Rosetta Stone

What is the Rosetta Stone?

The Rosetta Stone, not to be confused with the language learning software, is a fragment of a granite-like rock with a text carved in three different languages. It was found by troops of Napoleon in 1799 in the wall of a fort in the city of Rosetta (Rashid in Arabic), Egypt, which is near Alexandria. It is about 45 inches high. 28.5 inches wide, and 11 inches thick, weighing in at about About ¾ of a ton (1676 pounds - our replica weighs 90-95 pounds). It is a broken piece of granodiorite stone that was originally part of a 5-6 ft. tall stela, or column, located in a temple elsewhere in the Nile Delta. The stone passed into British hands and was taken to England. It is now housed in the British Museum in London, where it is the most popular attraction in the museum.

The writing on the stone is a decree issued jointly by the Pharaoh, Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 BC), and a council of Egyptian priests. The council took place on March 27, 196 BC, the day after the first anniversary of the 14-year-old Pharaoh's coronation. The text itself is referred to as the Decree of Memphis, and has been found in several other locations in Egypt. It cancelled debts and taxes, released prisoners, and granted increased donations to the temples.

The last sentence of the decree reads: "This decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred (hieroglyphic) and native (Demotic) and Greek characters and set up in each of the first, second and third rank temples beside the image of the ever-living king." Accordingly, our copy of the Rosetta Stone is housed next to a (replica) coin showing the image of Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes and a genuine coin which was minted during his reign. More informartion can be found from the British Museum:

Brigham Young University-Idaho is the  first university in the world to obtain a full-size, 3D replica of the Rosetta Stone from The Freeman Institute. The replica was obtained to help students get a real view at what the stone is like. The replica is 40% resin and 60% granodiorite filler. It also contains a high density foam core to lessen the weight. It is one of the most important pieces to language and culture as it unveiled the Egyptian language and culture to the world.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, scholars had not been able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics, so very little was understood about the Egyptian culture. The Rosetta Stone has the same text written in three styles/languages: 1) hieroglyphics ( top), which can be written in either direction, but in this case they read right to left; 2) Demotic ( middle), a cursive form of Egyptian written from right to left; and 3) ancient Greek ( bottom), written left to right. Egyptian pharaohs were actually Greek by this date, so Greek was their common tongue. Because scholars could read Greek in 1799, they were able to work out the meaning of the hieroglyphic characters. Thomas Young of England deciphered the demotic script, but young Jean-François Champollion of France, who worked in the library in Grenoble for a time, succeeded in working out the structure of the hieroglyphic characters. He started by finding and deciphering the characters for Ptolemy's name in the Greek and hieroglyphic versions, and published the translation of the full text in 1824. Decoding hieroglyphic symbols opened up the entire Egyptian culture to the modern world.

"More than half of the decree is lost from the hieroglyphic section, originally an estimated 29 lines. The Greek occupies 54 lines, with many errors in the inscription, and the demotic 32, with its last two lines inscribed in a fulsome style to fill the space. The sides taper slightly towards the top. The original shape of the stela is shown in a sign in line 14 of the hieroglyphic text. The stela almost certainly had a  rounded top headed by a winged sun-disk, and probably a scene with figures in Egyptian style, similar to that showing the king and queen between two groups of gods on another stela with a copy of the Canopus Decree issued in 238 BC under Ptolemy II" (Parkinson, 26).

Michael Coe, noted scholar of Mayan hieroglyphics, called the Rosetta Stone "the most famous piece of rock in the world" (Parkinson, 19).

Who found the stone, and when?

It was found in July 1799 by scholars ("savants") sent to Egypt by Napoleon. They were tearing down a ruined wall in Fort Julien in the town of Rosetta when they came across a broken stone with writing in three languages. They looked for other pieces but did not find any. (Giblin, 25)

The stone could not have originally been placed in Rosetta, since that town did not even exist during Ptolemy's era. It was built later on sediment from the Nile River. It is probable that the stone was already broken when it was moved to the place where it was discovered (Parkinson, 26).

The stone undoubtedly was housed in a temple elsewhere, perhaps in Sais, which is 40 miles upstream from Rosetta. (Ray, 3).

Who translated the hieroglyphics?

Working from the Greek text at the bottom of the stone, the British scholar Thomas Young (1773-1829) succeeded in deciphering the demotic text (in the middle of the stone) - a cursive form of Egyptian - in 1814. Young started work on the hieroglyphic text, but then moved on to other projects.

The Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) took on the task of puzzling out the hieroglyphic symbols. Champollion had taught himself to read at age 5 and had mastered a dozen languages by the age of 16. He devoted himself to deciphering the hieroglyphic text of the Rosetta Stone, working on the project from 1822 to 1824. The challenge of hieroglyphics lie in the fact that it was unclear whether each symbol represented a letter, a sound, or a concept.
Scholars had correctly determined that hieroglyphic symbols surrounded by a string or rope, called cartouches, contained the names of royalty. Champollion found cartouches that he thought contained the names Ptolemy and Cleopatra and compared the two. He was able to work out the symbols for the Greek forms of those two names: Ptolemaios and Kleopatra.

Once Champollion realized what he had done, he ran out of his apartment and over to the Grenoble library where his brother was working, he shouted "I've got it! I've got it!," and then promptly fainted. This was the key to deciphering the rest of the Egyptian alphabet and opened the door to understanding an entire civilization that had thrived for several millennia.

It is worth noting that the Rosetta Stone was found 6 years before Joseph Smith was born. Also, whereas it took Champollion two years to decipher the 14 lines of hieroglyphic text on the stone, it only took Joseph about 75 days to translate the 588 pages (in the 1st edition Book of Mormon) of "reformed Egyptian" characters on the golden plates with the gift of God and the aid of the Urim and Thummim at about the same time period.

Why did BYU-Idaho acquire a replica copy?

The McKay Library has been actively collecting materials related to the history of writing for several years. The Rosetta Stone is as important to language and culture as the Mona Lisa painting is to the art world. When we learned that a company had just started making life-size replicas of the stone, we felt this would literally be a keystone to our History of Writing collection.

Pictures can give you a general impression of an object, but we felt it was important to have a full size copy to help students have a much more visual understanding of the context of the Rosetta Stone.

Who made this replica?

The Freeman Institute in Maryland. See  In the 1970's, the British Museum made a few molds of the full face of the authentic Rosetta Stone, and the Freeman Institute owns one of them. The Institute spent 4+ years developing a process to make an exact replica of the mold.

A 3D digital image of the Rosetta Stone was made using a laser scanner with an accuracy of 0.0005". A resin mimicking the original coloration of the granodiorite rock of the Rosetta Stone was developed. The replica consists of 40% resin and 60% granodiorite filler. It has a high density foam core to lessen the weight.

Where is the city of Rosetta located?

In the Nile delta, 8 miles from the Mediterranean and 35 miles northeast of Alexandria. It lies on the left bank of the Rosetta branch of the Nile River. The Arabic name of the town is Rashid, named after caliph Harun al-Rashid, who founded it in about 800 AD. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

 (Google Maps)

Can you touch the original?

The original has been encased in glass since at least 1999. A replica has been placed in the King's Library for people to touch (Ray, 4).

In 1847, the stone was covered with a glass frame to protect the surface. The glass cover was removed in the 1980s because the public complained, but the stone was enclosed in a glass case after its cleaning in 1999. (Parkinson, 25). The stone was also removed from its inclined metal supports and placed upright in 1999. (Parkinson, 27)

Why is it broken?

 It was part of a column, or stela, that was originally about 6 feet tall. Based on other copies of this same text (the "Memphis Decree") and a similar decree, scholars have reconstructed what they think the original stela may have looked like:

    (Parkinson, 26)

The glyph that looks somewhat like a coffin, near the right side in the last line of hieroglyphics, is the glyph for "column" or "stela." It shows the shape of the original column that the Rosetta Stone came from.

What does "hieroglyphics" mean?

It comes from two Greek words meaning "sacred writing." It refers to a form of writing in which picture symbols represent ideas and sounds. (

Are there any other copies of the text?

Several other copies of the Memphis Decree have been discovered.

In 1898, a limestone stela inscribed with a copy of just the hieroglyphic version of the Decree of Memphis was found at Nubayrah, or el-Nobaira near Damnhur in Lower Egypt. The stela is rounded at the top and is 4 ft. 2 in. high and 1 ft. 8 in. wide and is now in the Cairo Museum.  It was carved 14 years after the Rosetta Stone, in 183 BC. (Budge, 103; Parkinson, 30)

A further version of the hieroglyphic version of the Memphis Decree was found in 1848, incised on the walls of the Birth House of the temple of Isis on the island of Philae. (Giblin, 73; Andrews, 13)

Several sandstone fragments containing the text were found in Elephantine and are now in the Louvre. A poorly preserved basalt stela containing the text from Nub Taha is now in Alexandria. (Parkinson, 30)

History of Ptolemy V

"In the summer of 204 BC Ptolemy IV died suddenly in his mid-thirties, and Ptolemy V came to the throne as a six-year-old child. In the courtly intrigues that followed, Ptolemy IV's death was concealed until the boy-king's mother Arsinoe had been killed. This weakened the government severely." Hostilities against Egypt continued until 200 or 198 BC. Rebels were eventually defeated and "they were punished as part of the coronation of the by now thirteen-year-old king, eight years into his reign." The coronation was held in the traditional capitol of Memphis. "A decree was issued to record the priests' granting of a royal cult to the king in return for his favours to them, including exemption from taxes, and is known after its place of issue as the Memphis Decree." (Parkinson, 29)


Carol Andrews, The Rosetta Stone, London: British Museum Press, 1981.

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Rosetta Stone, New York: Dover, 1989.

James Cross Giblin, The Riddle of the Rosetta Stone, Key to Ancient Egypt, New York: Harper Trophy, 1990.

Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, Berkeley: UC Press, 1999.

John Ray, The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007.