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Why is the Rosetta Stone so important?

This day in history, 1799, the Rosetta Stone was rediscovered. Napoleon Bonaparte campaigned in Egypt from 1798 to 1801, with the intention of dominating the East Mediterranean and threatening the British hold on India. Although accounts of the Stone’s discovery in July 1799 are now rather vague, the story most generally accepted is that it was found by accident by soldiers in Napoleon’s army. They discovered the Rosetta Stone on July 15, 1799 while digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It had apparently been built into a very old wall. The officer in charge, Pierre-François Bouchard (1771–1822), realized the importance of the discovery.

The Stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab. It has a message carved into it, written in three types of writing (called scripts). It was an important clue that helped experts learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphs (a writing system that used pictures as signs).

The writing on the Stone was an official decree, about King Ptolemy V, r. 204–181 BC. The decree was copied on to large stone slabs called stelae, which were put in every temple in Egypt. It says that the priests of a temple in Memphis (in Egypt) supported the king. The Rosetta Stone is one of these copies, so not particularly important in its own right. The important thing was that the decree was inscribed three times, in hieroglyphs which were suitable for a priestly decree, Demotic which was the native Egyptian script used for daily purposes, meaning ‘language of the people’, and Ancient Greek, the language of the rulers of Egypt at that time.

The Rosetta Stone was found broken and incomplete. It features 14 lines of hieroglyphic script,

32 lines in Demotic, and 53 lines of Ancient Greek. When the stone was discovered, nobody knew how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, because the inscriptions say the same thing in three different scripts, and scholars could still read Ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone became a valuable key to deciphering the hieroglyphs.

So there you have it in a nut shell. The Rosetta Stone was a key to deciphering a language that was "dead" for nearly 2000 years and ultimately became one of the most important rocks in history.

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