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The Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone, which is currently housed in the British Museum in London, is one of the most important artifacts of Ancient Egypt. The value of the Rosetta Stone is in how it helps modern day scholars interpret hieroglyphs.

Discovered by Accident

Soldiers of Napoleon's army came across the Rosetta Stone by chance in 1799. It was discovered near a town called el-Rashid, which is also known as Rosetta in the West. The Rosetta Stone was handed over to the British after they had defeated the French in Egypt. The terms of the subsequent Treaty of Alexandria, in 1801, meant that France was also compelled to hand over other Ancient Egyptian artifacts to the British.

Two Crucial Men

Two men were crucial in realizing the significance of the Rosetta Stone as an archaeological find. It was English physicist Thomas Young who deciphered the name of Ptolemy V on the Rosetta Stone. Ptolemy V was a king of Egypt while still a child, and came to power around two hundred years before the birth of Christ. French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion made an even more important discovery. He realized that being able to understand hieroglyphs would be the same as trying to understand the meanings of words in a foreign language. Being able to understand hieroglyphs would also speed up the process of understanding more about Egyptian culture and history.

On the Rosetta Stone is an inscription, which is a decree. Passed by priests, the decree tells of its confirmation and recognition of Ptolemy as a royal cult. The decree was made relating to the boy-king Ptolemy at the time of his first anniversary as King of Egypt. Priests and the King relied on the goodwill of each other to thrive.

Three Languages

Helpful in deciphering the Rosetta Stone is also the fact that it doesn't just consist of hieroglyphs. As well as being inscribed in hieroglyphic, and the native Egyptian demotic script, it is also inscribed in Greek. The Greek language was used for administrative purposes at this time in Ancient Egypt, and the Ptolemaic dynasty had Greek ancestry. Because Greek was a familiar language, the task of deciphering the hieroglyphs was made significantly easier when it was discovered.

The Rosetta Stone was brought back to the British Museum, where it has remained since 1802, apart from one brief period. During World War One, the Rosetta Stone was removed from the Museum, and then hidden fifty feet beneath a London railway station for two years.

Copyright © Paul Rance/

Ancient Egypt Timeline


3500 BC: Senet, world's oldest (confirmed) board game
3500 BC: Faience, world's earliest known earthenware
3300 BC: Bronze works
3200 BC: Egyptian hieroglyphs fully developed
3200 BC: Narmer Palette, world's earliest known historical document
3100 BC: Decimal system, world's earliest (confirmed) use
3100 BC: Wine cellars, world's earliest known
3100 BC: Mining, Sinai Peninsula
3050 BC: Shipbuilding in Abydos
3000 BC: Exports from Nile to Israel: wine
3000 BC: Copper plumbing
3000 BC: Papyrus, world's earliest known paper
3000 BC: Medical Institutions
2900 BC: Possible steel: carbon-containing iron
2700 BC: Surgery, world's earliest known
2700 BC: Precision Surveying
2700 BC: Uniliteral signs, forming basis of world's earliest known alphabet
2600 BC: Sphinx, still today the world's largest single-stone statue
2600-2500 BC: Shipping expeditions: King Sneferu and Pharaoh Sahure
2600 BC: Barge transportation, stone blocks
2600 BC: Pyramid of Djoser, world's earliest known large-scale stone building
2600 BC: Menkaure's Pyramid & Red Pyramid, world's earliest known works of carved granite
2600 BC: Red Pyramid, world's earliest known 'true' smooth-sided pyramid; solid granite work
2580 BC: Great Pyramid of Giza, the world's tallest structure until AD 1300
2500 BC: Beekeeping
2400 BC: Astronomical Calendar, used even in the Middle Ages for its mathematical regularity
2200 BC: Beer
1860 BC: Possible Nile-Red Sea Canal (Twelfth dynasty of Egypt)
1800 BC: Alphabet, world's oldest known
1800 BC: Berlin Mathematical Papyrus, 2nd order algebraic equations
1800 BC: Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, generalized formula for volume of frustum
1650 BC: Rhind Mathematical Papyrus: geometry, cotangent analogue, algebraic equations, arithmetic series, geometric series
1600 BC: Edwin Smith papyrus, medical tradition traces as far back as c. 3000 BC
1550 BC: Ebers Medical Papyrus, traditional empiricism; world's earliest known documented tumors
1500 BC: Glass-making, world's earliest known
1258 BC: Peace treaty, world's earliest known
1160 BC: Turin papyrus, world's earliest known geologic and topographic map
5th & 4th Century BC (or perhaps earlier): Battle games petteia and seega; possible precursors to Chess

ANCIENT EGYPT BOOKS available through - in association with

Alexandria by Michael Haag 
Michael Haag

Moses and Akhenaten  
Moses and Akhenaten
Ahmed Osman

The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt
Richard H. Wilkinson

Cleopatra and Her Asp  
Cleopatra and Her Asp
Margaret Simpson

ANCIENT EGYPT BOOKS available through - in association with

Product photo How the Great Pyramid Was Built
Craig B. Smith
Product photo Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs : A Practical Guide - A Step-by-Step Approach to Learning Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Janice Kamrin
Product photo The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day
Raymond Faulkner
Product photo Cleopatra
Diane Stanley

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