On this day in 1799, a black granodiorite rock slab bearing inscriptions in three languages was found near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, 35 miles east of Alexandria. It was soon determined that the inscriptions were more or less identical, but written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek.
Although the stone was broken, and parts of each text missing, there was enough of each inscription to allow scholars, for the first time, to cross-translate the heretofore undeciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics. Credit for this work has been given to French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion, although other scholars were involved in the effort.
The Rosetta Stone, as it came to be called, was in effect, a dictionary, and it could be argued that no other discovery was more significant to the study of Egyptology. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter, the find was widely publicized because of its magnificence and nearly complete array of contents. But from a scholarly perspective, the Rosetta Stone discovery and subsequent translations was a watershed event.
There are other undeciphered ancient languages awaiting their own Rosetta Stone. The Indus script of ancient India, and the Rongorongo symbols of Easter Island are probably the two most well-known. Despite much effort by scholars, these two languages remain largely unreadable. Are there “Rosetta Stones” waiting to be uncovered which will allow us to read these ancient words?
The thought that such an object is “out there” somewhere is tantalizing to those who are interested in these subjects. As well, romantic notions of exploration and discoveries like these are what led to my own lifelong passion for archaeology. The sublime thrill of discovery, of being the first person to see an artifact, a tomb, a city, in thousands of years drives many a historical researcher in their quests.
What is out there, yet to be found? We cannot say. My personal wish list includes The Ark of the Covenant, The Hall of Records, The Holy Grail, and Atlantis, among others. Fanciful yearnings possibly, but the inspiration and excitement generated by the stories of search and discovery of treasures like these remains as strong inside of me now as it did when I was a boy. And that is what matters.
(Rosetta Stone photo in the British Museum by Hans Hillewaert)