Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment

Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment

by Richard Parkinson, Whitfield Diffie, M. Fisher, Robert S. Simpson

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The author of "How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs" provides an in-depth history of the Rosetta Stone, the famous Egyptian antiquity that allowed decipherers to "crack the code" of Egyptian writing and opened up Egyptian culture as a whole to historians. 200+ photos & illustrations.  See more details below


The author of "How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs" provides an in-depth history of the Rosetta Stone, the famous Egyptian antiquity that allowed decipherers to "crack the code" of Egyptian writing and opened up Egyptian culture as a whole to historians. 200+ photos & illustrations.

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University of California Press
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Chapter One


Des prêtres égyptiens m'out montré leurs antiques symboles, signes plutôt que mots, efforts très anciens de classification du monde et des choses, parler sépulchral d'une race morte.

Egyptian priests have shown me their antique symbols, signs rather than words, very ancient attempts at classifying the world and things, the sepulchral speech of a dead race.

M. YOURCENAR, Mémoires d'Hadrien, (1951)


Museums are full of ancient voices, even though verbal expressions of passion, politics and belief are perhaps not what every Museum visitor expects to encounter; they think of collections as consisting of objects rather than of words. Nevertheless, the most popular single object in the British Museum is perhaps the Rosetta Stone, famous for the texts inscribed upon its surface which have made it an icon of all decipherments and of all attempts to access the ancient past in its own terms.

    The distinction that is often made between text and artefact is a false one; the concept of philology as being opposed to archaeology has long been abandoned by scholars who realize that the recovery of the past is more than either practical archaeology or textual criticism alone. Texts offer one of several possible ways of reclaiming the past. Decipherment and reading, in particular, can be metaphors for understanding another culture, either dead or alive, whose every activity can be examined as a `cultural text', as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has done for theBalinese cockfight. If objects and practices are cultural texts, texts are also cultural and material artefacts, inseparable from their social context and the means of their production and circulation within a society.

    Egypt is a striking example of how integral texts can be to the preserved remains of a culture: out of over 110,000 objects in the British Museum's representative collection of Egyptian antiquities, around a third are inscribed with a text in some manner. This bias towards inscribed materials is not only the result of philologists and art historians rather than archaeologists forming the collections: in Egypt even mud-bricks could be stamped with texts, so closely united were writing and elite cultural production of any sort. Nevertheless, the prominence of certain types of text has lead to Egyptology's being overly concerned with philology, art history and political — as opposed to social — history, whereas attempts to recover the lives of ordinary individuals from most of society must comprise archaeological investigations. Archaeological data can be as eloquent as any text, and, as the Egyptologist John Baines has noted, archaeology and writing `complement each other's silences'. While it is impossible to travel to the past, a measure of dialogue with the dead is possible. In countering the constraints imposed by the passage of time, rigorous scholarship and archaeology are the only effective tools. Reading texts over the shoulders of the dead, as it were, is among the most immediate ways of entering such a dialogue.

The world's writing systems are numerous and varied. The reader of this book takes writing for granted, and it is surprisingly difficult to specify what one means by the term. The definition offered by Peter Daniels in The World's Writing Systems is `a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer'. Writing is bound up with language, and thus picture writing (fig. 1) is not true writing, even though information can be recorded with pictures, and writing can encode extra-linguistic information. Picture writing is often assumed to be a universal phenomenon, and was once thought to be the origin of all writing and even of language itself, through the means of sign language. It is, however, itself bounded by local interpretative conventions, as Thomas Sebeok realized when asked to devise a warning about nuclear waste sites in the form of pictures that could still be read precisely in future millennia. Picture writing, such as Central American picture codices, is a mnemonic device that can prompt the reader to remember a narrative, but it can never record the exact phrasing of the original narrative.

    The pictorial nature of some scripts, such as Egyptian hieroglyphic, disguises the fact that writing relies on language. Written language and spoken language differ immensely. The impact of writing on societies and how it shapes cultural memory and expression are topics much discussed in anthropology: different societies have different conventions of what can be written and for what purposes, as much as they have different shapes of script. The prominence of the alphabet in the modern world favours the assumption that it is inherently the best writing system, but this is not the case, even though many studies, with titles such as The Triumph of the Alphabet, have presented the history of writing as an evolution towards this modern, primarily Western, ideal. This evolutionary model can suggest that the birth of writing was a single event, and it has sometimes been maintained that all forms of early script in the ancient Near East were derived from a single `discovery' or `invention', and that the appearance of writing in the Far East was a result of cultural contacts with the Near East. While this is conceivable, it is highly unlikely. The existence of independent writing in Central America was previously considered uncertain and its systems taken to be picture writing, but the recent decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs has shown that it is a true writing system, and thus that writing has indeed independently arisen in different parts of the world. The predominance, or `triumph', of the alphabet is due to the cultural fortunes of the users of alphabetic scripts rather than to the inherent superiority of the system.


The pictorial allure of hieroglyphs was felt by contemporary cultures throughout Egyptian history, as can be seen in Egyptianizing artefacts with pseudo-hieroglyphs from the Near East. Hieroglyphs also inspired an essentially alphabetic script in the empire of Meroe, and possibly also the Proto-Sinaitic script, which is arguably a distant ancestor of the modern alphabet. The Egyptian script, however, remained intimately bound up with Egyptian culture; unlike contemporaneous cuneiform scripts, Egyptian hieroglyphs were never used outside Egyptian dependencies.

    The Hellenistic Hermetic tractate Asclepius describes, in an apocalyptic section that was probably written in Egypt, how the former glory of Egypt would be overcome: `Then this most sacred land, home of shrines and temples, will be completely filled with tombs and dead things. O Egypt, Egypt, of your religions only fables will survive, unbelievable to posterity, and only words will survive inscribed on stones that narrate your pious accomplishments.' Ironically, the `words inscribed on stones' later came to indicate something mysterious and unintelligible. The Hermetic tractate survives in a Latin translation, and a portion of it also in a Coptic version in the Gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi and probably copied in c. AD 350. At this period, the hieroglyphic script had almost disappeared from use. The Roman emperors of the first two centuries AD could still commission hieroglyphic inscriptions, not only in the Egyptian heartland, but also on obelisks erected in Italy, such as that of Hadrian in memory of Antinous, who died in AD 130. This was probably placed in a mortuary chapel at Rome, where it is now in the gardens of the Monte Pincio (fig. 2). Its inscribed text is skilfully composed in classical Egyptian, almost certainly by an Egyptian, and conceivably by a lector priest of the temple at Akhmim, called Petehornebkhem, who is known from a funerary stela. The inscription itself, however, was probably carved onto the obelisk in Italy. Nevertheless, the hieroglyphic script, which was a sacred system whose use was restricted to temples and similar monuments, had become increasingly cut off from the living scripts and languages of Egypt, and its last flowering on temple walls was in the third century AD.

    Pharaonic Egyptian culture was gradually subsumed in other cultures, and by the time its repute had arrived in the West, it had become irrevocably associated with oriental and antique mystique, in part through its distinctive religious and funerary practices. The hostile images of Egypt in the Bible compounded the indecipherable repute of hieroglyphs, which became synonymous with hidden and impenetrable mysteries. Accounts of hieroglyphs by classical authors survived into the European Renaissance; these understandably emphasized the symbolic pictorial nature of the script — its most distinctive aspect for people accustomed to an alphabet — and they conveyed little understanding of how hieroglyphs were read linguistically. Renaissance tradition continued to present each sign as an emblem, and elaborated on the neo-Platonic description of Plotinus (third century AD. It considered hieroglyphs to be a writing system that recorded pure things and ideas without the confusion of different languages, thus forming the `best evasion of the confusion of Babel' in Thomas Browne's words.

    These classical and European interpretations were not due to simple misunderstanding, but were a direct result of the Egyptians' tendency, particularly in the Greco-Roman Period, to foreground the script's figurative nature as `a sensual presence of the greatest imaginable intensity'. An influential Greek manuscript containing the Hieroglyphics of the Egyptian, Horapollo was recovered in 1419. The first part of this emblematic-style treatise was probably composed in Alexandria by a Hellenized Egyptian philosopher who lived at the end of the fifth century AD. Its account seems to be based in part on native Egyptian lists of hieroglyphic, hieratic and demotic signs, probably from libraries at Alexandria or Akhmim, which included explanatory and often theological glosses. Thus the Renaissance view of hieroglyphs was part of a continuous tradition of reception, originating in the hieroglyphic writing system of the Greco-Roman Period. This system, with its elaboration on the script's symbolic aspects, should not be seen as the last vestiges of a written tradition sinking into obscurantism, but rather a final flowering of intellectual sophistication that ensured the tradition's survival by captivating the imagination of Europe in later centuries.

    From the Renaissance on, attempts at decipherment involved a process of explaining the mystical significance of hieroglyphs rather than trying to read them. In his study of the obelisk now in the Piazza Minerva in Rome (1667), one of the most accessible Egyptian monuments at the time, the Jesuit antiquarian Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) claimed that `the Sphinx has been killed, her riddles answered'. He interpreted the cartouche containing simply the name of King Apries (589-570 BC) as follows: `The protection of Osiris against the violence of Typho must be elicited according to the proper rites and ceremonies by sacrifices and by appeal to the tutelary Genii of the triple world, in order to ensure the enjoyment of the prosperity customarily given by the Nile against the violence of the enemy Typho.' Although Kircher's readings subsequently attracted derision, interest in and knowledge of Egyptian matters was stimulated by his publications, which included much work on Coptic, the language of Christian Egypt and now known to be the descendent of the language of pharaonic Egypt. The relevance of Coptic to the hieroglyphic script was, however, underestimated, since it was believed hieroglyphs could not record linguistic information directly. In 1741 the bishop of Gloucester, William Warburton (1698-1779), dismissed Kircher's attempts as neo-Platonic shadows of dreams, and argued (correctly) that hieroglyphs were not ways of concealing mysteries from the vulgar masses; but his publications offered little practical progress towards decipherment.

    By the early eighteenth century neo-Platonism was no longer so influential, although reverence for the influence of Egypt continued to be strong in masonic circles (as seen in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte of 1791). The `mysteries' encoded by the hieroglyphs came to be identified with Nature, and thus appealed also to Enlightenment scholars: hieroglyphs as a `language of things' had a new appeal. The pictorially based Aztec and Chinese writing systems were explored as possible parallels, as they had been by Kircher, but these investigations did little to remove fundamental misconceptions about the script.

    The first significant decipherment of an ancient script was that of Palmyrene, the language of which was known from the church fathers to be similar to Syriac. In 1756 accurate copies of paired inscriptions in Greek and Palmyrene were published, allowing Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy (1716-95) to correlate the two, and in the 1760s he also deciphered Phoenician on the basis of bilingual coin legends. In 1761 he suggested that the oval cartouches in Egyptian inscriptions might contain royal names, many of which were known from classical authors, a suggestion that was fundamental to later progress. Cuneiform writing had been known since the discovery of Persepolis in the early seventeenth century. G.F. Grotefend (1775-1853) studied inscriptions from Persepolis and made the plausible assumption that certain names known from classical authors would occur in them. His comparisons produced values for about a third of the known signs, which was enough for him to identify the language as Persian with the help of comparative philology. This progress continued with the work of Henry Rawlinson (1810-95) and the Revd Edward Hincks (1792-1866), whose interest in cuneiform sprang from the hope that the inscriptions would help with the decipherment of Egyptian, which was his main interest. Hincks' publications marked great advances during the period 1846-52, and since Persian inscriptions were often accompanied by translations into other cuneiform scripts, his work went beyond a single decipherment.

    Scientific studies of language were becoming more numerous, including the typological studies of the French encyclopédistes, and the comparative work on Sanskrit by Sir William Jones (1746-94). Many earlier investigations into historical languages had sought to identify the language spoken by Adam, the single original language of mankind given by God, which was usually suggested to be Hebrew. In 1786 Jones noted in an address to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta that `no philologer could examine the Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists'. This statement of the Indo-European hypothesis is a milestone in the development of comparative philology.

    With Egyptian hieroglyphs the great impediments to progress were the lack of a large corpus of accurately copied inscriptions, the lack of any bilingual inscription and the false assumption that the script was not based on language, compounded by ignorance of the language of pharaonic Egypt. The Egyptian campaign of Napoleon (1798-1801) marks the turning point in the modern history of ancient Egypt. As well as the campaign's political objectives against Ottoman rule in Egypt, it had symbolic overtones since it colonized in the name of the Enlightenment a country that was supposedly the origin of all wisdom. Napoleon himself had adopted the bee as a personal heraldic emblem, instead of the French royal fleur-de-lys, because the bee was a hieroglyphic symbol for `ruler' according to classical authors.

    The French occupation of Egypt began in July 1798, and the invading force was accompanied by a body of scientists, scholars and artists, initially numbering 151 persons. Their work culminated in the magnificent and monumental Description de l'Égypte, whose volumes included antiquities, the modern state of the country and its natural history, and were published in that order of topics between 1809 and 1828. The Description is now valued principally as a visual record, and although it provided access to many more inscriptions than had been previously available to European scholars, its attempts to analyse its discoveries were hampered by the savants' inability to read hieroglyphs. This inability prevented them, for example, from distinguishing between temples and palaces, as well as causing them to date the Greco-Roman temples of Philae to 2500 BC. The image of Egypt presented in the text volumes is idealistic, drawing on classical traditions, and is dominated by the ideas of Egyptian religion as a cult of Nature, of its society as ruled absolutely by a wise king, and of its priests as seekers after scientific truth rather than theologians. One consequence of the publication was the unleashing of a tide of Egyptomania in European art and design.


As a result of the French campaign, a new piece of evidence concerning the nature of hieroglyphs was discovered in 1799. The Rosetta Stone (fig. 3, pl. 1) was quickly recognized as `a most valuable relic of antiquity, the feeble but only yet discovered link of the Egyptian to the known languages', and has become perhaps `the most famous piece of rock in the world'. To place its discovery in context, the same year witnessed Beethoven's Grande sonate pathétique, and the following year the appearance of Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, Malthus' Essay on the Principles of Population and the posthumous publication of William Jones' Discourse (cited above).

    The Stone is an irregularly shaped slab of a dark hard rock, 112.3 cm tall, 75.7 cm wide and 28.4 cm thick; its weight is estimated at 762 kg. The discovery was made in mid-July, shortly before the second battle of Abuqir on 25 July. Published accounts of its early history vary in details, but it seems to have been found during works on the defences at Fort St Julien on the west bank of the Nile, at the small port of el-Rashid (ancient Rosetta), apparently when an old wall was demolished during the construction of foundations for extended fortifications. A plaque commemorating the discovery is now placed on the outside wall of the fort to the left of the main entrance, although the exact spot was apparently inside the outer wall, under what is now an internal turret (fig. 4, pl. 2). Other fragments of hieroglyphic inscriptions are still built into the walls of the fortress.

    The Stone was found and excavated by an officer of the Engineers, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard (1772-1832) who immediately realized that it was part of a stela inscribed in three scripts. Of these, the fourteen lines of the incomplete hieroglyphic section and the fifty-three lines of the Greek section were immediately recognizable, but the thirty-two lines of the middle section, in a script now known as demotic, were initially assumed to be Syriac. Bouchard reported the find to the French general, Abdallah-Jacques Menou (1750-1810), who was then in Rosetta. Menou had the Stone taken to his tent and cleaned, and he also arranged for a translation of the Greek to be made, which confirmed that the inscriptions recorded the same text in three different scripts. Attempts to locate any additional fragments of the Stone --`worth their weight in diamonds' — in the vicinity were unsuccessful, although they were undertaken immediately and over several subsequent years. Later, in 1818, Thomas Young noted in a letter that `Mr Salt was empowered by the British government to expend a liberal sum in digging in the neighbourhood of Fort St. Julien, or otherwise, in pursuit of this object'.

    News of the discovery spread quickly. A letter by the engineer Michelange Lancret was received by the Institut d'Égypte in Cairo at its meeting of 19 July and the Stone itself reached Cairo under the charge of Bouchard in mid-August, as Napoleon was departing. It was deposited at the Institut, and `at this news, each man tan to see the marvellous stone'. The discovery of what might be `the key' to hieroglyphs was publicly announced in the Courrier d'Égypte in September (no. 37). However, it proved difficult to copy the Stone's lightly incised inscriptions by hand. The expedition's senior orientalist Jean-Joseph Marcel identified the middle section as demotic, an Egyptian script known from classical authors, and realized that the stone could act as a printing block in a sort of proto-lithography. On 24 January 1800 this process successfully produced a reverse image with the hieroglyphs in white on a black background. Copies were also taken by the savant Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who treated the Stone like an engraved plate, producing prints with the hieroglyphs in black on a white background. By the autumn of 1800 these copies had reached Paris. The enthusiasm with which copies were made shows the extent to which the Stone's significance was recognized; it was also well grounded, since the decipherment eventually came from examination of these copies rather than from the Stone itself.


Meet the Author

Richard Parkinson is Assistant Keeper in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum specializing in hieratic papyri and epigraphy. His publications include Voices from Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings (1991), Papyrus (with S. Quirke) and The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Egyptian Poems, 1940-1640 B.C.

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