Ancient translation – the Rosetta stone
After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the country was governed by Greek-speaking rulers who neither spoke Egyptian nor could read or write hieroglyphs. In 196 BC, Egypt’s current ruler Ptolemy V, of Greek descent, commissioned the Rosetta stone to publicly announce his rightful claim to be the pharaoh of Egypt. The stone was engraved in two languages, Greek and Egyptian, and in three writing systems, hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek.
The Rosetta stone was discovered by one of Napoleon’s officers, a French captain named Pierre Bouchard, during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1799 AD. After the British defeated the French in Egypt in 1801 the Rosetta stone passed into British hands, and has almost continuously been on public display at the British Museum since 1802.
Since Ancient Greek remained well documented and understood into modern times, the Greek script provided the key to the translation of the hieroglyphs. The last sentence inscribed on the stone in Greek text was key to deciphering the stone, as it read “Written in sacred and native and Greek characters”. This was quickly understood to mean that the same text was inscribed in all three scripts, and that the “sacred” referred to the hieroglyphic system, while the “native” referred to the demotic script of the ordinary Egyptians.
The Greek inscription of the Rosetta stone was fully translated by 1803, however, it was another 20 years before the transliteration of the Egyptian scripts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822.
Although many scholars worked on translating the Rosetta stone, the achievement is largely attributed to two people: Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion. Young began deciphering the Rosetta stone in 1814 AD by identifying the name of Pharaoh Ptolemy in Greek and then finding the corresponding characters in hieroglyphs. He was thereby able to identify the hieroglyphs for p, t, m, y, and s, and was able to determine the direction in which the hieroglyphs should be read.
Although Young’s work provided a valuable foundation for the translation, he was not able to dedicate enough time to the project to actually decipher the ancient scribe, which is why Jean-François Champollion took over the task. Champollion built on Young’s work and eventually deciphered a whole range of hieroglyphs. He also determined that the hieroglyphic text was a translation of the Greek text and not vice versa, as previously believed. With his understanding of Coptic, the late form of ancient Egyptian that was written phonetically in Greek, he was able to translate the meaning of the ancient Egyptian words. This understanding then provided the basis for all further translations of hieroglyphs that have been carried out to date.