The English language has 26 letters. The Arabic alphabet has 28. People in ancient Egypt wrote with more than 700 characters. They carved these hieroglyphs on tombs and temple walls. For more than 1,000 years, however, no one knew what they meant. One stone unlocked that language — and the secrets of ancient Egypt. It’s the Rosetta Stone.
French soldiers found the stone slab near Rosetta, Egypt, in 1799. It included the same message in the Egyptian and Greek languages. Experts worked to use the Rosetta Stone to the Egyptian text. On September 27, 1822, Jean-Francois Champollion said he had figured it out. We’ve now been able to understand Egyptian text for 200 years!
The Rosetta Stone is broken. Yet it still showed enough to decode the text. There are 14 lines of hieroglyphs. There are 32 lines of another Egyptian language called Demotic. Then, there are 53 lines of ancient Greek. People didn’t know how to read the Egyptian languages. But Champollion figured them out from the Greek words!
Maiken Mosleth King is an expert on ancient Egypt. “No one had been able to read hieroglyphs for more than a thousand years,” she said. “With the Stone, people were able to start to access the ancient script again.”
The Rosetta Stone altered our understanding of ancient Egypt. “Before this, the world’s knowledge was based on outside sources, like the Bible,” said Egypt expert Caroline Arbuckle MacLeod. As a result, she said, people saw ancient Egypt as “different, mystical, and otherworldly.” The Rosetta Stone changed that.
“Once the language could be , we realized ancient Egyptians had a lot more in common with other people,” explained Arbuckle MacLeod. “The texts make it clear that people went to school, worried about their families, argued about how much things cost,” Arbuckle MacLeod explained. She called that “the same things that we talk about today.”
Arbuckle MacLeod told News-O-Matic that the Stone helped us “get to know the Egyptians from their point of view.”
Today, thousands of people study ancient Egypt — and those who lived there. Their field is called Egyptology. In many ways, it began in 1822. Said Arbuckle MacLeod: “The deciphering of the Rosetta Stone was really the birth of Egyptology.”
Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs for almost 4,000 years. We’ve now been able to understand them for 200 years. After all this time, there’s still much more to learn. “New discoveries are happening all the time,” said Arbuckle MacLeod.
“We keep learning new things.”
Updated September 27, 2022, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Sophie A. Montecalvo