Bicentenary of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone
We are approaching rapidly the bicentenary of the discovery of the Rosetta
The French campaign in Egypte 1798-1801 was accompanied by about 150
scientists. After Napoleon Bonaparte founded the Institut de l'Egypte in
Cairo in 1798 some 50 became members of it, including Napoleon himself
A lieutenant of engineers Pierre-François Bouchard (1772-1832) found a
black basalt stone when guiding construction works in the Fort Julien near
the city of Rosetta. He immediately understood the importance of the stone
and showed it to general Abdallah Jacques de Menou (1750-1810) who decided
that it should be brought to the institute, where it arrived in August,
1799. Jean-Joseph Marcel (1776-1854) and Nicolas-Jacques Conte (1755-1805)
made copies of the text by using it like a printing stone (it later became
the lithographic method). Such a copy still exists and was reproduced in
"Pharaonendaemmerung", Strasbourg, 1990, p. 110
(catalog of an exhibition to commemorate the bicentenary of Champollion's
birthday). Edme-François Jomard (1777-1862) made a perfect and useful
drawing of the inscriptions: see Fernand Beaucour et al., La decouverte de
l'Egypte, Paris, 1997, p. 199. Later Jomard had a leading part in the
preparation and printing of the "Description de l'Egypte" (where the Rosetta
Stone was published in Antiquities, Plates, Vol. V, pls. 52-54 in 1822
In 1801 the French had to surrender. A dispute arose about the results of
the scientists. The general Menou presented the following text regarding
these results: "to give the members of the Commission of sciences and arts
the right to take with them all the results of their works in Egypt as well
as the artistic monuments which they have transported to Alexandria."
However the English general John Hely Hutchinson (1757-1832) answered:
"Regarding the Commission of sciences and arts, it shall not take with it
any of the public monuments, nor Arab manuscripts, nor maps, nor sketches,
nor treatises, nor collections; and it shall leave them at the disposition
of the English generals and commanders."
The French scientist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844) declared to
the English diplomat William Richard Hamilton (1777-1859): "We will burn our
riches ourselves. That belongs to the largess you have seen. And reckon with
the memories of history. You will have burnt a new library of Alexandria."
Obviously these words must have impressed the English generals and they
insisted only on the delivery of the monuments. It was Joseph Fourier
(1768-1830) who prepared a list, on it two obelisks, two sarcophagi, a
head of a ram, the famous fist of the colossus of Memphis (of a statue of
Ramses II), and, as no. 8 of the list, the Rosetta Stone. The French tried
to hide it in a boat despite the clauses of the capitulation. But Hamilton
discovered it nonetheless, and with a military escort, he recovered
possession of it. So it is now in the British Museum. However, the French
were allowed to take with them the imprints they had made before when
embarking in Alexandria.
The epigraphists had all what they needed to allow them to decipher the
hieroglyphic writing system. All over Europe work began. - Probably
Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) saw one of the above-mentioned copies
of the Rosetta Stone in Paris as early as 1808. He wrote to his brother on
April 21, 1809: "You advise me to study the inscription of Rosette. That is
exactly where I want to start." His brother Jacques-Joseph Champollion
(1778-1867) had already written a treatise about this inscription in June,
There are many books with a photograph of the Rosetta Stone, however, most
of them are so small so that one cannot read the hieroglyphs. There was a
booklet by Stephen Quirke and Carol Andrews, The Rosetta Stone,
London, 1988, including a poster with a 1:1 facsimile drawing of the stone.
There are also transcriptions of the Hieroglyphic and Demotic inscriptions
and a synopsis of the translations of all three inscriptions. Unfortunately
it is out of print now. May be that we will see a reprint this year?
The first note about the discovery of the Rosetta Stone was in: Courier de
l'Egypte, No. 37, 29 fructidor, an VII [September 15, 1799], pp. 3-4
It shows that its importance was clear from the very beginning: "Maybe even
it will provide finally the key" for the study of hieroglyphic signs.
The "Courrier de l'Egypte" [original title: "Courier ..."] was a political
and military journal printed in Cairo for the members of the French
expedition in Egypt. The complete collection consists of 116 issues, 4 pages
each. The first issue was published on 12 fructidor, an VI [French
revolution calendar = August 29, 1798], the last one on 20 prairial, an IX
[June 9, 1801]. It reported news from Cairo and the regions, only few from
Europe, mainly about the political and military events in Egypt. Needless to
say that these news were severely filtered as it served as a semi-official
journal of the commander-in-chief. Only few lines were dedicated to the
works of the members of the Institut de l'Egypte.
Translation of the text:
"Rosetta, le 2 fructidor an 7 [August 19, 1799].
During the construction works, which the citizen Dhautpoul, commander of the
battalion of engineers, arranged for at the ancient fort of Rachid, today
called Fort Julien, situated on the left side of the Nile, three thousand
fathoms [1 toise ("fathom") = 1,949 m] from Boghaz at the branch of Rosetta,
he found, in the excavation, a stone of very beautiful black granite, very
well grained, very hard under the hammer. The dimensions are 36 "inches" [1
pouce ("inch") = 27 mm] in height, 28 "inches" in width, and 9 to 10
"inches" in thickness. Only one side, which is well polished, offers three
different inscriptions separated in three parallel strips. The first and
upper one is written in hieroglyphic signs; one finds 14 lines of signs on
it, but, however, one part of which is lost due to a break of the stone. The
second and middle one is in signs which are believed to be ancient Syrian;
one counts 32 lines on it. The third and last one is written in Greek; one
counts 54 lines of very fine, very well sculptured characters on it which
like those of the two other upper inscriptions are very well preserved.
General Menou had the Greek inscription partially translated. It reads in
the main that Ptolomee Philopator arranged the reopening of all canals in
Egypt and that this prince employed a very considerable number of workers,
immense sums and eight years of his reign for these immense works. This
stone is of great interest for the study of hieroglyphic signs; maybe even
it will provide finally the key of them.
The citizen Bouchard, officer of the corps of engineers, who, under the
orders of citizen Dhaupoul, supervised the works at the fort of Rachid, was
instructed to get this stone transported to Cairo. It is now in Boulaq."
(1) The modern values of the Stone's dimensions are: height 118 cm, width 77
cm, thickness 30 cm (and weight 762 kg). Recent studies have shown
that the stone is not black (let alone of black basalt as has sometimes
been written), but "a gray granitoid rock, with a single vein of pink granite
running though it (at the top left corner); the composition of the stone suggests
that it could have come from Aswan." (see AEL Dec. 11, 1998; description by
Dr R. B. Parkinson, assistant keeper BM, who will do the catalogue of the BM exhibit
(June 10, 1999 - Januari, 2000) around the stone).
(2) The second inscription is in Demotic, not ancient Syrian.
(3) Those French who translated the Greek text did not understand it very
well; they mixed the real name of Ptolemy V Epiphanes with the name of
his father Ptolemy IV Philopator. In addition they put the cited story out
of its context: The first part of the decree is a list of good deeds of the
King; a suppression of a rebellion in Lycopolis was especially important:
"... having encamped gainst it, he [the King] surrounded it with earthworks
and trenches and elaborate walls; and when the the Nile made a great rise in
the eighth year, being wont to flood the plains, he checked it by damming at
many points the outlet of the channels, expending on it no small sum of
money and setting cavalry and infantry to guard them. In a short time he
took the town by storm and destroyed all the impious ones in it ..."
(Stephen Quirke, Carol Andrews, The Rosetta Stone, London, 1988, pp. 18-19)
The original text (here without accents, words in _..._ are printed in
italic, [...] page number):
" Rosette, le 2 fructidor an 7.
Parmi les travaux de fortification que le citoyen Dhautpoul, chef de
bataillon du genie, a fait faire a l'ancien fort de _Rachid_, aujourd'hui
nomme _Fort Julien_, situe sur la rive gauche du Nil, a trois mille toises
du Boghaz de la branche de Rosette, il a ete trouve, dans les fouilles, une
pierre d'un tres beau granit noir, d'un grain tres-fin, tres-dur au marteau.
Les dimensions sont de 36 pouces de hauteur, de 28 pouces de largeur et de 9
a 10 pouces d'epaisseur. Une seule face bien polie offre trois inscriptions
distinctes et separees en trois bandes paralleles. La premiere et superieure
est ecrite en ca-racteres _hieroglyphiques_; on y trouve quatorze lignes
de caracteres, mais dont une partie est perdue par une cassure de la pierre.
La seconde et intermediaire est en caracteres que l'on croit etre
_syriaques_; on y compte trente-deux lignes. La troisieme et la derniere est
ecrite en grec; on y compte cinquante quatre lignes de caracteres tres-fins,
tres-bien sculptes, et qui, comme ceux des deux autres inscriptions
superieures, sont tres-bien conserves.
Le general Menou a fait traduire en partie l'inscription grecque. Elle porte
en substance que _Ptolomee Philopator_ fit rouvrir tous les canaux de
l'Egypte, et que ce prince employa a ces immenses travaux un nombre tres
considerable d'ouvriers, des sommes immenses et huit annees de son regne.
Cette pierre offre un grand interet pour l'etude des caracteres
hieroglyphiques; peut-etre meme en donnera-t-elle enfin la clef.
Le citoyen Bouchard, officier du corps du genie, qui, sous les ordres du
citoyen Dhautpoul, conduisait les travaux du fort de _Rachid_, a ete charge
de faire transporter cette pierre au Kaire. Elle est maintenant a Boulaq."
The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was around mid-July, 1799 as can be
deduced from a short note in La Decade egyptienne, vol. III, pp. 293-294 (an
VIII [= 1799-1800]).
However, by studying the texts of that time one question remains: Who was
the scientist who discovered that all three inscriptions should be the same
At the first meeting of the Institut de l'Egypte it was decided to publish a
scientific and literary journal "La Decade egyptienne, journal litteraire et
d'economie politique". It was published in fascicles and were later bound in
three volumes, about 300 pp. each. The first fascicle was delivered on 10
vendemiaire an VII (October 1, 1798). It should be published every ten days
as indicated by the title, but it appeared monthly with the second volume,
whereas there were only three fascicles of the third volume, the last one of
which had the date 30 ventose an IX (March 21, 1801). La Decade egyptienne
contains the papers and treatises of the members of the institute and
reports about their sessions. The level of the papers is rather uneven.
The text below is part of a report entitled "Precis des seances et des
travaux de l'Institut d'Egypte, du 21 messidor an 7 au 21 fructidor an 8
inclusivement" [Summary of the sessions and the works of the Intitut
d'Egypte from July 9, 1799 to September 8, 1800, inclusively]
Jean-Joseph Marcel (1776-1854), orientalist, was leading the printing office
of the Institut de l'Egypte and later, after 1803, the Imprimerie nationale
in Paris and participated in the publication of the "Description de
Translation of the text:
"During the session of 1.er thermidor [July 19, 1799] one read out a letter
in which the citizen Lancret, member of the institute, informed that the
citizen Bouchard, officer of the engineers, had discovered inscriptions in
the town of Rosetta, of which the examination may offer much interest. The
black stone which bears these inscriptions is divided into three horizontal
strips: The lowest contains several lines of Greek characters which had been
sculptured under the reign of Ptolomee Philopator; the second inscription
is written in unknown characters; and the third contains hieroglyphs only
[footnote] (1) This stone has a height of about 3 "feet" [1 pied ("foot") =
33 cm] by 27 "inches" [1 pouce ("inch") = 27 mm] of width and 10 "inches" of
The hieroglyphic inscription comprises 14 lines, of which the figures of a
dimension of six lines [?] are arranged from left to right.
The second inscription which had been announced as ancient Syrian at first,
then as Coptic is composed of 32 lines of characters which follow the same
direction as the upper inscription and which are obviously cursive
characters of the ancient Egyptian language. I have found identical forms on
several roles of papyrus and on several linen strips which are part of the
wrappings of human mummies.
The Greek inscription which comprises 54 lines is above all remarkable for
containing several words, among others that of Fta (God), which are not at
all Greek, but Egyptian, and indicate through them that the age - in which,
despite the efforts of the Ptolemies, the native [?] language of the
Egyptians began to mix with the one of the Greek, their conquerors, a
mixture growing successively - has finished about the 4th century AD by
forming the ancient Coptic language of which one finds precious rests in
This stone seems to have been sculptured in about 157 BC in the beginning of
the reign of Ptolomee Philometor, and not of Philopator, the name of this
latter prince who reigned about 195 BC is to be found among those of
Philadelpho, Euergetes, and Epiphanes in the enumeration of gods or deified
kings, predecessors of the prince of whom this inscription reports the
coronation and inauguration. The details on these stone which is infinitely
interesting and on the ceremonies which are described on it will be the
subject of a special paper. (Note of the citizen J.J. Marcel.)"
(1) I do not understand Marcel's comment on the "figures of a dimension of
six lines" in the hieroglyphic inscription. Is "line" an ancient measure?
The direction of the hieroglyphs is from right to left.
(2) The second inscription is written in Demotic.
(3) The god in question is obviously Ptah.
(4) Marcel, too, did not really understand the Greek text. He assigned it
incorrectly to Ptolemy VI Philometor (180-168) instead to Ptolemy V
Epiphanes (204-180). Ptolemy IV Philopator reigned from 221 to 204.
(Guenther Hoelbl, Geschichte des Ptolemaeerreiches [History of the kingdom
of the Ptolemies], Darmstadt, 1994)
The original text (here without accents, words in _..._ are printed in
italic, [...] page number):
" Dans la seance du 1.er thermidor, on a donne lecture d'une lettre
dans laquelle le citoyen _Lancret_, membre de l'institut, informe que le
citoyen _Bouchard_, officier du genie, a decouvert dans la ville de Rosette,
des inscriptions dont l'examen peut offrir beaucoup d'interet. La pierre
noire qui porte ces inscriptions est divisee en trois bandes horizontales:
la plus inferieure contient plusieurs lignes des caracteres grecs qui ont
ete graves sous le regne de _Ptolomee Philopator_; la seconde inscription
est ecrite en caracteres inconnus; et la troisieme ne contient que des
(1) Cette pierre a environ trois pieds de haut sur vingt-sept pouces de
large et dix d'epaisseur.
L'inscription hieroglyphique renferme quatorze lignes, dont les figures, de
six lignes de dimension, sont rangees de gauche a droite.
La seconde inscription qui avait d'abord ete annoncee comme syriaque, puis
comme qobtte, est composee de trente-deux lignes de caracteres qui suivent
le meme sens que l'inscription superieure, et qui sont evidem-ment des
caracteres cursifs de l'ancienne langue egyptienne. J'ai retrouve des formes
identiques su quelques rouleaux de papyrus et sur quelques bandes de toile
faisant partie d'enveloppes de momies humaines.
L'inscription grecque qui renferme cinquante quatre lignes, est surtout
remarquable en ce qu'elle contient plusieurs mots, entr'autres celui de
[Greek letters Phi-Theta-Alpha reproduced from the stone]
_Fta_ (Dieu), qui ne sont point grecs, mais egyptiens, et indiquent par la
l'epoque a laquelle, malgre les efforts des _Ptolemees_, la langue idiotique
des Egyptiens commenc,ait a se meler avec celle des grecs leurs conquerans,
melange qui s'augmentant successivement, a fini vers le quatrieme siecle de
l'ere vulgaire par former la langue coptte ancienne dont on trouve des
restes precieux dans le cobtte moderne.
Cette pierre parait avoir ete gravee vers l'an 157 avant l'ere vulgaire, au
commencement du regne de _Ptolomee Philometor_, et non de _Philopator_, le
nom de ce dernier prince qui regnait vers l'an 195 avant l'ere vulgaire, se
trouvant avec ceux de _Philadelpho_, d'_Evergetes_, et d'_Epiphanes_, dans
l'enumeration des dieux, ou rois deifies, predecesseurs du prince dont cette
inscription rapporte le couronnement et l'inauguration. Les details sur
cette pierre infiniment interessante, et sur les ceremonies qui y sont
decrites, feront le sujet d'un memoire particulier. (_Note du Citoyen_ J.J.
The texts from "Courier de l'Egypte" and "La Decade egyptienne" are from the
reprints by Saladin Boustany (ed.), The Journals of Bonaparte in Egypt
1798-1801, 10 vols., Cairo, 1971
The dates of the French revolution calendar were converted using the tables
XXVI and XXVII of H. Grotefend, Zeitrechnung des deutschen Mittelalters und
der Neuzeit [Calendar of the German Middle Ages and of the modern age], vol.
1, Hannover, 1891, pp. 30-31
(added Oct 18, '99)
In Part III I wrote:
>The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was around mid-July, 1799 as can be
> deduced from a short note in La Decade egyptienne, vol. III, pp. 293-294
>(an VIII [= 1799-1800]).
> Translation of the text:
> "During the session of 1.er thermidor [July 19, 1799] one read out a
> in which the citizen Lancret, member of the institute, informed that the
> citizen Bouchard, officer of the engineers, had discovered inscriptions in
> the town of Rosetta, of which the examination may offer much interest...."
This date is also mentioned in Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes. The
Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, 1999, p. 20 (catalog of the exhibition under
the same title in the British Museum).
However, this date is not true, though it was given in the original
publication of La Decade egyptienne.
This publication, originally published in Cairo, indicated that the sessions
no. 29 and no. 30 both took place on 21 messidor an VII (July 9, 1799). The
31st session was said to have taken place on 1er thermidor (July 19, 1999),
but in the course of its discussions the victory of Aboukir of 7 thermidor
(July 26, 1799) was evoked.
Therefore Jean-Edouard Goby, Premier Institut d'Egypte. Restitution des
comptes rendus des seances, Memoires de l'Academie des inscriptions et
belles-lettres, nouvelle serie, vol. VII, Paris, 1987, pp. 49-50 corrected
the dates of the sessions as follows:
session no. 29: 21 messidor an VII (July 9, 1799)
session no. 30: 1er thermidor an VII (July 19, 1799)
session no. 31: 11 thermidor an VII (July 29, 1799)
Lancret's letter announcing the discovery of the Stone of Rosetta was read
during the session of July 29, 1799. The discovery itself must have been
some days before, but it seems that the exact date is not known.
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