The Rosetta Stone is an ancient Egyptian stele of black granite, inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion Demotic script, and the lowest Ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (with some minor differences between them), it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The decree was issued by a congress of priests who gathered at Memphis. The date is given as “4 Xandicus” in the Macedonian calendar and “18 Meshir” in the Egyptian calendar, which corresponds to March 27, 196 BC.
Originally displayed within a temple, the stele was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period and eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It was rediscovered there in 1799 by a soldier, Pierre-François Bouchard, of the French expedition to Egypt.
As the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, the Rosetta Stone aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher this hitherto untranslated ancient language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating amongst European museums and scholars. Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the Capitulation of Alexandria. Transported to London, it has been on public display at the British Museum since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.
Ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, a long-running dispute over the relative value of Young’s and Champollion’s contributions to the decipherment, and since 2003, demands for the stone’s return to Egypt.
The first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the transliteration of the Egyptian scripts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822; it took longer still before scholars were able to read Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently. Major advances in the decoding were: recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text (1799); that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names (1802); that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic (Thomas Young, 1814); and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words (Champollion, 1822–1824).
Two other fragmentary copies of the same decree were discovered later, and several similar Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions are now known, including two slightly earlier Ptolemaic decrees (the Decree of Canopus in 238 BC, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV, ca. 218 BC). The Rosetta Stone is therefore no longer unique, but it was the essential key to modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature and civilization. The term Rosetta Stone is now used in other contexts as the name for the essential clue to a new field of knowledge.
There exists no one definitive English translation of the decree because of the minor differences between the three original texts and because modern understanding of the ancient languages continues to develop. An up-to-date translation by R. S. Simpson, based on the demotic text, appears on the British Museum website. It can be compared with Edwyn R. Bevan’s full translation in The House of Ptolemy (1927), based on the Greek text with footnote comments on variations between this and the two Egyptian texts. Bevan’s version, abridged, begins thus:
In the reign of the young one—who has received the royalty from his father—lord of crowns, glorious, who has established Egypt, and is pious towards the gods, superior to his foes, who has restored the civilized life of men, lord of the Thirty Years’ Feasts, even as Hephaistos the Great; a king, like the Sun, the great king of the upper and lower regions; offspring of the Gods Philopatores, one whom Hephaistos has approved, to whom the Sun has given the victory, the living image of Zeus, son of the Sun, Ptolemy living-for‑ever beloved of Ptah; in the ninth year, when Aëtus, son of Aëtus, was priest of Alexander …;
The chief priests and prophets and those that enter the inner shrine for the robing of the gods, and the feather-bearers and the sacred scribes, and all the other priests … being assembled in the temple in Memphis on this day, declared:
Since king Ptolemy, the everliving, the beloved of Ptah, the God Epiphanes Eucharistos, the son of king Ptolemy and queen Arsinoe, Gods Philopatores, has much benefited both the temples and those that dwell in them, as well as all those that are his subjects, being a god sprung from a god and goddess (like Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, who avenged his father Osiris), and being benevolently disposed towards the gods, has dedicated to the temples revenues in money and corn, and has undertaken much outlay to bring Egypt into prosperity, and to establish the temples, and has been generous with all his own means, and of the revenues and taxes which he receives from Egypt some has wholly remitted and others has lightened, in order that the people and all the rest might be in prosperity during his reign …;
It seemed good to the priests of all the temples in the land to increase greatly the existing honours of king Ptolemy, the everliving, the beloved of Ptah … And a feast shall be kept for king Ptolemy, the everliving, the beloved of Ptah, the God Epiphanes Eucharistos, yearly in all the temples of the land from the first of Thoth for five days; in which they shall wear garlands, and perform sacrifices, and the other usual honours; and the priests shall be called priests of the God Epiphanes Eucharistos in addition to the names of the other gods whom they serve; and his priesthood shall be entered upon all formal documents and private individuals shall also be allowed to keep the feast and set up the aforementioned shrine, and have it in their houses, performing the customary honours at the feasts, both monthly and yearly, in order that it may be known to all that the men of Egypt magnify and honour the God Epiphanes Eucharistos the king, according to the law.