Rosetta Stone Detail, photo by Thomas Quine
“On the twenty-fourth day of the month Gorpiaios…” is how the text begins. Though, it must be admitted, hardly anyone except historians and archaeologists care what it says. And hardly anyone knows or cares that this text, known today as the Memphis Decree, was written on behalf of Ptolemy V, firmly re-establising the rule of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemies, which was to be commemorated by establishing a divine cult for his worship. That’s not the point. At least, not to modern minds.
What we best know the Rosetta stone for today was not its content, but its context. Because this obscure decree, inscribed over two millennia ago on black granite and erected as a stele in the Nile delta region of Egypt, became a vital and revolutionary cornerstone of modern archaeology. It was central to understanding the meaning and translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had long been considered undecipherable.
The very term “Rosetta Stone” has become an idiom unto itself, to describe a near-mystical key, unlocking the capacity for mutual understanding and epiphany. It has become the metaphorical antonym to the cacophonic “Tower of Babel.”
The Rosetta Stone is also emblematic of the work of translation and translators around the world. Like much of the work of anonymous and talented translators over the centuries, we have no names of the scribes who first translated the Memphis Decree into the three most-popular alphabets of Egypt at the time: Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. For the much of its history time the stone itself was cast aside and obscured. Until its discovery by the French army engineer Lieutenant Bouchard on the Napoleonic expedition to Mamluk Egypt, it was purportedly used as a meager building stone embedded in a wall.
Though Bouchard recognized the importance of the stone upon finding it—taking word of its discovery to General Bonaparte himself—it did not stay in French possession long. After a series of military defeats, the French abandoned Egypt, and, under Article 16 of the terms of surrender, the British came to acquire the artifact. The British-French rivalry over the stone was not quite done, though, because the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion would be first to publish his deciphering of the stone’s hieroglyphs in 1822.
Even to the modern day the fate of the Rosetta Stone remains contentious. After being in the possession of the British since 1801, the Egyptian government appealed in 2003 to have the cultural artifact returned to the land of its creation. So far, they have been denied their request.
What’s in a Name?
Further emblematic of such contention is the very name we use for the stone fragment. For “Rosetta” (Italian for “little rose”) was the Westernized approximation of the Arabic name of the city wherein it was found: رشيد (Rasheed). This Arabic word means “guide” or “correctly guided.” Might it not be better called the “Rasheed Stone?” For it most certainly correctly guided the translation between these ancient languages!
Then again, the ancient Egyptians themselves might be confused by any modern place name we assign to such an artifact. Because to them, the original stele stood stood in a city originally called Khito, but, by the time of the Ptolemies, was called Bolbitine, after one of the seven mouths of the Nile River.
What do you think of the Rosetta Stone? Send us your thoughts, impressions, and stories. We’d love to hear your opinion.
Also, do you have any major projects coming up that you want to translate for the world to know and remember? If so, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll make history together!