Digging up the past

Chapter 1 Land of the pyramids

Egyptian scripts

By 400 AD the hieroglyphic form of writing had fallen into disuse, and within another 100 years the Demotic had also been dropped.

Consequently, scholars were not able to decipher the valuable historical information contained in the papyri and on stone - that is, until 1822!

This is how the story unfolded. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in the year 1798. In August of the following year, one of his officers was engaged in repairs to the fort of St Julien, near the town of Rashid, or Rosetta. 

Here he found a large, black stone, 112 centimetres long by 82 centimetres wide, and and 25 centimetres thick. On it was a text inscribed in three scripts - hieroglyphics at the top, Demotic in the centre and Greek at the bottom.

The Greek, which could be understood, was a record of the commemoration of the accession to the throne of the Greek king Ptolemy V in the year 196 BC. It was assumed that this was a trilingual inscription recording the same message in the three different scripts, and that, by comparing the three, it would be possible to decipher the meaning of the then-unknown Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Before the French could do much work on the project, however, the British invaded Egypt, and in 1801 the Rosetta stone fell into British hands and was shipped to the British Museum, where it remains to this day.

Comparison of scripts

Inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone, in the British Museum