Jul 152015



On this date in 1799 the Rosetta Stone was discovered by a French soldier in Napoleon’s army. The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite stele inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in Egypt, in 196 BCE on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion Demotic (Egyptian) script, and the lowest is Ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (with some minor differences among them), it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Although it is believed to have originally been displayed within a temple, possibly at nearby Sais, the stone was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period and was eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It was rediscovered there in 1799 by a soldier, Pierre-François Bouchard, of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. As the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, the Rosetta Stone aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher this previously untranslated ancient language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating among European museums and scholars. Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the capitulation of Alexandria. It was transported to London and has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the museum.

Study of the decree was already under way as the first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the transliteration of the Egyptian scripts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822; it took longer still before scholars were able to read Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently. Major advances in the decoding were recognition that the stone offered three versions of the same text (1799); that the demotic text used phonetic characters to spell foreign names (1802); that the hieroglyphic text did so as well, and had pervasive similarities to the demotic (1814); and that, in addition to being used for foreign names, phonetic characters were also used to spell native Egyptian words (1822–1824).

Ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, a long-running dispute over the relative value of Young and Champollion’s contributions to the decipherment, and since 2003, demands for the stone’s return to Egypt.

Two other fragmentary copies of the same decree were discovered later, and several similar Egyptian bilingual or trilingual inscriptions are now known, including two slightly earlier Ptolemaic decrees (the Decree of Canopus in 238 BCE, and the Memphis decree of Ptolemy IV, ca. 218 BCE). The Rosetta Stone is, therefore, no longer unique, but it was the essential key to modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature and civilization.  The decree, incidentally, concerned the pharaoh’s decision not to tax the priests.  He needed them on his side.  Sounds quite contemporary !!

I’ve given a recipe or two for the mainstays of ancient Egyptian dishes – namely dried pulses and grains, such as fava beans, lentils, and barley. Here’s a sweet dish made with dates. They’re rather like Christmas sugar plums which I used to make every year – i.e. minced candied fruits rolled into little balls. These are made with dates.


Egyptian Date Balls

Take a cup of fresh dates and mash them with warm honey to a paste. I use a mortar and pestle. Add ½ cup of ground walnuts, 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon, and ½ teaspoon of ground cardamom. Mic well and form into little balls. Roll in finely ground almonds.