By Keri Murrell

The Rosetta Stone was once part of a bigger stone block. Its face has a message carved into it, in three different languages; hieroglyphs (an Ancient Egyptian script made of pictures which represent words), Demotic (common script of Ancient Egypt) and Ancient Greek (the rulers of Egypt at that point). This stone was important in  allowing the translation of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The real specimen has resided in the British Museum since 1802.

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The Rosetta Stone located at the British Museum by Hans Hillewaert, is licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0


During a campaign in Egypt against the British in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone. This occurred whilst digging foundations to expand their fort in the Nile Delta in a town called Rashid (Rosetta). However, amid construction they had to damage an ancient wall, of which the Stone was a part of. Hence, the Stone became fragmented. Officer Pierre François Xavier Bouchard appreciated its importance. Following Napoleon’s defeat, the stone, among other antiquities, became the property of the British under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. The stone still bears markings resulting from conflict with painted marks declaring “captured in Egypt by the British army 1801”.

Rosetta Stone as it may have once stood by Captmondo, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


Hieroglyphic use declined, following the downfall of Ancient Egypt in 30BC.  Instead the use of Coptic script (a form of Greek writing with Demotic influences), increased. Consequently, by 400AD the hieroglyphic language was forgotten. In 1814 Thomas Young, observed that some hieroglyphs in the Stone were enclosed in a loop (cartouche). He correlated this with the Pharaoh’s name Ptolemy, which he understood from the Ancient Greek text on the stone. Young presumed the name would pronounce the same in either language so corresponded the phonetics with the hieroglyphs in Ptolemy’s name. Jean-François Champollion continued Young’s work, identifying other names. Champollion had learned the Coptic language as a teenager, so used this to help translate other words. By 1824, he realised that hieroglyphs were not only for use of foreign names like the Pharaoh Ptolemy, but contained the whole Egyptian written language. Thus, Champollion began to translate the hieroglyphics fully.

Basic Translation

The Stone translated is a decree, stating how the priests support the Pharaoh Ptolemy V, aged 13. Despite his family conquering Egypt, in fact, he would benefit the land. It states how Ptolemy will restore peace to Egypt following the war, holding festivals for the day of his accession each month and his birthday. Ptolemy will reduce taxes, increase the priests pay and offer amnesty for prisoners. In return he will be the protector of Egypt, and the priests will attend to his statues three times daily.