Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Philosophy of Science blog (David Petersen)

Thanks very much to David for letting me know that I had missed the anniversary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone on 19th July :-) Never mind. Have a look at David's blog above for a summary of its discovery and significance. Here's an extract:

Today, 210 years ago the Rosetta Stone [196 BC] was discovered and Thomas Young and Jean-Fran├žois Champollion around 1822 began to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs based on comparative adjacent languages of Egyptian Demotic and classical Greek.
The Writer's Almanac

It was on this day in 1799 that French soldiers discovered a slab of rock — about 4 feet high and 2 and half feet wide, 11 inches thick and weighing 1,700 pounds, and containing some writing in three different languages — at a port town on Egypt's Mediterranean Coast.

What they found was the Rosetta Stone, and the three scripts were ancient Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphics. Scholars could read and understand the ancient Greek. The second script, demotic, was an Egyptian language that was spoken and written at the time that the Rosetta Stone was carved in 196 B.C. It shared similarities with Coptic Egyptian, which was spoken widely until the 17th century A.D. (not so long before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone), had a strong literary tradition, and used an adapted Greek alphabet for writing — all things that proved useful in understanding bits and pieces of the Demotic script.

But Egyptian hieroglyphics had been a "dead" language for nearly 2,000 years. All around Egypt there abounded pyramids and temples with thousands of hieroglyphic characters carved into the walls, but no one could figure out what the inscriptions meant.

The Rosetta Stone presented scholars with an opportunity to be able to decipher the hieroglyphic language. It took nearly a quarter century of steady scholarship to solve the puzzle.

You can never get near the thing at the British Museum. It is always surrounded by huge gaggles of tour groups with their tour leaders.

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