What Does the Rosetta Stone Say?

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Key Takeaways:

  • The Rosetta Stone contains a decree affirming the royal cult of Ptolemy V from around 196 BC.
  • The inscription is written in three scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic Egyptian, and ancient Greek.
  • The Rosetta Stone provided the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.
  • The full translated text deals with administrative matters related to Ptolemy V’s rule.
  • The decree affirms Ptolemy’s divine status and commemorates his coronation.


The Rosetta Stone is one of the most iconic artifacts from ancient Egypt. This dark granite stele grabbed the world’s attention when it enabled the momentous deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the early 19th century. But what exactly does the famous inscription on the Rosetta Stone say?

This article will provide a comprehensive look at the Rosetta Stone: its discovery, contents, significance, and full translation. We will evaluate what the decree on the stone reveals about life under Ptolemaic rule in ancient Egypt. Diving into the details of the inscription illuminates both a pivotal piece of history and a fascinating window into the past.

Understanding the Rosetta Stone provides insight into how monuments and texts functioned in ancient civilizations. Beyond unlocking hieroglyphics, the stele offers a glimpse of royal propaganda and political strategies from the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Whether you are interested in Egyptology, archaeology, ancient languages, or history, decoding the Rosetta Stone uncovers an invaluable wealth of knowledge.

What Is the Rosetta Stone?

The Rosetta Stone is a granite stele measuring over 3.5 feet high, 2.5 feet wide, and 11 inches thick. It contains a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC during the reign of Ptolemy V. This decree was copied onto large stone slabs called stelae and placed in every temple across Egypt. The version discovered in 1799 happens to be the only surviving version.

The inscription is written in three different scripts:

  • Hieroglyphic (top): The ancient Egyptian picture writing used for important or religious documents.
  • Demotic Egyptian (middle): The common script used for daily writing and business in Egypt from the 7th century BCE to the 5th century CE.
  • Ancient Greek (bottom): The language of administration and trade in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Having the same text repeated in three different languages allowed scholars to compare and translate the writings, finally cracking the code of hieroglyphics. This key enabled the rich historical, cultural, and linguistic knowledge contained in ancient Egyptian writings to be revealed.

What Does the Rosetta Stone Say?

When and Where Was the Rosetta Stone Discovered?

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. While demolishing an ancient wall in the Egyptian port town of Rashid (Rosetta), a French soldier discovered the artifact. At the time, Egypt was under control of the Ottoman Empire. After the British defeated the French in Egypt, the stele became the property of the British Crown as a spoil of war in 1802. It has been housed in the British Museum since 1802 and is the most visited object there.

What Does the Inscription Say?

The inscription on the Rosetta Stone is a decree issued by a council of Egyptian priests in Memphis on March 27, 196 BCE. It commemorates the first anniversary of the coronation of King Ptolemy V and emphasizes the king’s divine status. It was essentially a public relations statement reaffirming Ptolemy’s rightful rule as pharaoh.

The decree prescribes how Ptolemy V should be honored with additions and alterations to temple rituals. It grants tax exemptions to the temples, affirms priestly rights, and wages war against impure dealings. The detailed instructions aim to appease the Egyptian clergy and gain their support for the Greco-Macedonian Ptolemaic rulers.

Rather than profound wisdom or insights, the text itself deals with fairly mundane administrative business related to Ptolemy’s reign. But this information is deeply revealing about Egyptian history under Greek rulers and the interaction between their deux cultures.

Below is a summary of the key parts of the inscription:

  • Names and honors Ptolemy V Epiphanes as legitimate heir and living god.
  • Specifies offerings, sacrifices, and rituals to honor the king.
  • Grants tax exemptions to temples and clerical benefits to priests.
  • Calls for punishing impure officials who take bribes and foster lawlessness in Egypt.
  • Demands purifying temples that have fallen into disarray.
  • Seeks to correct the behavior of people who commit sacrilegious acts or improper dealings in temples.
  • States the decree should be written in sacred (hieroglyphic), native (demotic) and Greek scripts and placed in every temple.

Rather than containing profound wisdom or deep secrets, the text served to promote and solidify Ptolemaic rule. But unlocking its meaning still proved to be an invaluable key to understanding the ancient world.

How Did the Rosetta Stone Lead to Deciphering Hieroglyphics?

Hieroglyphics had been indecipherable for over a thousand years until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The trilingual parallel text finally cracked the code and revealed the meanings behind the cryptic carvings.

When the stone was discovered in 1799, the Greek inscription was translated first because ancient Greek could still be read by scholars at that time. Scholars then realized that the middle demotic script was in the Egyptian language as well. By comparing the Greek and Demotic texts, researchers got their first understanding of what the Egyptian hieroglyphs represented phonetically.

The breakthrough came through recognizing groups of hieroglyphs enclosed in oval shapes called cartouches. These cartouches corresponded to the names of royalty, like Ptolemy and Cleopatra. Once Claude Étienne Savary identified the cartouches as containing royal names in 1822, Jean-François Champollion used this knowledge to fully decipher the hieroglyphic system.

Champollion compared the hieroglyphs in cartouches to the Greek and Demotic equivalents for each pharaoh’s name. Building on previous work, he successfully matched sounds to symbols and established basic grammar and spelling rules. While the inscription itself was mundane, it crucially led to decoding the volumes of history and legend contained in ancient Egyptian writings.

Why Is the Rosetta Stone Important?

The Rosetta Stone is one of the most important archaeological discoveries and enabled a colossal breakthrough in understanding the ancient world. The ability to read hieroglyphics opened up 3,000 years of Egyptian history and culture that had been locked away in indecipherable texts.

The stone provided the key to translate countless inscriptions from temples, tombs, and artifacts across Egypt’s archaeological sites. This revealed incredible insights into Egyptian medicine, mathematics, literature, religion, and daily life. Decorative carvings thought to simply be symbolic pictograms were unlocked to be eloquent texts and poetry.

The significance of the Rosetta Stone goes beyond ancient Egypt and has immense implications for global history. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system influenced or gave rise to numerous other scripts including Egyptian demotic, Coptic, Meroitic, Proto-Sinaitic, and the Phoenician alphabet. Through Greek and Phoenician, the Egyptian hieroglyphs essentially spawned the Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and modern European alphabets.

Unlocking hieroglyphics through the Rosetta Stone thus connected the modern world to the ancient past across thousands of years and civilizations. It will forever remain a iconic piece of world cultural heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Rosetta Stone

Here are some common questions about the history and significance of the Rosetta Stone:

What material is the Rosetta Stone made of?

The Rosetta Stone is carved out of granodiorite, a type of dark gray igneous rock containing large mineral grains. Granodiorite was a prestigious material associated with strength in ancient Egypt.

What do the three different scripts on the stone say?

The three scripts contain the same message written in different languages and writing systems. The top is in formal hieroglyphs, the middle is in Egyptian Demotic script, and the bottom is in ancient Greek.

Who was king Ptolemy V Epiphanes?

Ptolemy V ruled the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 204 to 181 BCE. He was of Greek Macedonian descent. The epithet Epiphanes means “the Illustrious One”.

How old is the Rosetta Stone?

The Rosetta Stone was carved in 196 BCE, making it over 2,200 years old. It was created during the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history.

Where is the Rosetta Stone housed today?

The Rosetta Stone has been housed in the British Museum since 1802, apart from a brief period during World War One when it was moved to a Post Office Underground station for safety.

How did ancient Egyptians carve hieroglyphs into granite?

The carving was first outlined with red pigment. Trenches were chiselled following these guides using copper and stone tools. Finally, the surfaces were expertly polished.

Did the Rosetta Stone contain profound wisdom or secrets?

No, the text itself was an administrative decree focused on affirming Ptolemy V’s rule. Its significance lies in enabling hieroglyphic translation.


The famous inscription on the Rosetta Stone provided the essential key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics and opened up a wealth of ancient knowledge and history. While the decree text itself dealt with affirming Ptolemy V’s power, its legacy is immeasurable. The capacity to read hieroglyphic writing revealed 3,000 years of Egyptian cultural developments and connected the modern world to our shared past across millennia. The Rosetta Stone will forever represent one of the most pivotal moments in archaeology and our understanding of humanity’s origins. Unlocking its message profoundly changed our world.

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