It was on this day in 1799 that French soldiers discovered a slab of rock — about 4 feet high and 2 and half feet wide, 11 inches thick and weighing 1,700 pounds, and containing some writing in three different languages — at a port town on Egypt's Mediterranean Coast.
What they found was the Rosetta Stone, and the three scripts were ancient Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphics. Scholars could read and understand the ancient Greek. The second script, demotic, was an Egyptian language that was spoken and written at the time that the Rosetta Stone was carved in 196 B.C. It shared similarities with Coptic Egyptian, which was spoken widely until the 17th century A.D. (not so long before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone), had a strong literary tradition, and used an adapted Greek alphabet for writing — all things that proved useful in understanding bits and pieces of the Demotic script.
But Egyptian hieroglyphics had been a "dead" language for nearly 2,000 years. All around Egypt there abounded pyramids and temples with thousands of hieroglyphic characters carved into the walls, but no one could figure out what the inscriptions meant.
The Rosetta Stone presented scholars with an opportunity to be able to decipher the hieroglyphic language. It took nearly a quarter century of steady scholarship to solve the puzzle. One of the breakthroughs came when linguists realized that the three texts, the ancient Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphics, were actually identical in meaning. A British scholar made good progress on figuring out the demotic text by 1814, and then the French scholar Jean-François Champollion worked out the hieroglyphics between 1822 to 1824.
The process was in some ways like that of solving the cryptogram puzzle in the comics section of modern newspapers: There's an unreadable string of letters, and a person has a few known variables to plug into corresponding letters within the puzzle (for example, X = C and Y = A) and must play around with patterns and context until, through a process of trial and error, more letters become known and the unreadable string of letters is deciphered and there emerges a coherent sentence, perhaps an aphorism or a famous quote.
The Rosetta Stone had been created in 196 B.C. at the behest of Ptolemy V, one of the Greek royal family emperors who ruled Egypt during the Hellenistic period. Greek was the official language of the empire while he reigned, but Egyptians continued to speak and write their native language. During Ptolemy's rule, native Egyptians rebelled in great numbers, but Egypt's priesthood class largely remained loyal to the emperor. As a display of gratitude, Ptolemy issued the decree that appears on the Rosetta Stone. It's not entirely unlike a State of the Union address: The leader praises his administration's good deeds and himself at length, and then he announces tax breaks for the nonrebellious Egyptian temple priest class. He also announces instructions for the building of temples.
The Greek text, when translated into English, is about 1,600 or 1,700 words long. The decree is recorded in the third person. It begins with a lofty address, where Ptolemy V acknowledges by name some ancestors and gods, and eventually he becomes specific about the tax repeal.
The Rosetta Stone is now on display in the British Museum, and it's been a battle for the British to get it there and keep it there. After all, it was a French soldier who found the stone, and it was in Egypt that the stone was found. But when the French were defeated by British forces and made to surrender, the British demanded that they give up the Rosetta Stone and a bunch of other artifacts. Long before the hieroglyphics were deciphered, everyone recognized that the Rosetta Stone was of enormous cultural and archaeological value, that it was key to understanding ancient Egyptian culture because it would allow hieroglyphics on temples and pyramids all across Egypt to be read and understood.
French archaeologists at first refused to give up the stone. The British commanding general threatened to keep the French under siege until they gave up the Rosetta Stone and other artifacts. French archaeologists proclaimed they'd rather burn all the things they'd discovered than to hand them over to the British. They hid the Rosetta Stone. Accounts differ as to the handover, but one British soldier insisted he wheeled it out from under the French on an artillery cart. Another account states that a French archaeologist handed it over to a British officer in the back alleys of Cairo. At any rate, the French gave it up, but first they made impressions and molds of the stone so that they could continue to work on deciphering the hieroglyphics.
In 2003, Egypt's secretary general of the Council of Antiquities demanded that Britain return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, calling it the icon of Egyptian identity. In 2005, the British sent him a replica of the Rosetta Stone instead, and the Rosetta Stone still remains in London.