Monday, February 3, 2014

The Mystery of the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

The Unreadable Script

The young French soldier was hot, thirsty and tired. He had been involved in Napoleon's Egyptian expedition for months. He'd marched through the desert with no water, chasing after strange pools of liquid that miraculously appeared on the horizon, and then cruelly disappeared as he approached them. He'd also choked on storms of dust that raced across the landscape. Now he and his companions had been assigned to tear down an ancient wall so they could build an extension to Fort Julien. Backbreaking work. As he pried another stone out of the wall, its color struck him as being odd. It was dark, almost black actually. On one side that was flat there appeared to be writing of some sort. Not French, to be sure, but some strange script. No, not just one type either, but three different types. Very odd. He decided to call over the officer-in-charge over to take a look at it.

What that young, unnamed soldier had done was to discover the Rosetta Stone - an unremarkable chunk of black rock, covered with seemingly indecipherable markings - that would solve one of the greatest linguistic mysteries of the 19th century: how to read the ancient writing left by the Egyptians thousands of years ago.

Today on Far Future Horizons we present a BBC documentary titled “The Mystery of the Rosetta Stone” part of BBC's history series Egypt.

One possible reconstruction of the original stele that the Rosetta Stone was part

This documentary tells the story about the men involved in the race to decipher Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to give voice to an ancient civilization and unlock its secrets.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, the country had been virtually closed to Europeans for centuries and its ancient culture lost and forgotten for over a thousand years. Napoleon took with him scholars, including antiquarians and linguists, whose job it was to unravel the mysteries of ancient Egypt. But they were able to achieve little more than to paint its beautiful ruined monuments and wonder what it all meant. For Egypt’s secrets were locked in the strange ancient writings, the hieroglyphs.

By a stroke of luck, Napoleon’s soldiers soon unearthed an extraordinary object that offered a crucial clue. The Rosetta Stone contained a written proclamation by pharaoh Ptolemy V in three different texts: the common writing of the time, Greek, and the sacred script of the hieroglyphs. Surely now, scholars would simply be able to translate the hieroglyphs from their knowledge of the Greek. But before they could get stuck in, the British attacked and defeated Napoleon’s army, taking The Rosetta Stone back to Britain as a spoil of war. It has been in the British Museum ever since. The French were left only with their copies.

Dr.Thomas Young

The eventual decipherment of the Rosetta stone was left to two great men, Englishman Dr. Thomas Young, a man of many scientific talents, who provided certain valuable insights that eventually led  French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion to the complete decipherment of  hieroglyphs.

Jean-Francois Champollion

I highly recommend this documentary. It is well worth watching if you have even a superficial interest in the science of Egyptology, which came into existence after the complete decipherment of hieroglyphs.

Focusing on three of the most important discoveries from the world of the ancient Egyptians, this series journeys back in time to explore Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Great Belzoni's finds from the reign of Ramesses II and Champollion's deciphering of the hieroglyphs. Join Carter, Belzoni and Champollion as they overcome immense obstacles to unlock the secrets of an as-yet undiscovered world and reveal their seminal finds. Then travel even further back, to the amazing period of history unveiled by their astounding work.

The BBC’s series Egypt is available on DVD from BBC video and Amazon Books in the United States
BBC  The Mystery of the Rosetta Stone
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