Rosetta Stone, c. 196 BC
Granodiorite stone
112.3 (length) x 75.7 (width) x 28.4 (thickness) cm
Found at Fort Saint Julien, el-Rashid, Egypt

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Among the most popular objects in the British Museum’s collection, the Rosetta Stone provides one of the most suspenseful code-cracking stories of all time. Shortly after this ancient stone fragment was rediscovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s army east of the ancient capital city of Alexandria in Rosetta (modern day el-Rashid), it came into the hands of the British, resulting in an international collaboration which played out during the first two decades of the 19th century. While recognized as an object of historical significance, neither the French nor the British were able to read hieroglyphic, as the language fell into disuse after the fourth century AD. The importance of the stone’s inscription lies less in its bureaucratic content about Ptolemaic laws than in its linguistic legacy. The text is repeated in three scripts: Greek (official language of the Ptolemaic government), demotic (reflecting the common language), and hieroglyphic (sacred writing restricted to Egyptian priests). By comparing the hieroglyphs to the demotic and Greek characters, British scientist Thomas Young recognized that the language pattern repeated, identifying the name “Ptolemy.” Later, aware of Young’s findings, Frenchman Jean-François Champollion drew further phonetic comparisons and succeeded by 1822 in deciphering the hieroglyphic writing system. By cracking the code, these polymaths paved the way for Egyptologists to interpret text on ancient artifacts, greatly enhancing our understanding of the ancient world.

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