The Rosetta Stone: What Is It? - A Helpful Introduction for Kids
Updated: Jun 20
So the Rosetta Stone is just a big old rock with scribbles on it, right?
Let us tell you why this is one of the most important discoveries of all time:
The Rosetta Stone:
What is it?
The Rosetta Stone is a stele.
Okay, but what's a stele?
I'm glad you asked. "Stele" is a fancy Latin word for a stone or wooden monument from the ancient world, often inscribed, carved, or painted with words or decorations. They are often taller than they are wide and would have stood upright so passers by could read them. In the case of the Rosetta Stone, it is a stone inscribed with a message about the Pharaoh.
What does the Rosetta Stone say?
The message, inscribed on the Rosetta Stone in 196 BC, is a decree (an official message) about Pharaoh Ptolemy V. It says that the priests at the temple in Memphis, Egypt, supported the Pharaoh. It translates as a bit of a list of all of the good things Pharaoh Ptolemy V did for the priests and the people of Egypt.
The message on the Rosetta Stone also claims that an identical copy of this exact message must be placed in every temple across Egypt so they could spread this important decree far and wide. From this, we can learn that the Rosetta Stone was actually one of these copies. After all, the Rosetta Stone wasn't found in Memphis where the original decree was made by the council of priests.
Where was the Rosetta Stone found?
It was found in a town called Rosetta (also known as Rashid) in the Nile Delta, which is where it got its name.
Who found it?
The stone was discovered by French soldiers on 15th July 1799. At this time, Napoleon Bonaparte was campaigning through Egypt to gain power & influence. Some of his soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone accidently whilst digging foundations to build an extension onto a fort. Luckily, Pierre-François Bouchard, the officer in charge, recognised its importance and kept the stone safe.
Why was the stone so important?
Although the decree from the priests about Ptolemy V is interesting, its not exactly ground-breaking. What made the Rosetta Stone one of the most important discoveries of all time was that the priest's decree was written in three different forms of writing (or "scripts").
What were the three different scripts?
The first script is hieroglyphs. This was an Egyptian form of writing often used by priests for religious texts. The second script is Demotic. This form of Egyptian writing was often seen as the "language of the people" because it was used by common Egyptian people on a daily basis. The third script is Ancient Greek. The rulers of Egypt at this time were descended from the Ancient Greeks (after Alexander The Great's conquest), so this was the form of writing used by Egyptian royalty.
Sadly, the Rosetta Stone was broken so some parts of the hieroglyphic writing has been lost. In total, the stone includes 14 lines of hieroglyphic script, 32 lines in Demotic and 53 lines in Ancient Greek script.
What can we learn from these three scripts?
Historians used the three scripts on the Rosetta Stone to learn to read and understand hieroglyphs for the first time. Hieroglyphs had fallen out of use around the 4th Century AD and knowledge of how to read them had disappeared as time passed. Luckily, having the same message translated into three different scripts meant that historians could learn to translate the hieroglyphic text.
How did they learn to translate the hieroglyphs?
An English historian called Thomas Young used his knowledge of the Greek language to find translations of names, such as Ptolomy, in the hieroglyphs. Following Young's discovery, a French historian, Jean-Francois Champollion, used the Coptic language (a later stage of the Egyptian language, similar to that written on the stone) to decipher much of the rest of the hieroglyphic script. It is because of the hard work of these early Egyptologists that we can now understand Egyptian hieroglyphs. You can even learn to write in Egyptian hieroglyphs here.
Where is the stone now?
After Napoleon Bonaparte's defeat, the Rosetta Stone was shipped over to Britain where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III in 1802. The stone has been on display in the British Museum ever since (minus a few years where it was hidden in a London Underground station to stop it from being blown up by bombs in the First World War).
Can I see the Rosetta Stone?
If you can't make it to the British Museum in person, you can check out the Rosetta Stone with this awesome 3D scan hosted by the British Museum:
If you are a teacher then you'll definitely want Imagining History to bring their 'Ancient Egypt: A Time Travel Tour' Interactive workshop to your school.
Our Award-Winning sessions combine role-play, storytelling, demonstrations, and drama and performance to bring history to life for your students.