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Riddle of the Rosetta Stone: Key to Ancient Egypt


Decipher the history of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with this enlightening account of the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. Packed with illustrations, engravings, and historical photographs, The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone is an informative yet accessible overview perfect for aspiring young Egyptologists, kids interested in archaeology, and students in grades 3 to 7.

This ALA Notable Children's Book also includes excerpts from the translated text of the Rosetta ...

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Decipher the history of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with this enlightening account of the discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone. Packed with illustrations, engravings, and historical photographs, The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone is an informative yet accessible overview perfect for aspiring young Egyptologists, kids interested in archaeology, and students in grades 3 to 7.

This ALA Notable Children's Book also includes excerpts from the translated text of the Rosetta Stone and a bibliography with suggestions for further reading, making it an ideal starting point for Ancient Egyptian research and reports.

Supports the Common Core State Standards

Describes how the discovery and deciphering of the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secret of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature - Beverly Kobrin
In 1799, one year after they invaded Egypt, Napoleon's solders discovered an eleven-inch-thick, roughly 2- x 3-foot slab of black basalt covered with writing in three different scripts, one Greek and two Egyptian-hieroglyphs and demotic. James Giblin has written an engrossing account of the unsuccessful attempts to translate hieroglyphs prior to the stone's unearthing and Jean-Francois Champollion's brilliant success in breaking The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone with the discovery that hieroglyphs represented both things and sounds. Ancient Egyptian writing was both ideographic and phonetic. Whether or this subject is on your agenda, the brilliant, persevering M. Champollion is someone youngsters should meet-particularly as introduced here by one of nonfiction's best storytellers. 1993 (orig.
School Library Journal
Giblin chronicles the lives of several scholars, namely Thomas Young and Jean-Francois Champollion, who struggled to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and break the code of the Rosetta Stone. Most children's books on Egyptian history make mention of the Rosetta Stone, but few (if any) give it the detailed attention of Giblin's book. This isn't a biography of Champollion, nor is it a dictionary of how to read hieroglyphs (as is Katan's Hieroglyphs: The Writing of Ancient Egypt McElderry, 1981). It's actually more of a ``biography'' of the stone itself. The writing style is a little dry, and somber photos and black-and-white illustrations lack the vivacity to catch a young reader's eye. But both adults and children will find this a solid reference source for reports or for more detailed information than general books on Egyptology provide. --Cathryn A. Camper, Minneapolis Public Library
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780064461375
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/1993
  • Series: Trophy Nonfiction Book Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 96
  • Sales rank: 179,087
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 1100L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James Cross Giblin is the author of eighteen books for young readers, many of which have received awards and honors. Twelve of his titles, most recently Charles A. Lindbergh: A Human Hero and When Plague Strikes: The Black Death, Smallpox, AIDS have been named Notable Children's Books by the American Library Association. In 1996 he received the Washington Post—Children's Book Guild Award for Nonfiction for his body of work. Mr. Giblin lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Mysterious Hieroglyphs

The scene: The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery of the British Museum in London. The time: Now.

Near the entrance to the long, high-ceilinged room stand two magnificent granite statues of Pharaoh Amenophis III, who ruled Egypt about 1400 B.C. Farther on is a colossal head of Pharaoh Ramesses II dating back to 1250 B.C. And beyond it, resting on a simple base, is a slab of black basalt, a volcanic rock.

Next to the statues and the head, the slab seems unimpressive at first glance. It is roughly the size of a tabletop -- three feet nine inches long, two feet four and a half inches wide, and eleven inches thick. But many experts would say that this rather small piece of rock was more valuable than any of the larger objects in the room. For it is the famed Rosetta Stone, which gave nineteenth-century scholars their first key to the secrets of ancient Egypt.

What makes this stone so special? Step closer, and you'll see. Spotlights pick out markings carved into the surface of the stone, and close up you can tell that these marks are writing. At the top are fourteen lines of hieroglyphs -- pictures of animals, birds, and geometric shapes. Below them you can make out thirty-two lines written in an unfamiliar script. And below that, at the bottom of the slab, are fifty-four more lines written in the letters of the Greek alphabet.

Before the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, no one knew how to read Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Its meaning had been lost for almost 1400 years. But countless visitors to Egypt over the centuries had tried to decipher the mysterious symbols. This isthe story of their attempts, and of how the Rosetta Stone finally enabled scholars to unlock the Egyptian past.

The story begins in the seventh century A.D., when Greek scholars visiting Egypt first called the symbols "hieroglyphs." They gave them that name, which means "sacred carvings" in Greek, because they found so many of them on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples.

As the Greeks sailed up the Nile River to the ancient cities of Memphis and Thebes, they asked native after native what the hieroglyphs meant. Not even the oldest Egyptians could tell them, for the language expressed in the hieroglyphs had already been dead for several hundred years. It had been replaced by Coptic, the language spoken by Christian Egyptians. And Coptic, in turn, was replaced by Arabic after the Arabs conquered Egypt in A.D. 642. By the time the visitors from Greece arrived, no living Egyptian knew how to read the hieroglyphic writing of his ancestors.

Frustrated in their attempts to get someone to translate the hieroglyphs for them, the Greeks decided on their own that the symbols must be a kind of picture writing. Some thought the pictures were mystical devices used in ancient religious rites, whose meaning was known only to long-dead Egyptian priests.

Others stumbled on the correct definitions of a few hieroglyphs. No one knows exactly where the Greeks obtained this information. Some think it came from craftsmen who made goodluck charms based on ancient Egyptian designs and still knew what those symbols meant.

However they obtained it, the Greeks couldn't resist adding their own original "explanations" to the definitions. For example, a Greek writer named Horapollo said correctly that the picture of a goose stood for the word "son." But then he explained that this was because geese took special care of their young, which was completely inaccurate. He wrote that the image of a rabbit meant "open" because a rabbit's eyes never close -- an equally false statement.

Horapollo offered an even more unlikely explanation of a hieroglyph drawn in the form of a vulture.

First, he said that it stood for the word "mother, " which happened to be correct. Then his imagination took over, and he claimed that the hieroglyph also meant "a sight, or boundaries, or foreknowledge." He went on to explain why.

"The vulture means a mother since there is no male in this species of animal, " Horapollo wrote. (Of course this was untrue!) "It stands for sight since of all animals the vulture has the keenest vision. It means boundaries because, when a war is about to break out, the vulture limits the place in which it will be fought by hovering over the area for seven days. And it stands for foreknowledge because, in flying over the battlefield, the vulture looks forward to the corpses the slaughter will provide it for food."

The writings of Horapollo circulated widely throughout Europe and influenced the study of hieroglyphs for centuries to come. No one questioned the Greek writer's explanations. Instead, European scholars accepted them as truths and put forward their own mistaken interpretations of the mysterious symbols.

Some of these scholars made otherwise significant contributions to the world's knowledge of ancient Egypt. A German priest of the 1600s, Athanasius Kircher, wrote the first grammar and vocabulary of Coptic, the language of Christian Egypt. These books were to prove of great value when the hieroglyphs were eventually deciphered.

But Kircher's ideas about the hieroglyphs themselves were even farther off the mark than those of Horapollo. Looking at a certain group of symbols -- which actually stood for the name of a pharaoh -- Kircher let his imagination run wild. Without any evidence to support him, he said that the hieroglyphs meant "The blessings of the god Osiris are to be procureaad by means of sacred ceremonies, in order that the benefits of the river Nile may be obtained."

From 1650 onward, Kircher produced several volumes of such nonsense. It earned him a reputation for being an expert on the hieroglyphs -- reputation that lasted, unfortunately, long after his death in 1680.

A few genuine advances in understanding the hieroglyphs were made during the 1700s. The French scholar C. J. de Guignes observed that groups of hieroglyphs in Egyptian texts were often enclosed by an oval outline, which he called a cartouche. "Cartouche" is a French word that originally meant a cartridge, and the line around the hieroglyphs had a similar shape. De Guignes guessed rightly that the cartouches in hieroglyphic inscriptions were intended to draw attention to important names, probably the names of Egyptian rulers.

The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone. Copyright © by James Giblin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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