Archive for July 19th, 2009

Greek.  Egyptian hieroglyphics.  Egyptian demotic.  Three different written languages.  One of them, the hieroglyphics, had been considered a dead language for two millenia.  The beautiful images and pictorals that comprise the language had been impossible to decipher.

Greek, on the other hand, is one of the more advanced languages in the world.  When studying ancient texts, a strong foundation in Greek is often extremely important.

But Greek and hieroglyphics are so completely different that using one to decipher the other was, at one time, not unlike trying to drive to California using a bottle of lotion.

That was before one of the most important archeological discoveries ever.  The unearthing of the Rosetta Stone in Rosetta, Egypt (near Alexandria) resurrected hieroglyphics from the dead and opened an entire ancient culture to the modern world.

The Rosetta Stone is a flat basalt slab, 4 feet by just over 2 feet, and weighing in at 1,700 pounds.  On it is an inscription for Ptolemy V, a second-century king of Egypt.  What makes the inscription so special is that it was written in the three languages I listed above.

The actual date of discovery is unclear, but July 19, 1799 seems to be the best consensus.  It was discovered by French soldiers, in-country as part of Napolean Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign.  Napolean, as much a man of art and culture as he was of conquest, took archeologists with him to Egypt with orders to fill French museums with as much stuff as possible.

Of course, the British had something to say about that with their defeat of Bonaparte in 1801.  It was they that took ultimate control of Stone, which still resides in the British Museum.  And over the next 25 years, the laborious work of translation was carried out.  Several scholars did major work, but it was Jean-Francois Champollion who ultimately breathed life into the ancient hieroglyphs.

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