How the Rosetta Stone Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey, there.

Candace Gibson: Jane, when you think of ancient Egypt, what comes to mind?

Jane McGrath: Mummies.

Candace Gibson: Mummies?

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Gibson: Very nice. I think of pyramids and Cleopatra with her crazy black eyeliner. I guess everyone wore black eyeliner. It wasn't so crazy. I guess it helped deflect the sun. It served some sort of very practical purpose, it wasn't just cosmetic.

Jane McGrath: Oh, okay.

Candace Gibson: I'm wearing mine today to look cool and super Goth.

Jane McGrath: Not to deflect the sun.

Candace Gibson: Not to deflect the sun. It's kind of wintery and hazy outside today.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's true.

Candace Gibson: The point being that all that we think about ancient Egypt and all the all the Egyptian lore that we know, and everything we know about mummies, and Pharaohs, and Tut, and Cleopatra, and Ramses - we take it for granted, I think. But there was a really long period of time that no one really knew what ancient Egypt was all about. They could see these things with their eyes, but they were mysteries to them.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, and they knew this was a huge civilization, obviously, but we didn't really know the secrets of what happened during the time that it reigned and was so powerful, because the language was forgotten. So the inscriptions that were written about it could not be translated.

Candace Gibson: And language aside, it was almost like the fascination we have today with Mars and outer space and imagining there may be people out there.

Jane McGrath: That's a good analogy.

Candace Gibson: It's popular culture to us because there's no scientific or historical basis. And that's how Egypt was. It was very much a subject of popular culture. And while that may strike you as funny if you're sitting in school today, maybe, and you got a 30-minute lecture about one of the pharaoh's, imagine that back during the time that Napoleon was in power in France, people dabbled in Egypt. People collected parts of Egypt.

Jane McGrath: And they would buy collectors' items from Egypt themselves. And the Egyptians didn't quite know what they were worth.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. And that's the thing we should mention, too. Not even the Egyptians knew what their culture was about. It was all just fun and games, really. You could go into the pyramids and you could find gold or mummies or artifacts and pawn it off and make some change. And that all changed once Napoleon invaded Egypt.

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: That's so funny to me that Egypt and France have such a strong tie as far as deciphering their history, but that's how it went.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's interesting. It's pretty cool, actually to look at what Napoleon did when he was trying to get power over the strategic position where Egypt was. He took his soldiers, but he also took a troop of academics - scientists, chemists, even zoologists. He called them up and said, "This is a super secret mission and just say you're doing this for the good of France. And we're going to study the culture and see what's going on. And I would love it if the President called me up today and was like, "Jane, we need you for a secret academic mission. We need you to come to this mysterious land that has this mysterious civilization and find out what it's all about."

Candace Gibson: It must've been amazing. Napoleon was nothing if not a shrewd leader, and so he didn't just plan to invade Egypt. He planned a very thorough infiltration. So this group of academics - it was called the Institute of Egypt - they set up camp alongside the soldiers. And unfortunately, things went a little bad military-wise, and the French were essentially cut off. All of their ships were destroyed, they had no way out, and they were stranded in Egypt for about 18 years.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's true. It's interesting, because when Napoleon landed with his troops, he was successful for a little while. He captured Alexandria and won the battle of the pyramids, but then by accident this British admiral, Horatio Nelson, saw his ships off the coast. And they didn't have Napoleon in them, but they destroyed the ships themselves so they were stranded there, Napoleon and his troops.

Candace Gibson: And there's a lot you can accomplish in 18 years, and they really did. They ended up writing a multi-volume work about Egypt. But before that ever happened, they had to build reinforcements. They had to build forts. They had to build strongholds. And when the soldiers were at work, they were tearing down walls of an old temple, I think, and starting to erect a new fort in its place. And a soldier stumbled across this shiny piece of black basalt, and it had all of these inscriptions in it. And there were three distinct types of inscriptions. And he thought, "I don't know what this is, but it looks important." So he took it over to the scholars, which was really handy. And they couldn't quite tell what it was either for a while, but they called this piece of basalt the Rosetta Stone because it was found in the town of Rosetta. And it wasn't huge, but it wasn't small either. It was about the size of a small coffee table and it was pretty heavy because it was stone. Maybe like a medium sized LCD television, if you think about it in those terms.

Jane McGrath: So they knew it was important, even though they couldn't quite figure out why. So they wanted to hang onto it first and foremost for Napoleon, be the English had their hold over France in that area. The English were really adamant that they hand it over.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. So by the treaty of capitulation, they had to give it over to the British. But the French were pretty quick thinking. They made some copies of it first of all, and that was smart. So the British had the original Rosetta Stone. The French had copies of it, and both camps set to work trying to figure out what it was.

Jane McGrath: And it was pretty hard. When I learned about the Rosetta Stone back in school, I guess I just learned the basic facts, that it was the key to figuring our hieroglyphics. But it's interesting to look at the history, because it took them quite awhile to figure out and crack the code.

Candace Gibson: It really did. And it had three different types of writing on it.

Jane McGrath: That's right. It had Greek, which was relatively well-known at the time by academics, and demotic, which is a subset of hieroglyphics - and hieroglyphics itself.

Candace Gibson: So these three different strata of languages - and we know from the Greek, that was the easiest to interpret because scholars did know Greek. And the Reverend Steven Weston actually interpreted that in April 1802. We realize that the stone was dated from March 27, 196 BC. What scholars later found out was that it was one in a series of stela - a religious or governmental decree written on stone. And these were very common in Egypt. It was like the Ten Commandments being on a tablet. This was what people did. The Egyptians later had papyrus, but for the time being they were putting their writing on stone. And there were so many, that the Rosetta Stone really is not that significant in the grand scheme of things.

Jane McGrath: The actual message on it is not that riveting.

Candace Gibson: The message on it is not that riveting. I think it takes about the pharaoh was a good person, the pharaoh respects the gods, the pharaoh is humble, ergo let's all honor the pharaoh. But it was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics that makes it so memorable today. So here's what happened with hieroglyphics. Back when Egypt was its own entity and it didn't have any outside parties bothering it, it used the language of hieroglyphics. And this was a very spiritual and reverent way of writing.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. Not everyone knew how to write hieroglyphics. It was reserved to the particular carvers. It had a specific purpose. It was either for religious or governmental writing.

Candace Gibson: Right. And then they decided they needed a more pedestrian language that everyone could use and everyone could write in. So then we have heretic.

Jane McGrath: And this was easier to write on papyrus. It was smoother and a cursive version.

Candace Gibson: There you go. And the same process continued. By then we had different parties coming into Egypt and different cultures influencing them. We have demotic, which evolves next - and that's a simplification of heretic, simplification of hieroglyphics. And then finally, when Christians start coming into Egypt and the culture and religion drastically changed, we have Coptic.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And Coptic uses the Greek alphabet, mostly. But then there are some things that the Greek alphabet had that the Egyptian language didn't. So they incorporated some sort of hieroglyphic-like characters in it.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. So the reason the Rosetta Stone had three different languages on it is because they wanted to make sure everyone could read the stone, the decree was public for everyone. And like we said, not that interesting a decree but very public nonetheless! So after Weston translated the Greek, the next step was to try and go ahead and do the demotic, because that seemed the next easiest to do. And there were two men who did, relatively contemporary of one another - Johan David Åkerblad and Antoine Silvestre de Sacy.

Jane McGrath: And these people knew Coptic relatively well. They had studied Coptic before, and so they had an easier time translating the demotic.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. Hieroglyphics was a very persistent mystery and one of the reasons for that was a 5th century Greek scholar named Halapolo put out the idea that hieroglyphics were characters representative of symbols, or allegories. And so think about it. If someone told you that little white dogs were representative of all things evil, it would be really hard for you to shake the idea that little white dogs were bad. No matter how you tried to change your ideology and way of thinking, you would always have in the back of your mind, "Stay away from little white dogs." And that's what scholars were encountering as they went through this interpretation process, is that hieroglyphics translated to symbols and allegories.

Jane McGrath: So they took this Halapolo's idea and ran with it. And they just assumed that this was right, that one character represents an idea, basically. And they assumed it was not like English, which had an alphabet where letters have a sound attached to them.

Candace Gibson: But that's exactly what it was, and no one figured that out until years later. So running with this idea, that hieroglyphics represent symbols, Thomas Young came along in 1814 and he discovered the kartush, which was a loop around a group of hieroglyphic letters. And he realized that only proper names were the ones in a kartush, because he was able to discern the name Tolome. And he knew that from the Tolome rulers that had come in. And he knew they would've been signified and mentioned in a governmental decree. So that set the standard for looking for kartushes.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, but he was still working on Halapolo's hypothesis. So he couldn't go much further than that.

Candace Gibson: Right. So he was very limited. Well along comes Champollion, and he knew from a very young age that he was destined for something great. And people knew what hieroglyphics were and they knew that no one had mastered them. It was very much a challenge that people aspired to.

Jane McGrath: And a patriotic challenge, too. Because like you said, Thomas Young was actually British. So he was fighting to translate the hieroglyphics first for England. And Champollion was French, and because they found it they really wanted to translate it first, too.

Candace Gibson: And he was a very serious scholar, almost like the Albert Einstein of France at this time. He was very withdrawn, erratic in his behavior, and he was considered an unusual character. Even at birth, people said he looked like he was an Egyptian because he had a darker skin tone and his eyes were a little more yellowish looking. He didn't look like a Frenchman.

Jane McGrath: So he was destined for this.

Candace Gibson: He was destined for this. And I think that there's some sort of legend, that even a fortune teller came in during his childbirth and said he was going to do something really great having to do with Egypt. I don't know if that's true, but it's fun to think about. So his whole life, he knew that he was going to master hieroglyphics, and even to the point that his older brother had to care for him essentially because he wasn't feeding himself properly. He had no money. He could barely sustain his own life.

Jane McGrath: Well, that makes sense now, because I heard that he fainted when he translated the first thing.

Candace Gibson: He did. He was malnourished, but his brother was able to keep him out of military service. He said that Champollion was doing a great service to his country by trying to crack hieroglyphics than he would in the military. And good thing, too, because I don't think he would've been a very good soldier. I think he would've been pretty unhappy in that post.

Jane McGrath: And if he's a fainter, I don't think he'd last long.

Candace Gibson: No. Not so much. So he's working off Thomas Young's kartush. And he starts to see a couple of different hieroglyphic symbols that he is parsing out. And he comes with an idea, "What if each symbol relates to a sound?" And he discovers the name Ramses, using just a couple of figures and filling in the letters.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And one of his first clues was seeing this circle with a dot in the middle. And he was like, "That could be the sun." He made this leap of faith that maybe that's the sun. And he knew that in a related language the word for sun was ra. And so using the phonetic sound of it, he was able to eventually find out that this name was Ramses.

Candace Gibson: And I think he saw two more characters that were very clearly meant to be s. So he had R-A-blank-S-blank-S.

Jane McGrath: And he knew it was a proper name.

Candace Gibson: He knew it was a proper name. Who else would've been famous in Egypt at that time? Ramses!

Jane McGrath: So that was it. And he fainted.

Candace Gibson: Commence fainting. There you go. And that's not to say that after Champollion essentially translated that one name from hieroglyphics - it still was a very painstaking and laborious process people had to go through. And there were many many things to be translated, but I think that brought about a lot of excitement because now Egypt and the field of Egyptology that sprang from it, it was a sanctified field in archeology, history, and science. It wasn't just a matter of popular culture. It was sad for people who realized all of a sudden, "Oh, my gosh! I've been selling priceless monies and here's what they mean." And who knows who had it now. I think some of them were even shipped off to Europe, ground up, and mummified remains swallowed.

Jane McGrath: That's right, in the medieval times. Yeah.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. So all these artifacts were very far flung around the world! But now, at last, people knew what the history was.

Jane McGrath: And like you said, it was both academic and a fad in social areas, too. So people were obsessed with the culture, now. And there were fights with the museum. England had the Rosetta Stone and they were also getting all the stuff that France had gotten in Egypt. So there was this academic fight, sort of.

Candace Gibson: And even to this day, people still debate who the real victor is, France or England, because clearly Champollion was the Frenchman who ultimately discovered hieroglyphics and the key behind it, with the sound corresponding to the word. But on the other hand, Thomas Young, the Englishman, if he hadn't discovered the meaning of the kartush, where would Champollion have been without that? So I think they debate back and forth today. And I think the Rosetta Stone also went on display in France for awhile for a celebration of its discovery. And there were rumors that the French were plotting to steal it. And even today, I think Egypt is opening up a museum in the not too distant future. They wanted to bring the Rosetta Stone home to display it.

Jane McGrath: That's right. I mean, it's understandable. You see England and France fighting over this, and they're like, " ;Hey, it's ours."

Candace Gibson: Yeah. It came from Egypt. But because it is so heavy and fragile and unwieldy, it would be difficult to transport it. So I think the discussion is still in the works, and we shall see what happens. In the interim, you can find out more about Ancient Egypt, modern Egypt, ancient civilizations in general and the Rosetta Stone on howstuffworks.com.

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