The knowledge of how to understand hieroglyphs was lost during the fourth century, but in 1799 a French soldier found a large basalt stone on the Rosetta branch of the Nile. This stone, called the Rosetta stone, became the key to the deciphering of hieroglyphs. It is inscribed with text in three different scripts: Greek, demotic (the last and cursive form of writing the Egyptian language) and hieroglyphs.
The importance of the stone was immediately recognised, and the Greek section was translated. Inked impressions and plaster casts were made and copies sent to interested scholars. The first person to study the stone was a Swede named Akerblad, who discovered that the three sections were translations of one and the same text.
An English genius, Thomas Young, made the first breakthrough in deciphering the text. He managed to read the name of Ptolemy and deciphered six different signs. Young also understood the mathematical hieroglyphic symbols. He passed his findings on to the French scholar Jean-François Champollion, who took two more years to agree with Young’s theory.
The script was not just symbolic, but a partial alphabet with a strict grammatical form. The final decipherment of hieroglyphs and the rediscovery of the Egyptian language, in which they were written, is the work of Champollion.
Jean-François Champollion. Image courtesy of MACU.