The Rosetta Stone is a black granite slab 114x72x28 cm, that was discovered in July 1799 by French soldiers in Napoleon's army digging foundations to a fort in the small Egyptian village Rashid, located in the North west Delta of the Nile.Today the Stone is kept at the British Museum.
The text appears in form of:
- Hieroglyphs, the script of the official and religious texts
- Demotic, a script developed late in Egypt, used for secular documents
The importance of the Rosetta Stone lay in the fact that the Ancient hieroglyphic text was accompanied by the Greek translation which could be
read, the representation of a single text of the three mentioned script variants enabled the French scholar Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832)
decipher the hieroglyphs. With the aid of the Coptic language, Champollion succeeded to realize the phonetic value of the hieroglyphs. This proved the fact that hieroglyphs do not have only symbolic meaning, but that they also served as a
spoken language. Thus the slab displayed the same text in three scripts, but only two languages, Egyptian and Greek.
The Rosetta Stone is dated to March 196 BC, in the 9th year of Ptolemy 5 Epiphanes., the text honored the confirmation of the control of the Ptolemaic Period Pharaohs over Egypt. The Ptolemies were Greeks who had been ruling Egypt since the fragmentation of the Empire of Alexander the Great, and while they built temples in the Egyptian style, their lifestyle and language remained exclusively Greek. Egypt had by now become a multi-cultural society, a mixture of Greek and Egyptian, although in many parts of the country the two rarely met.
In the years preceding the setting up of the Rosetta decree, control of certain parts of Egypt had been lost to the family of the Ptolemies, and it had taken the Ptolemaic armies some time to put down opposition in the Delta ; parts of southern Upper Egypt, particularly Thebes, were not yet back in the control of the government. It appears that it was decided that the best way to
emphasize the legitimacy of the 13 year old Ptolemy 5 in the eyes of the Egyptian elite was to
re-emphasize his traditional royal credentials with a coronation ceremony in the city of Memphis, and to affirm his royal cult throughout
the country. This second aim was done through a series of priestly decrees, of which
the Rosetta decree is the best known example. It is a version of the decree issued at the city of Memphis ; other decrees include the Canopus decree in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The inscription begins with praise of Ptolemy 5, and then includes an account of the siege of the city of Lycopolis, and the good deeds done by the Pharaoh for the temples. The final part of the text describes the decree's overriding purpose, the establishment of the cult of the Pharaoh, it stipulates how the priests shall maintain the cult of the Pharaoh, the priests shall pay homage three times a day, how the Pharaoh's shrine is to be set up, there shall be set upon the shrine the ten gold crowns of the Pharaoh, and days when certain festivals, such as the Pharaoh's birthday, shall be celebrated. It ends by saying that it is to be made known that all the men of Egypt should magnify and honor Ptolemy 5, and that the text should be set up in hard Stone in the three scripts which the Rosetta Stone still bears today hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek.