Now housed in the British Museum, the Rosetta Stone, discovered in Egypt in 1799, provided the key to understanding hieroglyphics.
Created in 196 BC, the stone, which measures 112.3 by 75.7 centimetres, has inscribed upon it a priestly decree passed in support of the 13-year-old pharoah, Ptolemy V, and was issued on the first anniversary of his coronation.
Its discovery was a breakthrough in understanding hieroglyphics, which had fallen out of use around the 4th century, due to the fact that the decree was written upon it in three languages – hieroglyphic as well as the everyday Egyptian language of demotic and, importantly, Greek.
Scholars studying the stone were able to use the Greek to decipher the other two languages. Among them were Jean-François Champollion who announced the translation had been completed in Paris in 1822.
The stone was unearthed near the town of el-Rashid or ‘Rosetta’ by French soldiers in 1799 as they were digging out the foundations of an extension to a fort and following Napoleon’s defeat became the property of the British along with other antiquities under the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria. It has been on display since at the British Museum since 1802 (only briefly removed toward the end of the First World War when it was stored in a subterranean postal railway underneath Holborn).
The stone, said to be the most visited item in the British Museum, underwent a significant restoration and conservation process in 1999 which involved removing grease left by people touching the stone and materials used to create copies of it following its rediscovery – including printers ink from 1799.
WHERE: Room 4, Egyptian Sculpture, British Museum, Great Russell Street (nearest Tube stations are Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Goodge Street and Holborn); WHEN: 10am to 5.30pm daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.britishmuseum.org.
PICTURE: The Rosetta Stone © The Trustees of the British Museum