What Discovery Was the Key Needed to Read Ancient Egyptian Writing?

The Rosetta Stone made translation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs possible.
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For more than 1,000 years, the hieroglyphics inscribed on ancient Egyptian tombs and temples were indecipherable to the world. Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics as a formal form of writing and developed several other scripts for daily purposes, but these languages fell out of use so quickly that they were essentially forgotten. Without the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptologists would likely still be struggling to translate hieroglyphs and other ancient Egyptian writing.

1 History of Hieroglyphs

Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics for millennia while simultaneously developing less complicated script -- now known as demotic script -- for everyday use. Near the end of the fourth century, the use of these scripts ceased completely and was replaced with the Coptic language, a script consisting primarily of Greek letters with six additional characters representing Egyptian vocalizations not used in Greek. By the 11th century, Coptic was replaced by Arabic, making ancient Egyptian language obsolete and largely ignored until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone 700 years later.

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2 Written in Stone

Priests inscribed the Rosetta Stone with a decree praising King Ptolemy V for the contributions he made to the temples, in honor of the anniversary of his coronation. Napoleon’s troops discovered the stone in 1799 while building a fort outside of Rashid. The Rosetta Stone was the key to understanding hieroglyphs because the decree was inscribed in three different languages: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, a demotic script common at the time of its inscription -- during the Ptolemaic period, 196 B.C. -- and Greek, a language still understood.

3 Cracking the Code

An English physicist, Thomas Young, was first to identify the name Ptolemy on the Rosetta Stone. However, he struggled to fully translate the stone because he was under the assumption that the hieroglyphic pictures represented complete ideas. It was only once Jean-Francois Champollion recognized that some hieroglyphs represented sounds constituting only part of a word that the writing on the stone was translated completely. Champollion used his deep understanding of Coptic to assign phonetic sounds to most hieroglyphs and later traveled to Egypt to decipher the writing on several tombs and temples.

4 Preserving History

The Rosetta Stone is on display in the British Museum. It has been there since 1802, when the French were forced to surrender it to the British as a result of the Treaty of Alexandria. It weighs almost three-quarters of a ton and has been cleaned and preserved to remove centuries of oil from human hands and ink from printing processes used to capture the inscription.

Sarah Cairoli began her writing career in 2002, as a reporter for the "High Country Independent Press" in Belgrade, Mont. She then spent two years writing and editing for an online publishing company, and earned her master's degree in English from Northern Arizona University. Cairoli also writes for "Bozeman Magazine."