Friday, October 08, 2010

Rosetta Stone Unlocks Egyptian History (Jason B. Jones)

1822: Jean-Fran├žois Champollion shows a draft translation of the mysterious Rosetta stone and demonstrates to the world how to read the voluminous hieroglyphics left behind by the scribes of ancient Egypt.

The story of the Rosetta stone is one of coruscating intellects and petty rivalries, of ancient mysteries and quite modern imperial politics. The stone dates to 196 B.C., and was recovered in 1799 by a French soldier in Rosetta, aka Rashid, a port on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Discover is a noble word — the stone was part of a wall in a fort!

Despite being an Egyptian artifact, and despite the fact that it was recovered and ultimately translated by the French, the Rosetta stone currently resides in the British Museum, as it has done since 1802.

The importance of the Rosetta stone can’t be overstated: It enabled the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, a skill which had been lost for more than a thousand years. It is a stele, or commemorative slab, announcing a cult of Ptolemy V, who was to be seen as divine.

Such an announcement would have been politically necessary for the 13-year-old Ptolemy, who had already been ruler for 8 years following the death of his parents at the hand of his father’s mistress. The child-king oversaw a land plagued with enemies without and within, and the decree was an attempt on the part of priests and the king to restore stability.

What was so helpful, from a translator’s perspective, about the Rosetta stone was the fact that the decree was written on the stele three times: in hieroglyphics (the formal communication medium of the priests), Egyptian demotic script (the everyday notation used by most of those who could read and write), and Greek (used by the administrative apparatus of Egypt during the Ptolemaic dynasty).

There were, in effect, two key breakthroughs in the translation of the Rosetta stone. The first was by an English polymath, Thomas “Phenomenon” Young (1773-1829), famous for such other discoveries as the wave properties of light, Young’s modulus, and numerous other researches in optics, engineering and medicine.

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