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Rosetta Stone: A history of translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs © Getty Images

Rosetta Stone: A history of translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

Published: 10th November, 2020 at 12:00
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A story spanning thousands of years, from forgotten ancient knowledge to modern understanding.

3100BC

Representative pictograms? © Getty Images
Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs © Getty Images

The ancient Egyptians invent hieroglyphic writing and use it for more than three millennia: the last inscription known is dated AD 394.

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Knowledge of how to read the hieroglyphic language was then completely lost until 1822.

Read more about hieroglyphs:

1799

The Rosetta Stone in close up © Getty Images
The Rosetta Stone in close up © Getty Images

The Rosetta Stone is discovered in Egypt at Rosetta (modern Rashid) by soldiers from Napoleon Bonaparte’s army.

Dating from 196 BC, it carries three inscriptions: two in Egyptian scripts and one in Greek.

1819

Thomas Young © Public domain
Thomas Young © Public domain

Thomas Young publishes a long article, ‘Egypt’, as a supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

In it, he proposes a hieroglyphic ‘alphabet’ and reads many hieroglyphic names and words, some correctly.

1822

Jean-François Champollion © Wikimedia Commons
Jean-François Champollion © Wikimedia Commons

Jean-François Champollion, at a celebrated lecture in Paris, shows how to read dozens of hieroglyphic names from the Greco-Roman period of Egypt, such as Caesar, Cleopatra and Ptolemy.

1824

Stones on tour... Tourists inspecting the Rosetta Stone detail at the British Museum © Getty Images
Stones on tour... Tourists inspecting the Rosetta Stone detail at the British Museum © Getty Images

Champollion’s Précis Du Système Hiéroglyphique Des Anciens Égyptiens extends his system back to the early pharaohs. Though brilliant, parts are erroneous, leading to bitter controversy.

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