This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture
Many readers will already know of the Rosetta Stone and its monumental impact on history. Discovered during the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt around the turn of the 19th century, the Stone was taken to England and now rests in the British Museum. It is an immense thing, needing a new gallery built in the museum to handle the weight. But what does it actually say? Written in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian Hieroglyph, the stone slab announces the cult of Ptolemy V and his rise to the throne. It was allegedly one of many to be put up around Egypt during a period of internal instability and revolt. Whether this was commonly done by the kings of Egypt, the brilliance of the plan must be stated. Written in three scripts, itallowed all peoples, upper and lower class Egyptians as well as Greeks, to have their new leader immortalised and quite literally set in stone. With the blessings of the priests who wrote the tablet, it gave no room to question who was in charge. To later archaeologists it was a gift; they were able to understand a whole civilisation and eventually elevate the study of Egyptology to an academic level.
While the rest of the Ancient Egyptian population used Demotic as their primary writing system, hieroglyphs were used within the realm of authority, with literature and matters of the king immortalised on monuments. Like many ancient scripts, accessibility to lower classes was rare – only priests and the upper classes would get sufficient training in reading and writing in hieroglyphs, as they were quite impractical for anything other than ornamental status symbols. This form of “picture-writing” was the oldest form of writing in ancient Egypt, with Phoenician-derived scripts such as Ancient Greek and Demotic coming in at a later date. The translation of the Rosetta Stone has allowed historians glimpses into the most ancient parts of Egyptian society, and has allowed for a much greater insight into Egyptian literature, mythology, and religious matters. Ancient Egypt tends to have a stereotype of being mysterious, which is often a result of an incredibly old civilisation and very little remnants of the oldest parts of that civilisation.
With the Rosetta stone, we have been able to make a little more sense of the earliest parts of Egypt, and therefore the earliest parts of humanity. In comparison, Ancient Greece, began around 800BC following the fall of the Mycenaean civilisation, two thousand years after the Early Dynastic period of 3000BC. Dates aside, the Rosetta Stone and its translation opened a whole new field of study, and academics and enthusiasts everywhere can now understand the words and worlds of a civilisation so iconic it has been immortalised again and again through pop culture and modern recreations.
By Anne de Reynier