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The Rosetta Stone

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The Rosetta Stone is part of a granitoid stela, originally about six feet in height which was set up in March, 196 BC. It is a copy of a decree passed by a general council of priests which assembled at Memphis on the first anniversary of the coronation of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, king of all Egypt. The text concerns the honours bestowed on the king by temples of Egypt in return for services rendered by him to Egypt both at home and abroad. Priestly privileges, especially those of an economic nature, are listed in detail.

The stone was discovered in 1799 when some French soldiers in Napoleon's army were digging the foundations of an addition to a fort near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile delta. The stone was subsequently ceded to the British government by the terms of the treaty of Alexandria in 1801 and has been exhibited in the British Museum since 1802.

The immediate importance of the Rosetta Stone lay in the fact that the Egyptian hieroglyphic text was accompanied by the Greek translation which could be read. A third inscription on the stone was written in Demotic, a cursive script developed late in Egyptian history and used in most cases only for secular documents. Thus the stone displayed the same text in three scripts, but only two languages, Egyptian and Greek.

The Egyptians used the hieroglyphic script for nearly 3,500 years, beginning in about 3300 BC until the end of the fourth century AD. At about the start of the third century AD, the Egyptians began to write their languages in a script composed of the Greek alphabet, to which were added seven characters derived ultimately from hieroglyphs. In this form the language came to be known as Coptic, a corruption of the Greek word for 'Egypt', Aiguptios. Knowledge of how to read and write the hieroglyphic script was probably lost soon after it had been superseded and no key to its meaning was found until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

The Greek inscription was used by scholars as the key to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs in the first section. Thomas Young, the English Physicist, was the first to prove that the elongated ovals or cartouches in the hieroglyphic section of the stone contained a royal name written phonetically, in this case that of Ptolemy. The French scholar J-F Champollion went on to correct and enlarge Young's list of phonetic hieroglyphs and lay the foundations of our knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language in a paper read to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres in Paris in 1822.

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The Rosetta Stone

You may wonder what the purpose of this text is. Its function is to support an upcoming text in Norwegian.

The Rosetta Stone is written in three scripts because when it was written, there were three scripts being used in Egypt.

The first was hieroglyphic which was the script used for important or religious documents. The second was demotic which was the common script of Egypt. The third was Greek which was the language of the rulers of Egypt at that time.

The Rosetta Stone was written in all three scripts so that the priests, government officials and rulers of Egypt could read what it said.

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