museums returning some of the artifacts to their country of origin, I don’t completely agree either. I think having certain artifacts in different museums of the world helps promote curiousity in people and may even motivate them to go to the places where the artifacts came from. I wonder how many people would actually have been able to see this marvel if it was elsewhere other than The British Museum. I would love to see it personally one day and like you, I would probably spend forever mesmerized in front of it, too.

  24. David @ MalaysiaAsia 6 September 2011 1907 #

    I’ve always loved the British Museum as they showcase some of the best items in the world. Last time there, I saw an Egyptian mummy on display.

  25. Andrea 7 September 2011 1841 #

    I was at the British Museum so long ago that this is all I actually remember about it but it’s a pretty amazing thing to remember!

  26. Muza-chan 8 September 2011 0209 #

    Very interesting, I was fascinated by Champollion’s work since I was a kid…

  27. RyukyuMike 8 September 2011 0624 #

    OOPS ! I #TPT’d the wrong post. Reckon it won’t hurt to do this one, too.
    Never been to this museum but, love snooping through it online !

  28. Denise 8 September 2011 0822 #

    I must admit that the first I visited the museum, I was filled with disgust, as I knew that a lot of the artifacts there had been stolen. They are beautiful, but, come on, all the Athen’s parthenon freezes in London, reconstructed in a room, instead of in the real thing?

  29. Nancie 8 September 2011 0945 #

    I would love to see this. I have seen an exhibit from the British Museum in Seoul. It was fantastic, but too short. When I was in China last year I saw the Terracotta Warriors, and the are amazing. I can also remember being in Amsterdam many years ago and seeing Rembrandt’s Night Watch…..I was in awe! Just last year there was a huge Rodin exhibit and I got to see The Thinker….AMAZING! I think I stood and stared for an hour.

  30. Cheryl 8 September 2011 1246 #

    Like Nancie, I too would love to see this. I hope to someday get a chance. You’re right, the artifact should be returned to it’s rightful country. Hopefully that will happen someday!

  31. Laurel 8 September 2011 1636 #

    Such an interesting story, it now makes sense why Rosetta Stone is the name of such a popular language learning program.

  32. Cathy Sweeney 8 September 2011 2046 #

    You might be right that it belongs in Egypt, but I hope it doesn’t move until I get a chance to see it. I’ll probably be in London next before Egypt. Thanks for the history, too. Very interesting.

  33. Michael Figueiredo 8 September 2011 2347 #

    How fascinating! I’d love to see the Rosetta Stone someday.

  34. Jessica 18 October 2011 1150 #

    The Rosetta Stone is truly an amazing museum piece. I also wanted to know who might have carved the stone. It will be interesting to see in the coming years if The British Museum returns it or any of the other pieces whose ownership is in dispute to their countries of origin.

  35. Louise 18 December 2011 2349 #

    The Rosetta stone is a fascinating piece of work. I read about it here a while ago and decided to have a closer look, which I finally did today. I must have hit a quiet moment, because I had the stone all to myself for quite a while and found myself daydreaming in front of it for ever. Very enjoyable. Thanks again for bringing it to my attention!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 December 2011 1755 #

      @Louise – Wow, how lucky to have it to yourself. Very happy I could help 🙂

  36. Osiris Tours 13 April 2016 1815 #

    What an amazing experience. Thank you for sharing.
    Here is a little bit about the history of this amazing piece:

    In 1822, Champollion was able to deciphered Rosetta stone and read hieroglyphics for the first time. Because of this great man, we are now able to read and study all the amazing hieroglyphics in the Egyptian temples and tombs.
    After many years of living in Luxor and studying the Rosetta stone and other examples of ancient Egyptian writings in Luxor temples and tombs, Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics in 1822.
    The Rosetta stone was carved in 196 B.C.; and was found by the French soldiers in 1801. It is a stone with writing on it with 2 languages (Greek and Ancient Egyptian) using 3 scripts (Greek, hieroglyphic, and Demotic).
    The Greek script was the language of Egypt rulers at that time, the Hieroglyphic that was the script that used for religious documents by ancient Egyptians, and the Demotic, which was the common script of Egypt.
    The text on the Rosetta stone was written by the Egyptian priests to honor the Egyptian pharaoh, it lists all of things that the pharaoh has done that are good for the ancient Egyptian god, priests, and the people of Egypt.
    The Rosetta stone was written in all 3 scripts so the priests, government officials, and rulers of Egypt could read what it said.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 22 April 2016 1519 #

      Thanks for the added info 🙂

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