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Deciphering The Rosetta Stone

Video highlights from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

The granite-like slab holds the key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics

On July 19, 1799, the Rosetta Stone was discovered in Rashid (sometimes called Rosetta), Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is a large, black, granite-like slab (called a stele) meant to be erected in a public space.

Dated 196 BCE, the fragment of a giant granite stele outlines new rituals surrounding the worship of Pharaoh Ptolemy V.

The stone is inscribed in two languages: Egyptian and Greek, and three texts: hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Greek. Scholars were fluent in ancient Greek and Demotic, the writing system used by Egyptian scribes of the period. The translation of hieroglyphics, however, remained a mystery.

The Rosetta Stone allowed linguists to decipher hieroglyphics by comparing hieroglyphic symbols with a known text. Understanding hieroglyphics opened up almost all ancient Egyptian language and literature to Egyptologists and historians.

It was deciphered largely by Thomas Young of England, and Jean-Francois Champollion of France in 1882. 

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