When most of us think of the words “Rosetta Stone” — or, at least, when those of us past a certain age do — we also think of at-home language-learning courses. This must count as a triumph of branding, but not one without a genuine basis in history. For the Rosetta Stone, the real Rosetta Stone, did provide humanity with a means of greatly expanding its store of linguistic knowledge. The stone’s text, originally carved during the Hellenistic period, turned out to be useful indeed after the stone’s rediscovery about twenty centuries later. Its content, and more specifically its content’s having been written three times in three different scripts, unlocked the mystery of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
But what, exactly, is that content? In the video above, you can hear the nature of the Rosetta Stone’s message explained by British Museum curator Ilona Regulski. “It was a priestly decree that was drawn up on the 22nd of March, 196 BC,” she says. Issued by a council of priests who’d traveled to the ancient capital of Memphis, it lists “honors that they want to give to the king” Ptolemy V Epiphanes, going so far as “to compare him with a god.” These honors include his statue being placed in the temple and carried during processions, his birthday being celebrated in the temple, and the date of his succession being added to official documents — all of them enumerated in “one big sentence.”
The text also stipulates that this decree had to be “written in stone, in sacred writing, which is hieroglyphs, in native writing, which is the Demotic that we see in the middle, and the writing of the Greeks. And the stele would have to be put up in all important temples of Egypt,” which means that there would have been many copies all over the country. (And indeed, more have been found since the initial discovery in 1799.) Nor is the Rosetta Stone the only known example of such a priestly decree from Ancient Egypt. More recent research has turned toward the question of who wrote such texts, as well as who translated them.
“In the time the Rosetta Stone was inscribed, Egypt was a very multicultural place, with many foreigners and people who could speak more than one language,” says Regulski. “For Egyptian priests and scribes, who were working for the centralized administration for the states, it probably wouldn’t have been so difficult to compose the text in Greek and then translate it into their own Egyptian native language. In fact, this probably would have been easier for them, because they worked on a daily basis in the Greek language.” At the time, the task of translation would surely have seemed routine, even trivial beside the royal exaltation performed by the message itself. But today, when few of us worship kings as gods, we exalt the Rosetta Stone’s forgotten translator instead.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.