The Rosetta Stone: A Journey from Alexandria to London

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The Rosetta Stone: A Journey from Alexandria to London
The Rosetta Stone, photo: Hans Hillewaert CC BY-SA 4.0

The Rosetta stone is an Egyptian engraved stone bearing a tri-lingual decree dated 197 BC inscribed in Hieroglyphic, Demotic and Greek text. It was rediscovered by Lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard on 19 July, 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. The find was published in the Courier de l’Egypte, a periodical in Cairo at the time.

“Among the fortification works that the citizen D’Hautpoul, chef de bataillon of the Génie, has carried out on the old Rashid fort (now called Fort Julien) on the left bank of the Nile, […] a beautiful black granite stone, of fine grain and hard as a hammer, was excavated. The stone is 36 inches high, 28 inches wide and 9-10 inches in depth. Only one side is polished, and on it are thee distinct inscriptions, separated into three parallel strips. The first and uppermost is written in hieroglyphic characters: there are fourteen lines of characters, but part has been lost as a result of damage to the stone. The second and middle strip is written using characters which are believed to be Syriac; it includes thirty-two lines. The third and last section is written in Greek; it has fifty-four lines of very fine, very well sculpted characters which, as is the case for the characters in the two superior sections, are very well preserved.

“General Menou had part of the Greek inscription translated. This part essentially relates how Ptolemy Philopater had all the canals in Egypt reopened, and that the prince, in order to carry out these colossal works, employed a considerable number of labourers, a great deal of money and eight years of his reign. This stone is of great interest for the study of hieroglyphic characters; maybe it will even prove to be the key to understanding them.

“Citizen Bouchard, officer of the corps du Génie who, under the orders of Citizen D’Hautpoul, led the works at the Rashid Fort, was willing to undertake the task of transporting this stone to Cairo. It is now in Boulag.”
Extract from Courier de l’Egypte, n° 37, p. 3.

Napoleon set sail from Egypt on 23 August, 1799, leaving the French troops under the command of General Kléber. Following Kléber’s assassination on 14 June 1800, General Menou, who was now in possession of the stone, took command. In March 1801, allied forces landed in Alexandria. They defeated General Menou, who was forced to surrender on 2 September. After the surrender, the British General Hutchinson claimed that the archaeological and scientific discoveries of the French, including the Rosetta stone, were property of the British Crown. However, as a result of French scholar Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s pleas, Hutchinson did concede to let the French keep some artefacts. Menou tried claiming that the stone was his private property, but he was forced to give it up to the British. In a letter to the Society of Antiquaries in London, Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner relates the story of how he escorted the stone back to Britain, where it was placed, and remains to this day, in the British Museum.

“The Rosetta Stone having excited much attention in the learned world, and in this Society in particular, I request to offer them, through you, some account of the manner it came into the possession of the British army, and by what means it was brought to this country, presuming it may not be unacceptable to them.
“By the sixteenth article of the capitulation of Alexandria, the siege of which city terminated the labours of the British army in Egypt, all the curiosities, natural and artificial, collected by the French Institute and others, were to be delivered up to the captors. This was refused on the part of the French General to be fulfilled; by saying they were all private property. Many letters passed; at length, on consideration that the care in preserving the insects and animals had made the property in some degree private, it was relinquished by Lord Hutchinson; but the artificial, which consisted of antiquities and Arabian manuscripts, among the former of which was the Rosetta Stone, was insisted upon by the noble General with his usual zeal for science. Upon which I had several conferences with the French General Menou, who at length gave way, saying, that the Rosetta Stone was his private property; but, as he was forced, he must comply as well as the other proprietors. I accordingly received from the under secretary of the Institute, le Pere, the secretary Fourier being ill, a paper, containing a list of the antiquities, with the names of the claimants of each piece of Sculpture: the stone is there described of black granite, with three inscriptions, belonging to General Menou. From the French scavans I learnt, that the Rosetta Stone was found among the ruins of Fort St. Julien, when repaired by the French, and put in a state of defence: it stand near the mouth of the Nile, on the Rosetta branch, where are, in all probability, the pieces broken off. I was also informed, that there was a stone similar at Menouf, obliterated, or nearly so, by the earthen jugs being placed on it, as it stood near the water; and that there was a fragment of one, used and placed in the walls of the French fortification of Alexandria. The Stone was carefully brought to General Menou’s house in Alexandria, covered with soft cotton cloth, and a double matting, where I first saw it. The General had selected this precious relic of antiquity for himself. When it was understood by the French army that we were to possess the antiquities, the covering of the stone was torn off, and it was thrown upon its face, and the excellent wooden cases of the rest were broken off; for they had taken infinite pains, in the first instances, to secure and preserve from any injury all the antiquities. I made several remonstrances, but the chief difficulty I had was on account of this stone, and the great sarcophagus, which at one time was positively refused to be given up by the Capitan Pasha, who had obtained it by having possession of the ship it had been put on board of by the French. I procured, however, a sentry on the beach from Mon. Le Roy, prefect maritime, who, as well as the General, behaved with great civility; the reverse I experienced from some others.
“When I mentioned the manner the stone had been treated to Lord Hutchinson, he gave me a detachment of artillerymen, and an artillery-engine, called, from its powers, a devil cart, with which that evening I went to General Menou’s house, and carried off the stone, without an injury, but with some difficulty, from the narrow streets, to my house, amid the sarcasms of numbers of French officers and men; being ably assisted by an intelligent sergeant of artillery, who commanded the party, all of whom enjoyed great satisfaction in their employment: they were the first British soldiers who entered Alexandria. During the time the Stone remained at my house, some gentlemen attached to the corps of scavans requested to have a cast, which I readily granted, provided the Stone should receive no injury; which cast they took to Paris, leaving the Stone well cleared from the printing ink, which it had been covered with the take off several copies to send to France, when it was first discovered.
“Having seen the other remains of ancient Egyptian sculpture sent on board the Admiral, Sir Richard Bickerton’s ship, the Madras, who kindly gave every possible assistance, I embarked with the Rosetta Stone, determining to share its fate, on board the Egyptienne frigate taken in the harbour of Alexandria, and arrived in Portsmouth in February 1802. When the ship came round to Deptford, it was put in a boat and landed at the Custom-house; and Lord Buckinghamshire, the then Secretary of State, acceded to my request, and permitted it to remain some time at the apartments of the Society of Antiquaries, previous to its deposit in the British Museum, where I trust it will long remain, a most valuable relic of antiquity, the feeble but only yet discovered link of the Egyptian to the known languages, a proud trophy of the arms of Britain (I could almost say spolia opima), not plundered from defenceless inhabitants, but honourably acquired by the fortune of war.
I have the honour to be, SIR,
Your most obedient, and most humble servant,
H. TURNER, Major General.”

As General Turner had hoped, the discovery of this stone led to the understanding of hieroglyphs. The first person to shed light on the meaning of the Egyptian characters was Thomas Young, an English physicist, who showed that Egyptian characters record the sound of the language, and that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone sounded out “Ptolemy”. However, it was Jean-François Champollion, a French scholar, who published the first full translation of the stone in 1822, using Thomas Young’s previous work. Thus, although the discovery of the Rosetta Stone is a story that leads from Alexandria to London, it should be remembered that it is also the story of a French discovery and a French decryption.

Lydia Stoddart, 18 July 2014

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