Without the Rosetta Stone, 3,000 years of Egyptian history would be a mystery. The stone was discovered by Pierre Bouchard, a French captain, in 1799 during the Napoleonic wars. The stone became the property of the British when they defeated the French in 1801, and soon after, scholars began studying the artifact for clues about ancient language. Eventually, it provided the key to understanding the entire written language of hieroglyphics. But what exactly was written on it?
The text is a decree that affirms the royal cult of King Ptolemy V, then 13 years old, on the first anniversary of his coronation. It includes a list of good deeds Ptolemy V performed for the temples, and, in essence, is political propaganda designed to regain control of rebellious areas of the country. One reason people were rebellious was that since Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., the country's governing class spoke and wrote only Greek, with no knowledge of their people's native language. To ensure all people could understand his decree, Ptolemy had the original Greek translated into demotic script, which ordinary people read and wrote, and hieroglyphics, which was used in the temples. The last sentence of the Greek script reads, "Written in sacred and native and Greek characters," and it was this sentence that first clued scholars into the revelatory nature of the Rosetta Stone—they understood the Greek, so they just needed to use the Greek to understand the other two languages. Learn more about the Rosetta Stone with the videos below.