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The Finding of the Rosetta Stone


The Rosetta Stone

For 1400 years, no one knew how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. Virtually all understanding of this mysterious script had been lost since the 4th century AD. The breakthrough to the decipherment of hieroglyphs came in 1799, a year after Napoleon's armies successfully captured the Egyptian Nile Delta. A French soldier, while working at a fort on the Rosetta branch of the Nile River, found a black basalt stone slab carved with inscriptions that would change the course of Egyptology.
The Rosetta Stone (now in the British Museum) was carved with an inscription in three different scripts: Egyptian hieroglyphs at the top, demotic script (a late cursive form of hieroglyphs) in the middle, and Greek at the bottom. The translation of the Greek passage revealed that the inscription was a royal edict issued on March 27, 196 BC. The decree recorded the benefits conferred on Egypt by the 13-year-old pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes at the time of his coronation. The Greek inscription was a translation of the upper two Egyptian passages and thus provided the key to deciphering ancient hieroglyphs. Copies of the Rosetta Stone inscription were sent to linguistic experts in Europe. The final breakthrough was made by the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (shown nearby) who published his results in 1822.

Jean François Champollion (1798-1832)

The French scholar Jean François Champollion unlocked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs. A brilliant linguist, Champollion began his work on the Rosetta Stone inscriptions (shown nearby) in 1808 at age 18. After 14 years of study, he finally deciphered the hieroglyphs. The results of his great achievement were announced in 1822 in a now famous letter he wrote to the French Royal Academy of Inscriptions, in which he explained the basic concepts of hieroglyphic script.

Champollion based his approach to deciphering hieroglyphs on three fundamental and brilliant assumptions:

  1. The later Egyptian Coptic script represented the final stage of the ancient language of the pharaohs.
  2. Hieroglyphs were used both as ideograms (pictures that represent a concept or thing) and as phonograms (pictures that represent sounds).
  3. Hieroglyphs enclosed in a cartouche (an oval-shaped loop encircling a group of hieroglyphs) were phonetic transcriptions of the pharaohs' names.

Finally after nearly 1500 years of silence, ancient Egyptian writing could be read!


Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is one of the oldest scripts in the world and was used for almost 3500 years. The Greeks first named Egyptian script "ta hieroglyphica" or "sacred carved (letters)". Hieroglyphic script is mostly pictorial--familiar images of natural and man-made objects. However, it is more than simple picture writing, richer than our own alphabet, and far more difficult to learn. Less than 1000 hieroglyphs were in general use at any one time; in the Late Period (712-332 BC), however, the number climbed to 6000.

Reading Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

Hieroglyphs are signs that indicate sounds (called phonograms) or represent complete words (called ideograms). Like modern Arabic and Hebrew, only the consonants are written down, specific vowels are not indicated. For example, the word "brook" would be spelled in hieroglyphs as "brk". However, this combination of signs could also spell "brick", "break", or "brake". In order to tell the difference between similar words, the Egyptian added signs called "determinatives" to avoid confusion and give specific meaning to a particular word. To indicate "brk" as "brook", the determinative for water would be placed at the end of the word.

Hieroglyphic inscriptions were usually written in rows from right to left or in columns top to bottom. But to create a more pleasing visual effect, they might also be written from left to right. You can tell which way to read an inscription by looking at the direction toward which animals or people face or walk. They always face toward the beginning of the line. With no punctuation or spaces between words or sentences hieroglyphs are even more difficult to read.

Kinds of Hieroglyphic Script

Ancient Egyptians used three distinct scripts to record their language.



a formal script used for inscriptions on tombs, temples, commemorative steles and other official or religious dedications (see Apis Bull stele inscription)


a simpler, cursive form of hieroglyphs used as an everyday script for administrative and business purposes.


a popular version of the script that came into use around 600 BC. During the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC), it was used on stone monuments, especially on funerary or commemorative steles, or, in royal edicts like that found on the Rosetta Stone.

Epitaph for an Apis Bull


The original in limestone; h. 41 1/2", w. 24 1/4"
Saggara, Serapeum, Late Period, Dynasty 26, reign of Amasis, 570-526 BC, dated year 23

Sacred animal cults have a long history in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians believed that each god could incarnate himself or herself as an animal. These animals--dogs, cats, crocodiles, etc.-- were venerated during life, carefully mummified at death and buried in special cemeteries. The sacred Apis bull cult was one of the oldest and most important. It was believed that Apis was the earthly manifestation of Ptah, the god of Memphis, and also Osiris, the god of the dead and resurrection. Apis had distinctive markings--the hide was black, with a mark of a white diamond on the forehead, an eagle on its back and a scarab-beetle under its tongue. The sacred Apis bulls were buried in enormous, granite coffins placed in a vast underground tomb known as the Serapeum.

During the Late Period (712-332 BC), kings set up carved stone slabs, called steles, inscribed with an epitaph for the sacred bulls.

Read the translation of the inscription from the Apis Bull Stele and see if you can answer these questions:

  • Who was embalmed?
  • What did this king love more than any other king?
  • What did this king do that no other king had ever done?
  • How long had the king ruled when he performed his act?
  • What did Horus do for his father?
  • How old was the bull when he died?

Why do archaeologists excavate in Egypt?

Formerly, people excavated for buried treasure; today, archaeologists excavate for knowledge about the past. The first excavator to employ scientific methods in his work was the British archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)--shown nearby. He realized that a small, broken piece of pottery can tell us as much, if not more, about ancient civilizations as a gold necklace. Today, excavators are not permitted to take even a small share of their finds home with them, but excavation in Egypt still continues in pursuit of knowledge. In 1995 there were 24 American archaeological projects, sponsored by universities and museums, active at sites all over Egypt.

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