Today in History: The Rosetta Stone Is Discovered

Today In History |

Today in 1799, a soldier in Napoleon's Egyptian army made a remarkable discovery. The soldier found the Rosetta Stone, one of the most significant and historically illuminating artifacts in the history of archaeology. The stone was found close to the town of Rosetta, for which it was named. Rosetta is about 35 miles to the north of Alexandria.

The large stone allowed scholars to finally decode Egyptian hieroglyphics, a task that had previously defied all attempts. The Stone bears an inscription written in three languages - Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic.

The inscription written in ancient Greek mentions that all three inscriptions are translations of the same piece of language, which opened the door to the difficult task of interpreting the hieroglyphic section.

The Stone was collected on orders from Napoleon, who wanted his invading force to collect any artifacts of interest they found to send back to France. Pierre Bouchard was working under this dictum when he found and claimed the Stone. The Rosetta Stone passed into British hands when Napoleon was defeated in 1801.


Many researchers tried and failed to decipher the Stone's inscriptions. It wasn't until a French Egyptologist named Jean-Francois Champollion, an autodidact linguist, took a look that the mystery was solved. Champollion was able to successfully interpret the meaning of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics, opening an entirely fresh vista of study for Egyptologists.

The Rosetta Stone can now be found at the British Museum in London. It's been in the Museum since 1802, with one exception. During World War I, it was moved to a secret underground location that it shared with other precious artifacts from the collection. The fear was that they would be destroyed in German bombing runs. It is currently the most-visited item in the entire British Museum collection.

The stone is made of granodiorite. The inscription on it was a decree issued on behalf of King Ptolmey V, from Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC. It was carved during the Hellenistic period and was likely displayed inside of a temple at Sais. It was discovered at Rashid, also called Rosetta, where it had been used as building material. The Stone was probably moved from Sais during the early Christian or medieval period.

When it was discovered, the world became fascinated by the Rosetta Stone. Lithographs of its face were distributed to multiple museums and scholars in Europe.

The phrase "Rosetta Stone" is increasingly associated with the language learning software, but the real Rosetta Stone is much more significant.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.