Only July 15, 1799 Captain Pierre-François Bouchard, with Napoleon in Egypt, discovered a dark stone in the ruins of Fort St. Julien near the coastal city of Rosetta (Arabic: رشيد Rašīd, French: Rosette), 65 kilometers east of Alexandria, on which was carved a decree from the Ptolemaic period in 196 BCE passed by a council of priests.
This stone was later understood to be one of a series of Ptolemaic decrees issued over the reign of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 305 BCE to 30 BCE, and put up in major temple complexes in Egypt. The Rosetta Stone affirmed the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V as a living god on the first anniversary of his coronation. The decree was written in Egyptian Demotic script (the native script used for daily purposes), in classical Greek (the language of the administration), and in Egyptian hieroglyphs (suitable for a priestly decree).
Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt had been established by the first Ptolemy, known as Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander's generals. Ignorant of the Egyptian language, the Ptolemies required their officials to speak
Greek and made Greek the language of their administration, a requirement that remained in effect throughout their dynasty which lasted for a thousand years. During their rule the Ptolemies made their capital city, Alexandria, the most advanced cultural center in the Greek-speaking world, for centuries second only to Rome. Among their most famous projects were the Royal Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse, or Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Perhaps an indirect result of the Ptolemaic dynasty's replacement of hieroglyphics by Greek among the educated non-priestly class was that most educated Egyptians gradually lost the ability to read their ancient pictographic language. However, a more direct cause of this loss may have been the centuries of Muslim rule following the Ptolemies, under which the priests who retained the use of hieroglyphs were eliminated. Reconstructing knowledge of the ancient hieroglyphic language eventually became one of the greatest and most challenging problems for archeologists and linguists.
After its discovery in 1799 the three approximately parallel texts on the Rosetta Stone became key pieces of evidence in the research by Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young, culminating in Jean-François Champollion's translation of the hieroglyphic text on the stone in 1822.
The first publication on the Rosetta Stone was Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy's, pamphlet: Lettre au Citoyen Chaptal . . . au sujet de l'inscription Égyptienne du monument trouvé à Rosette (Paris, 1802). In this brief work illustrated with one transcription of a portion of the stone, the orientalist and linguist Sacy, a teacher of Champollion, made some progress in identifying proper names in the demotic inscription. Within the same year another student of Sacy, the Swedish diplomat and orientalist, Johan David Åkerblad published another "lettre" in which described how he had managed to identify all proper names in the demotic text in just two months.
"He could also read words like "Greek", "temple" and "Egyptian" and found out the correct sound value from 14 of the 29 signs, but he wrongly believed the demotic hieroglyphs to be entirely alphabetic. One of his strategies of comparing the demotic to Coptic later became a key in Champollion's eventual decipherment of the hieroglyphic script and the Ancient Egyptian language" (Wikipedia article on Johan David Akerblad, accessed 12-27-2012).
"At some period after its arrival in London, the inscriptions on the stone were coloured in white chalk to make them more legible, and the remaining surface was covered with a layer of carnauba wax designed to protect the Rosetta Stone from visitors' fingers. This gave a dark colour to the stone that led to its mistaken identification as black basalt. These additions were removed when the stone was cleaned in 1999, revealing the original dark grey tint of the rock, the sparkle of its crystalline structure, and a pink vein running across the top left corner. Comparisons with the Klemm collection of Egyptian rock samples showed a close resemblance to rock from a small granodiorite quarry at Gebel Tingar on the west bank of the Nile, west of Elephantine in the region of Aswan; the pink vein is typical of granodiorite from this region. The Rosetta Stone is now 114.4 centimetres (45 in) high at its highest point, 72.3 cm (28.5 in) wide, and 27.9 cm (11 in) thick. It weighs approximately 760 kilograms (1,700 lb). It bears three inscriptions: the top register in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the second in the Egyptian demotic script, and the third in Ancient Greek. The front surface is polished and the inscriptions lightly incised on it; the sides of the stone are smoothed, but the back is only roughly worked, presumably because this would have not been visible when it was erected" (Wikipedia article Rosetta Stone, accessed 06-10-2011).
♦ When I revised this database entry in October 2012 I noted that the Rosetta Stone was the most widely viewed object in the British Museum. Reflective of this intense interest, the British Museum shop then offered a remarkably wide range of products with the Rosetta Stone motif, ranging from umbrellas, to coffee mugs, mousepads, neckties, and iPhone cases.