The Rosetta Stone
Snack: Gather animal crackers, stick pretzels, shelled
peanuts, Cheerios, and any number of other small edibles. Make up a code using
them. You know: one Cheerio is an "A," one peanut is a "B," two pretzels is a
"C," and so forth. On a clean plate, order them into a sentence or short
"picture story." Now eat all your symbols, with a big glass of milk that needs
Piece of corrugated cardboard
Paper and pencil
Ancient Egypt used hieroglyphs -
picture symbols - as their means of writing for 3,500 years. The word is
pronounced "hi row glyph," and it means "sacred writings," because most of what
the ancient Egyptians were writing about was what they held to be sacred.
The ancient Egyptians used these symbols, often called
"pictograms," to tell their stories. They wrote about kings and their families,
autobiographies of their heroes, war stories, chronicles of history,
governmental "propaganda," administrative documents, records of expeditions and
explorations, wisdom and philosophy, and much more.
Hieroglyphic symbols included people, animals, birds,
insects, and all kinds of other things. Other symbols related to the sounds of
the language that couldn't easily be pictured, so these were called phonograms (phono meaning sound, and gram
These pictures were painted or written with a reed pen on ostraka (fragments of pottery or
limestone), whitewashed boards, or papyrus. Or they were carved with a chisel in
stone, on buildings, monuments, tombs, pottery and objects in Egypt. The
symbols changed very little over the millennia during which they were used.
The Egyptian hieroglyphic "alphabet" is part of the
afro-asiatic family of languages, with more emphasis on consonants than vowels
(a, e, i, o and u in English). It was based on 24 consonants. Compare that to
the 26 consonants AND vowels in the English alphabet!
It also used many of the same suffixes for certain parts of
speech, more like Arabic than English. Hieroglyphic messages could be read from
left to right, or from right to left, or even upwards or downwards. If the
birds in a given piece of writing all faced to the left, for example, that
meant you were supposed to read that line from the right toward the left - the
opposite of the way we read text in English. To further complicate translation
for us English-speakers, they had separate symbols for certain letters
combinations, such as "th."
As time went on, other forms of writing came into place in Egypt,
chiefly hieratic script, which was
like a faster "shorthand" of hieroglyphics, the quickly-jotted demotic script, and Coptic, which combined Greek letters with a few demotics to fill in
for Egyptian sounds that weren't found in the Greek language.
So there was a lot to know if you were the one writing the
hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt, or someone centuries later, trying to read what
And that just made it really hard
for the people who came long afterwards to try to translate what the hieroglyphs
meant, because we lost the "code." From the fifth century until the discovery
of the Rosetta Stone, no one could accurately translate what the hieroglyphics
meant exactly. They could just guess, although the pictures and images are
fairly straightforward, and a lot could be inferred about Egyptian history,
society, religion and agriculture.
Then, finally, we found the code -
the key - a way to accurately translate. It was a large, flat slab of granite
found in 1799 in a town now called Rashid, located where Egypt's Nile River
flows into the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks had called the town "Rosetta," so
the stone was called "The Rosetta Stone." The reason is was important: it had
the same piece of writing in hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek.
Researchers could see how each of those languages was translated into the other
scripts. Voila: accurate translation was possible!
believe the stone was carved in 196 B.C. in the time of the Egyptian king
Ptolemy V. It was deciphered in 1822 by the French scholar Jean-Francois
Champollion. Another scholar who helped translate it was the British physicist
Thomas Young. The job was difficult because quite a lot of the hieroglyphic
portion had broken off. The dark bluish-gray slab is 45" tall, 11" thick stone
has been on display in the British Museum since 1802.
Now, just for fun, fold a smooth
piece of foil carefully around a slab of cardboard, and make your own Rosetta
Take the paper and pencil, and write
a message that includes your name. Now, under each letter, invent a symbol for
each letter. Now translate your message onto your "Rosetta Stone." Only use the
END of the pen, not the ink part, so that it will appear to be carved out of
the foil. "Write" your message in the foil. Now show only your "Rosetta Stone"
to someone else, and see if they can translate it without anything to go on. If
they can't, show them at least what the symbols are that translate to your
name. If they still can't get the entire message, show them the code.
Have fun! And here's hoping it
doesn't take CENTURIES for someone to figure out your message!