Generating Buzz Forever Before Technology: How a Pharaoh Did It

Why was the Rosetta stone discovery so important to scholars of this time?

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. (Hans Hillewaert/CC BY-SA 4.0, Smithsonian.com)

The discovery of the Rosetta stone in the late 1700 (circa 1799) was of such import for a number of reasons. While there are different accounts of how the stone was discovered, the stone gave scholars a glimpse into rich Egyptian culture and heritage.

From the Rosetta stone, historians know that Egypt, during Ptolemy V’s reign, was a polyglot of cultures, as the stone was written in two languages and three writing systems—hieroglyphic (sacred text), demotic (native or ordinary, everyday Egyptian language) and Greek. Scholars were able to decipher the texts because they understood Greek and used Greek to translate the other two scripts.

Because scholars could use the Greek inscriptions to decipher the other languages, the discovery of the Rosetta stone led to scholars translating other Egyptian artifacts, which were erroneously translated.

Prior to the stone’s discovery, much of the information that scholars gathered regarding Ancient Egypt was erroneous for a few reasons:

  • Because much of Egyptian writing was in graphic symbols, scholars had trouble connecting symbols with spoken language.
  • Symbolic, or written, language differs from a spoken one. To derive meaning, the translator deciphered the spoken language and placed it context of the written (symbolic).
  • All languages have graphemes (spelling) and phonemes (pronunciation), and when deciphering ancient texts, sometimes words are not pronounced the way they are spelled.

Ultimately, the ability to translate this ancient text allowed scholars to use Greek to recreate the Egyptian alphabet by matching symbols with word meaning. First and foremost, the Rosetta stone is of particular significance for historians because it sheds light on the administrative reception of one of Egypt’s favored pharaohs (god-king)—Ptolemy V.

What does the stone look like itself?

The Rosetta Stone in a glass display in the British Museum. (Olaf Hermann, Wikipedia Commons)

The part of the Rosetta stone that exists is only a portion of the entire message. Astonishingly, in its own time, this key find was a mere functional piece that probably would have been used for other projects, as it was not a work of art or it was not a part of a larger monument.

The stone is made of granodiorite stela dating back to about 196 BC. The gray and pink inscription on the stone contains three scripts with instructions on how to praise the ruler, Ptolemy V.

So, what did Ptolemy V do for Egypt that was so great?

Ptolemy was praised for making Egypt prosperous, building and restoring existing temples, releasing former enemies of the state, and reducing, and in some cases, eliminating taxes.

Furthermore, his exploits as a military leader helped him crush enemies and established him as a competent ruler.

He accomplished A LOT!

And for his heroic efforts, Ptolemy V was….

  • First and foremost, he was deified. The priests recognized him as the god (pharaoh) Ptolemy Epiphanes Eucharistos.
  • statue of the king wearing ten gold diadems was erected in honor of the ruler.
  • The pharaoh’s birthday and coronation date were celebrated with festivals, libation ceremonies, and sacrifices and feasting.
  • The stone designated specific days during the month in which Pharaoh would be worshipped.

For an Egyptian ruler, why is a public statement of this type so important to his/her rule?

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the Second International Congress of Orientalists of 1874. (Illustrated London News, Wikipedia Commons)

This statement established respect for Ptolemy V and his government. Because democratic or republican ideals were not a part of Egyptian rule, respect for rulers was established in the same way as previously—through their perceived strength. One way a ruler’s might and authority were determined was by the statues built in his/her honor.

More importantly, this stone established pharaoh as a just, wise ruler, and because it was written by priests, this relic conveyed to the public the allegiance priests gave to pharaoh.

And the Rosetta stone as public press for its day?

The Rosetta stone in its own way functioned as intended and unintended press for the Egyptian hierarchy.

The intended press impressed upon priests and other leaders the import of this leader. The unintended press, however, impressed on average Egyptian citizens and residents an aura of majesty and authority.


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