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The Rosetta Stone May Be the World's Oldest Deciphering Tool

June 25, 2019

As archaeologists study human prehistory through the excavation of ancient sites, the analysis and interpretation of meanings for antique artifacts and other physical remains often depend upon the deciphering tools they uncover. Among the oldest and most studied of these is a black granodiorite stele called the Rosetta Stone. Discovered in 1799, the stone was inscribed with three versions of a legal decree issued in 196 BC by King Ptolemy V during the Ptolemaic dynasty in Memphis, Egypt.

The stone was carved during the Hellenistic period by language professionals in three sections, with each section containing a copy of the King's decree in a distinct band of writing. Scholars recognized the top script as hieroglyphics and the bottom script as Ancient Greek. Although there were disagreements over the language used for the center section at the time when the stone was discovered, a Swedish scholar working on a little known Egyptian script believed it to be a direct descendant of Ancient Egyptian and it became known as "demotic" or native script used for daily purposes.

Whether one of the three texts was the standard version, from which the other two were originally translated, is a question that remains controversial to this day. Prior to the rediscovery of the stone, the ancient Egyptian language and hieroglyphic scripts had been difficult to decipher, since around the fourth century CE. Nonetheless, ancient Greek was widely used by scholars, so the section of Greek text provided an obvious starting point for interpretation. As many as eighty similarities were noted between the hieroglyphic and demotic text although these languages were originally believed to be entirely different.

The Ancient Egyptian deciphering tool has remained on almost continuous display at the British Museum in London since 1802. Today, it is still the most-visited object on display. The term "Rosetta Stone" has been used idiomatically to represent a crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information, especially when a small but representative sample is recognized as the clue to understanding a larger whole.

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