Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sep. 27: Champollion Decodes the Rosetta Stone

Champollion dressed as an Egyptian

Back in 1798, some of Napoleon's men in Egypt were re-enforcing a wall in the port town of Rosetta (modern Rashid) when, in the foundation, they happened upon a stone with three blocks of text, the topmost in hieroglyphics, the bottom in ancient Greek and the middle one in a script mistaken for Syriac, but eventually recognized as Demotic (meaning "popular"), the transitional Egyptian writing system used between late Egyptian and Coptic.

This was the famous la Pierre de Rosette: the Rosetta Stone.

Over two decades later, in 1822, the French scholar Jean-Fran├žois Champollion announced on this day that he had "cracked the code" after years of work.

The key was "simple" (in hindsight): the thre lines were all saying the same thing. Nevertheless, it wasn't until Champollion recognized the use of rulers' names--names that were already known, and could be read in the Greek and the Demotic--that the "key" was turned and the unlocking began.

And what was this crucial text about? Because even the ancient Greek is somewhat obscure, exact translation has still not been achieved. But it's essentially a decree in the time of Ptolemy V issued by temple priests at Memphis in 196 BCE. It praises the young king (then just 13 years old) and his goodness--a sort of donation letter?

Some things never change.

Oh, and thanks to Champollion we can read, for example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other cool classics.

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