29. The Fascinating Find That Unlocked the Mysteries of a Dead Language
Pierre Bouchard was a French army captain who accompanied Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. On August 21st, 1799, as he supervised the restoration of an old fort near the town of Rosetta, Bouchard’s men made a fascinating discovery. They uncovered a block of basalt three feet and nine inches high, with a width of two feet and four inches. It was inscribed with three different types of writing – Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian demotic scripts. Fortunately for archaeology and history, Bouchard immediately grasped the significance of what came to be known as the Rosetta Stone. He promptly alerted a team of French scholars who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt.
Nobody knew how to read hieroglyphs or demotic, but scholars could read Greek, and the Greek text informed archaeologists that the stone honored second century BC King Ptolemy V. More importantly, the Greek text declared that the three scripts contained an identical message. The artifact thus held the key to solving the riddle of ancient Egyptian writing, which had been dead for centuries. Several scholars made initial progress in cracking the hieroglyphs, until Jean-Francois Champollion conclusively cracked the code in 1822. From then on, the language, history, and culture of ancient Egypt were opened to scholars as never before.