Napoleon & “Egyptomania”: The Rosetta Stone

This is Villa Finale’s first post in our “Egyptomania” series. Join Interpretive Guide, Sara Breshears, as she takes us through the birth of this craze in Europe beginning with the discovery of the famed Rosetta Stone.

Sara Breshears

The Rosetta Stone

Chances are you have heard of the Rosetta Stone and how it was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. But did you ever wonder how it was found, how exactly this language was deciphered and who did it? Well you have Napoleon to thank for that. Napoleon is credited with awakening interest in ancient Egypt and its monuments and setting the spark for ‘Egyptomania’ in Europe in the 19th and 20th century.

The Discovery

In July 1798, Napoleon launched the beginning of his campaign in Egypt in an attempt to protect French interest and trade routes in the Mediterranean. In what was a first for the time period, along with his legions and battalions of soldiers, Napoleon also brought a corps of 167 savants or technical experts called the Commission des Sciences e des Arts, which produced the Description de l’Egypte, a series of publications about Egypt. This text covered everything, from Egyptian flora, fauna, and history and was critical for making many Egyptian sources and materials widely available to Europeans for the first time ever.

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone (from knappily.com)

In the Egyptian port city of Rosetta, now modern-day Rashid, French soldiers working on the defenses of Fort Julien, stumbled upon the now-famous stone quite by accident. Built into a very old wall, officer Pierre-Francois Bouchard spotted a slab with inscriptions. He and his superior officer reported the find to General Jacques- Francois Menou, who happened to be at the Fort. The discovery was announced to Napoleon’s scientific association in Cairo, the Institut d’Egypte and it was noted in the report the stone contained three inscriptions, the first in hieroglyphics and the third in Greek and it was transferred to Cairo for further study.

Napoleon himself inspected the Stone before his return to France in August 1799. In 1800, an expert charged with discovering ways to copies of the text on the stone, Jean-Joseph Marcel, a printer and linguist was the first to suggest the middle text was Egyptian demotic script, which was rarely used for stone inscriptions and had been rarely seen by scholars at the time of the stone’s discovery. In fact, until this point the middle text had been misidentified as Syriac.

Jean-Joseph Marcel (from egyptophile.blogspot.com)

After their eventual defeat at the hands of the British and the Ottomans and the signing of the Treaty of Alexandria in 1801, the Stone along with many other artifacts were handed over to the British, who immediately shipped it to the United Kingdom for further study.

Cracking the Code

In 1802 after arriving in Portsmouth, the Rosetta Stone was placed in the British Museum under the orders of King George III and scholars raced to crack the code. A crucial key to understanding the Rosetta Stone and what it said was that it had three different languages written on it.

Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, 1874 (from readerwiki.com)

Demotic, from the Greek meaning ‘popular’, was the ‘everyday’ or administrative language of Ancient Egyptians in the later periods, while Hieroglyphics were considered the language of the gods, and thus more formal. The stone also had a section written in ancient Greek, because at the time of the stone was carved, Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies (of whom the infamous Cleopatra was one) originated from Macedonia, and took control of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great.

English physicist Thomas Young was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, which it turns out was Ptolemy.

Jean-Francois Champollion (from en.wikipedia.org)

A major breakthrough came when Champollion pieced together the hieroglyphics that were used to write the names of non-Egyptian rulers. He announced his discovery, based on the Rosetta stone and other texts in a paper presented at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in 1822 to an audience that included Thomas Young. A second crucial discovery came two years later in 1824 when Champollion realized the alphabetic signs were not only used for foreign names but also for the Egyptian language and names. Using his knowledge of ancient Greek and the Coptic language, which is derived from the ancient Egyptian language, he began to piece together the puzzle and he began to read hieroglyphic inscriptions in full.

What does the Rosetta Stone Say?

Ptolemy V Epiphanes came to the throne at the tender age of five. Being so young, he had a series of regents who were either reviled or incompetent and led to the loss of Egypt’s territories and general unrest. In 196 BCE Ptolemy V came of age and was crowned Pharaoh.

The Rosetta stone commemorated this event. Once part of a larger stone stele, the Stone was commissioned by the High Priests of Memphis, the text commemorates the coronation of King Ptolemy V, lists his accomplishments, and establishes his divine cult. Egyptian rulers were seen to be semi-divine and had cults to worship them as a living deity. The text on the stone goes on to command that every temple have a similar stone with text written in Hieroglyphics, Demotic, and Greek.

Ptolemy V Epiphanes (from touregypt.net)

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics were used well into the 4th century AD and with the final closing of the pagan temples in the 5th century knowledge of hieroglyphic writing was lost.

While all three texts were largely incomplete, Champollion was able to use the text to begin identifying hieroglyphics and their meanings leading to the creation of an Egyptian grammar and dictionary, which was published after his death in 1832, making Champollion the Father of Modern-day Egyptology! Once scholars could understand ancient Egyptian’s writing system, they began to develop a greater understanding of the ancient Egyptian culture and this sparked further interest in Egypt itself!

Rosetta Stone (from britishmuseum.org)

Since Champollion’s groundbreaking discovery, Egyptologists have made major progress in further understanding ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and the ancient Egyptian language and its rules.

These days the Rosetta Stone sits pride of place in the Egyptian galleries in The British Museum, where thousands of tourists see it every day. Looking at it now it’s hard to believe that this is what kicked off the Egyptomania craze in the 19th century and all the way up to today, and we’ll explore more of that  in later posts in our Egyptomania series!

Click here to see The British Museum’s “The Rosetta Stone” on Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-rosetta-stone/DgH6pMM1guUUPA?hl=en