A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter X
The new science of oriental archaeology
How the "riddle of the sphinx" was read
Conspicuously placed in the great hall of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum is a wonderful piece of sculpture known as the Rosetta Stone. I doubt if any other piece in the entire exhibit attracts so much attention from the casual visitor as this slab of black basalt on its telescope-like pedestal. The hall itself, despite its profusion of strangely sculptured treasures, is never crowded, but before this stone you may almost always find some one standing, gazing with more or less of discernment at the strange characters that are graven neatly across its upturned, glass-protected face. A glance at this graven surface suffices to show that three sets of inscriptions are recorded there. The upper one, occupying about one-fourth of the surface, is a pictured scroll, made up of chains of those strange outlines of serpents, hawks, lions, and so on, which are recognized, even by the least initiated, as hieroglyphics. The middle inscription, made up of lines, angles, and half-pictures, one might surmise to be a sort of abbreviated or short-hand hieroglyphic. The third or lower inscription is Greek - obviously a thing of words. If the screeds above be also made of words, only the elect have any way of proving the fact.

Fortunately, however, even the least scholarly observer is left in no doubt as to the real import of the thing he sees, for an obliging English label tells us that these three inscriptions are renderings of the same message, and that this message is a "decree of the priests of Memphis conferring divine honors on Ptolemy V. (Epiphenes), King of Egypt, B.C. 195." The label goes on to state that the upper inscription (of which, unfortunately, only part of the last dozen lines or so remains, the slab being broken) is in "the Egyptian language, in hieroglyphics, or writing of the priests"; the second inscription "in the same language is in Demotic, or the writing of the people"; and the third "the Greek language and character." Following this is a brief biography of the Rosetta Stone itself, as follows: "The stone was found by the French in 1798 among the ruins of Fort Saint Julien, near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. It passed into the hands of the British by the treaty of Alexandria, and was deposited in the British Museum in the year 1801." There is a whole volume of history in that brief inscription - and a bitter sting thrown in, if the reader chance to be a Frenchman. Yet the facts involved could scarcely be suggested more modestly. They are recorded much more bluntly in a graven inscription on the side of the stone, which reads: "Captured in Egypt by the British Army, 1801." No Frenchman could read those words without a veritable sinking of the heart.

The value of the Rosetta Stone depended on the fact that it gave promise, even when casually inspected, of furnishing a key to the centuries-old mystery of the hieroglyphics. For two thousand years the secret of these strange markings had been forgotten. Nowhere in the world - quite as little in Egypt as elsewhere - had any man the slightest clew to their meaning; there were those who even doubted whether these droll picturings really had any specific meaning, questioning whether they were not rather vague symbols of esoteric religious import and nothing more. And it was the Rosetta Stone that gave the answer to these doubters and restored to the world a lost language and a forgotten literature.

The trustees of the museum recognized at once that the problem of the Rosetta Stone was one on which the scientists of the world might well exhaust their ingenuity, and promptly published to the world a carefully lithographed copy of the entire inscription, so that foreign scholarship had equal opportunity with the British to try at the riddle. It was an Englishman, however, who first gained a clew to the solution. This was none other than the extraordinary Dr. Thomas Young, the demonstrator of the vibratory nature of light.

Young's specific discoveries were these: (1) That many of the pictures of the hieroglyphics stand for the names of the objects actually delineated; (2) that other pictures are sometimes only symbolic; (3) that plural numbers are represented by repetition; (4) that numerals are represented by dashes; (5) that hieroglyphics may read either from the right or from the left, but always from the direction in which the animal and human figures face; (6) that proper names are surrounded by a graven oval ring, making what he called a cartouche; (7) that the cartouches of the preserved portion of the Rosetta Stone stand for the name of Ptolemy alone; (8) that the presence of a female figure after such cartouches in other inscriptions always denotes the female sex; (9) that within the cartouches the hieroglyphic symbols have a positively phonetic value, either alphabetic or syllabic; and (10) that several different characters may have the same phonetic value.

Just what these phonetic values are Young pointed out in the case of fourteen characters representing nine sounds, six of which are accepted to-day as correctly representing the letters to which he ascribed them, and the three others as being correct regarding their essential or consonant element. It is clear, therefore, that he was on the right track thus far, and on the very verge of complete discovery. But, unfortunately, he failed to take the next step, which would have been to realize that the same phonetic values which were given to the alphabetic characters within the cartouches were often ascribed to them also when used in the general text of an inscription; in other words, that the use of an alphabet was not confined to proper names. This was the great secret which Young missed and which his French successor, Jean Francois Champollion, working on the foundation that Young had laid, was enabled to ferret out.

Young's initial studies of the Rosetta Stone were made in 1814; his later publication bore date of 1819. Champollion's first announcement of results came in 1822; his second and more important one in 1824. By this time, through study of the cartouches of other inscriptions, Champollion had made out almost the complete alphabet, and the "riddle of the Sphinx" was practically solved. He proved that the Egyptians had developed a relatively complete alphabet (mostly neglecting the vowels, as early Semitic alphabets did also) centuries before the Phoenicians were heard of in history. What relation this alphabet bore to the Phoenician we shall have occasion to ask in another connection; for the moment it suffices to know that those strange pictures of the Egyptian scroll are really letters.

Even this statement, however, must be in a measure modified. These pictures are letters and something more. Some of them are purely alphabetical in character and some are symbolic in another way. Some characters represent syllables. Others stand sometimes as mere representatives of sounds, and again, in a more extended sense, as representations of things, such as all hieroglyphics doubtless were in the beginning. In a word, this is an alphabet, but not a perfected alphabet, such as modern nations are accustomed to; hence the enormous complications and difficulties it presented to the early investigators.

Champollion did not live to clear up all these mysteries. His work was taken up and extended by his pupil Rossellini, and in particular by Dr. Richard Lepsius in Germany, followed by M. Bernouf, and by Samuel Birch of the British Museum, and more recently by such well-known Egyptologists as MM. Maspero and Mariette and Chabas, in France, Dr. Brugsch, in Germany, and Dr. E. Wallis Budge, the present head of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. But the task of later investigators has been largely one of exhumation and translation of records rather than of finding methods.




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.