Linguistic Anthropology

Who translated the Rosetta Stone?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. There remains some controversy over who was most important in the two-decade project of deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Two researchers stand out among the many others: British scholar Thomas Young and French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion. Young made a pivotal discovery in 1814 when he managed to reveal the meaning of a cartouche, which was a piece of punctuation indicating that certain symbols comprised a proper name, but he was unable to make a connection between the cartouche's hieroglyphs and the other two languages on the stone. Champollion built his research on Young's discovery and was able to make that elusive connection, which enabled people to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time in more than a millennium.

    Cracking the hieroglyphic code found on the Rosetta Stone meant that more than 1,000 years of Egyptian history could be better understood. Early in the 19th century, Egypt became a much sought-after destination. Egyptian-inspired clothing became fashionable and the study of ancient Egypt, or Egyptology, became part of popular culture and a science in its own right. Tourists and scholars crowded Egypt to visit the ruins and study the artifacts. The Egypt Exploration Fund was founded in 1895 to help museums acquire Egyptian artifacts.

    After the rise of Christianity -- probably just before 400 A.D. -- hieroglyphics were outlawed. The last known hieroglyphic inscriptions were carved in a temple on the island of Philae [source: Singh]. The Greek script called Coptic replaced ancient Egypt's hieroglyphics and by the 11th century, Coptic also was replaced, this time by Arabic. When scholars tried to translate the ancient Egyptian findings, they looked at them literally, assuming they were pictures with meaning. The Rosetta Stone feature Greek words along with the Egyptian text, enabling at least partial translation.

    With the importance of the Rosetta Stone, it's no wonder that supporters of both scholars and countries have disagreed for some any years about the relative importance of Young's and Champollion's contributions. There also is history in the discovery of the stone and its ownership between the countries of France and England that possibly could add to the translation controversy: French soldiers in Egypt with Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th century discovered the famous piece of archaeology, but a treaty forced the French to hand it over to the British. The stone has remained at the British Museum to this day.

     

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