What the Rosetta Stone Actually Says

When most of us think of the words “Roset­ta Stone” — or, at least, when those of us past a cer­tain age do — we also think of at-home lan­guage-learn­ing cours­es. This must count as a tri­umph of brand­ing, but not one with­out a gen­uine basis in his­to­ry. For the Roset­ta Stone, the real Roset­ta Stone, did pro­vide human­i­ty with a means of great­ly expand­ing its store of lin­guis­tic knowl­edge. The stone’s text, orig­i­nal­ly carved dur­ing the Hel­lenis­tic peri­od, turned out to be use­ful indeed after the stone’s redis­cov­ery about twen­ty cen­turies lat­er. Its con­tent, and more specif­i­cal­ly its con­tent’s hav­ing been writ­ten three times in three dif­fer­ent scripts, unlocked the mys­tery of Ancient Egypt­ian hiero­glyphs.

But what, exact­ly, is that con­tent? In the video above, you can hear the nature of the Roset­ta Stone’s mes­sage explained by British Muse­um cura­tor Ilona Regul­s­ki. “It was a priest­ly decree that was drawn up on the 22nd of March, 196 BC,” she says. Issued by a coun­cil of priests who’d trav­eled to the ancient cap­i­tal of Mem­phis, it lists “hon­ors that they want to give to the king” Ptole­my V Epiphanes, going so far as “to com­pare him with a god.” These hon­ors include his stat­ue being placed in the tem­ple and car­ried dur­ing pro­ces­sions, his birth­day being cel­e­brat­ed in the tem­ple, and the date of his suc­ces­sion being added to offi­cial doc­u­ments — all of them enu­mer­at­ed in “one big sen­tence.”

The text also stip­u­lates that this decree had to be “writ­ten in stone, in sacred writ­ing, which is hiero­glyphs, in native writ­ing, which is the Demot­ic that we see in the mid­dle, and the writ­ing of the Greeks. And the stele would have to be put up in all impor­tant tem­ples of Egypt,” which means that there would have been many copies all over the coun­try. (And indeed, more have been found since the ini­tial dis­cov­ery in 1799.) Nor is the Roset­ta Stone the only known exam­ple of such a priest­ly decree from Ancient Egypt. More recent research has turned toward the ques­tion of who wrote such texts, as well as who trans­lat­ed them.

“In the time the Roset­ta Stone was inscribed, Egypt was a very mul­ti­cul­tur­al place, with many for­eign­ers and peo­ple who could speak more than one lan­guage,” says Regul­s­ki. “For Egypt­ian priests and scribes, who were work­ing for the cen­tral­ized admin­is­tra­tion for the states, it prob­a­bly would­n’t have been so dif­fi­cult to com­pose the text in Greek and then trans­late it into their own Egypt­ian native lan­guage. In fact, this prob­a­bly would have been eas­i­er for them, because they worked on a dai­ly basis in the Greek lan­guage.” At the time, the task of trans­la­tion would sure­ly have seemed rou­tine, even triv­ial beside the roy­al exal­ta­tion per­formed by the mes­sage itself. But today, when few of us wor­ship kings as gods, we exalt the Roset­ta Stone’s for­got­ten trans­la­tor instead.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The British Muse­um Cre­ates 3D Mod­els of the Roset­ta Stone & 200+ Oth­er His­toric Arti­facts: Down­load or View in Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty

How Schol­ars Final­ly Deci­phered Lin­ear B, the Old­est Pre­served Form of Ancient Greek Writ­ing

The British Muse­um Is Now Open To Every­one: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour and See 4,737 Arti­facts, Includ­ing the Roset­ta Stone

A 4,000-Year-Old Stu­dent ‘Writ­ing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Cor­rec­tions in Red)

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

Learn 48 Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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