Despite the fact Ancient Egyptian history happened so long ago and covered an immense span of time, Egyptologists are able to learn an incredible amount about different periods through reading the surviving texts now preserved in museums throughout the world and in the many temples and tombs in Egypt. Egyptologists know that the language of ancient Egypt went through many phases and was written in a variety of different scripts, such as the well-known hieroglyphic script and the cursive versions known as hieratic and demotic. But this was not always so, and the key to unlocking it all took place with one groundbreaking discovery.
Until about 200 years ago, the writing of the ancient Egyptians was an enigma to the world, but that changed when an ancient Egyptian monument known today as the Rosetta Stone was discovered (or rediscovered serendipitously) by French soldiers in Egypt in 1799. Now one of the most famous monuments in the world, the Rosetta Stone is a black granite stela that was inscribed with texts in Greek and two different scripts of the ancient Egyptian language: demotic and hieroglyphs. Stelae like the Rosetta Stone were monuments that ancient Egyptian kings inscribed texts on, usually to proclaim a battle victory or a legal decree. Since the kings who commissioned stelae to be built believed that the information they contained were important, they were usually large, as is the case with the Rosetta Stone. Although damaged over time, the Rosetta Stone still stands nearly four feet tall and over two feet wide, and it originally stood probably between five and six feet tall (Andrews 1982, 12). The discovery of the Rosetta Stone finally provided researchers with a way of reading the Egyptian language based on an understanding of the Greek translation.
The historical importance of the Rosetta Stone as a primary source of events during a turbulent period in Egyptian history cannot be minimized, but its true importance was as a tool that scholars used to unlock the language of ancient Egypt. This was not lost on the Europeans at all, as the discovery and subsequent translation of the Rosetta Stone not only opened the door for the development of modern Egyptology but also proved to be an important chapter during the period known as the Enlightenment.
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