Rosetta Stone Discovered in 1799

It was during the French occupation (under Napoleon) of Egypt that the key to our current understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics was discovered near the town of Rosetta (el Rashid).

The stone was a priestly decree written in three languages. First, it was written in ancient hieroglyphics, the sort of "official" script of religion even at this late date in Egyptian history (around 200 BC or so). Second, it was written in the everyday script of that period, demotic. I often refer to this as cursive hieroglyphics, even though that isn't entirely accurate. It was the same basic language but a lot quicker than drawing all those cool little hieroglyphic symbols.

Finally, the decree on the Rosetta Stone was inscribed in ancient Greek. This makes a lot of sense because the pharaoh of Egypt at the time the decree was written was Ptolemy V, a Greek. When Alexander the Great (also a Macedonian / Greek) died in 323, his massive kingdom was divided into three parts among three of his generals. Egypt was entrusted to Ptolemy. Incidentally, the famous (or infamous) Cleopatra VII was also from the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

At any rate, by translating the languages that that they knew - ancient Greek and demotic - linguists were able to decipher the ancient hieroglyphics that were unreadable at the time. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone completely changed our understanding of ancient Egypt.

The stone is now in the British Museum. It was given to England as part of the treaty signed upon the defeat of France and Napoleon.