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The Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone, 196 B.C.E., granite, 114.4 cm x 72.3 x 27.9 cm or 45 x 28.5 x 11 inches, Ptolemaic Period (British Museum, London). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: We're in the British Museum, and we're looking at one of the most important objects in the collection, the Rosetta Stone. SPEAKER 2: It's in a glass case, surrounded by people who are taking pictures of it. SPEAKER 1: People love it. SPEAKER 2: They do. And there's gifts in the gift shop about it. SPEAKER 1: You can get your own little Rosetta Stone. SPEAKER 2: Exactly! SPEAKER 1: You can get Rosetta Stone posters. SPEAKER 2: On a mug. SPEAKER 1: I think you can get a doormat Rosetta Stone. SPEAKER 2: Yeah. SPEAKER 1: But the stone itself is historically incredibly important. It allowed us for the first time to be able to understand, to be able to read, to be able to translate hieroglyphics. SPEAKER 2: Hieroglyphics was the written language of the ancient Egyptians. And until the mid 19th century, we really didn't know what it said. SPEAKER 1: The language itself is pictorial. And actually that led to one of the real confusions, because they think that early archaeologists believed and linguists believed that the pictures they could see-- you can make out birds and snakes in various different kinds of forms-- actually referred in some way to a specific thing in the world. SPEAKER 2: Right. So if you saw a bird, it somehow referred to a bird. SPEAKER 1: And in fact, that's not the case. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: This is a far more sophisticated language. SPEAKER 2: And the Rosetta Stone was really what helped them to understand that Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pictorial. They're not pictographs. They're actually phonetic. So all those things that look like pictures actually represent sounds. And that's how they were able to finally figure out and translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. SPEAKER 1: And the reason we were able to do that is because this stone said the same statement three times in three different languages. So the three languages are ancient Greek, which is down at the bottom. Now, that was the language of the administration. That was the language of government. And the reason for that is because Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt and had set up this sort of Greek rule in this Hellenistic era, and that maintained itself in ancient Egypt. SPEAKER 2: Let's remember, we're talking about 200 BC here. SPEAKER 1: Which is actually getting close to the end of the life of hieroglyphics as well. It would last for another few hundred years before it died out completely. So this is really the tail end of this 3,000-year-long language. SPEAKER 2: So the middle section is Demotic, which actually means the language of the people. And it was this common language used by the Egyptians. SPEAKER 1: And the top, of course, was the sacred writing. This was hieroglyphs. SPEAKER 2: Right. SPEAKER 1: And that was the language that we really couldn't read. SPEAKER 2: Until we had the Rosetta Stone, and we could see within the writings of the Rosetta Stone cartouches, which held the names of the rulers. Cartouches are a kind of oblong shape that contains the name of the ruler. SPEAKER 1: In this case, that would be Ptolemy V. SPEAKER 2: And by recognizing that ruler's name in these three different languages, we found a way to begin to unlock hieroglyphics. SPEAKER 1: Now, that would take decades. It was an incredibly difficult task. SPEAKER 2: And we haven't even talked yet about how this was found. Napoleon has his army in Egypt, and Napoleon's brought with him some what I guess what we would call sort of archaeologist types. And one of those people who accompanied Napoleon found or came across the Rosetta Stone. SPEAKER 1: It was being used as a part of the foundation of a fort, in fact. SPEAKER 2: And of course, it would have originally been erected in a temple or near an ancient Egyptian temple. SPEAKER 1: And I suppose it's important to say that this is the bottom portion of a much larger stele, or sort of stone tablet, that would have been quite tall. SPEAKER 2: So Napoleon took it back-- SPEAKER 1: Except hold on a second, because we're not in the Louvre. We're in London in a British Museum. So how does that work? SPEAKER 2: Well, the British defeated Napoleon and brought back the stone. And a year or two later, I think 1801 or 1802, it was brought to the British Museum, and it's been here ever since. SPEAKER 1: Well, it's clearly still extremely popular. [MUSIC PLAYING]