The Rosetta Stone's Role in Understanding Egyptian Art

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  • 0:01 Dead Languages
  • 0:55 The Rosetta Stone
  • 2:11 Influence on…
  • 3:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will discover the reason that the Rosetta Stone was such an important discovery and examine how it influenced an understanding of Egyptian art. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Dead Languages

One of the problems with ancient civilizations is that they rarely took the time to write phrase books to help tourists understand their languages. I know; how inconsiderate, right? So, without these phrase books or translation guides, there is no way of knowing how to read ancient languages once that civilization fades.

This is the problem that faced Egyptologists, or the people who study ancient Egypt. The Egyptians had a hieroglyphic written language, meaning it was composed of images that represented a word or idea. The Egyptians wrote narratives on papyrus paper, carved history into their temples, and filled their world with written evidence of their culture. But nobody could read it! The ancient Egyptian language is considered a dead language, because nobody speaks it. So, Egyptologists were faced with tons of information on Egyptian culture, history, literature, and art, and no way to understand it. Then, they found the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Stone

In 1799, a legion of French soldiers under the command of would-be dictator of the world, Napoleon Bonaparte, was stationed in Egypt. One of the men spotted a broken slab of stone that was covered with inscriptions, figured it could be important, and reported it. This discovery would fundamentally change our understanding about Egypt.

The Rosetta Stone is a roughly 4-foot tall broken piece of a once larger slab that held an official decree from King Ptolemy V, issued in 196 BC. This was shortly after Ptolemy had been crowned pharaoh, and the decree was the official announcement that the priests of Egypt recognized the pharaoh as a god. This was an important declaration, and so the pharaoh needed to make sure that everybody could read it.

In the second century BC, the main power in the Mediterranean was ancient Greece. Greece was politically and culturally involved with the Egyptian government. Thus, the decree was written out in three languages. First, it was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Then, the same decree was written in the Egyptian demotic script, a form of writing with letters for consonants that was popular in court documents. Finally, the decree was written a third time in the ancient Greek alphabet.

Influence on Understanding Egypt

When the Rosetta Stone was discovered, nobody knew how to read ancient Egyptian. They did, however, know how to read ancient Greek. This meant that for the first time, researchers had something they could directly translate. This was the phrase book they needed. By using the Greek to help translate the other two sections, researchers learned how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs and demotic. Suddenly, the vast world of ancient Egyptian literature was open to translation. And there was a lot to translate. Ancient Egyptians carved or painted inscriptions into the walls of palaces, temples, and tombs. They wrote on carvings, household objects, and jewelry. They wrote letters and recorded information. The Egyptian world was full of writing.

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