T H E R O S E T T A S T O N E

Ptolemy's name, which appears in the Rosetta Stone's Greek text (read text) as Ptolemaios, was the first word recognized in hieroglyphics (see the two encircled words above). But early attempts to interpret its eight symbols were stymied by the traditional belief that all hieroglyphics could be translated as pictures of words. Even after English scientist, Thomas Young, assigned sound values to several symbols, Champollion held to the belief that the lion symbolized the Greek word for war --p(t)olemos--anagrammed in the word Ptolemaios.


Champollion, finally deciding that Ptolemy might be read phonetically, patiently reconstructed the name, sound by sound, from the Greek and Coptic into demotic, then into an earlier hieratic script and finally into hieroglyphics. It came out p-t-o-l-m-y-s, or Ptolmis, and could be spelled both right-to-left and in other directions. This discovery opened his eyes to the rest of the hieroglyphic text on the Rosetta Stone.


In 1822, a copy of the inscription from an obelisk at Philae, excavated seven years earlier, was made available to Champollion. He was stunned to see confirmed in its hieroglyphics a name he had reconstructed many times from a demotic papyrus: the cartouche of Cleopatra.

The Rosetta Stone (below) resides at the British Museum in London.


Hieroglyphic, [Gr.,=priestly carving], type of writing used in ancient Egypt. Similar pictographic styles of Crete, Asia Minor, and Central America and Mexico are also called hieroglyphics. Interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics, begun by J.F. CHAMPOLLION, is virtually complete; the other hieroglyphics are still imperfectly understood. Hieroglyphics are conventionalized pictures used chiefly to represent meanings that seem arbitrary and are seldom obvious. Egyptian hieroglyphics were already perfected in the first dynasty (3110-2884 B.C.), but they began to go out of use in the Middle Kingdom and after 500 B.C. were virtually unused. There were basically 604 symbols that might be put to three uses (although few were used for all three purposes): as an ideogram, as when a sign resembling a tree meant "tree"; as a phonogram, as when an owl represented the sign m, because the word for owl had m as its principal consonant; or as a determinative, an unpronounced symbol placed after an ambiguous sign to indicate its classification (e.g., an eye to indicate that the preceding word has to do with looking or seeing). The phonograms provided a basis for the development of the alphabet.

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