Nobody ever called the Rosetta Stone pretty, but it's an ancient object touched by magic. For students of antiquity it's an enchanted fetish, like a piece of the True Cross. It's 1.4 metres high, with three of its four corners broken off and the surviving surface covered in lettering. But in the gift shop at the British Museum in London a reproduction of it outsells all other postcards. For generations, people have been falling happily under the spell of history that it casts.
The myth says that in 1799 this lump of black volcanic rock emerged from the mud of the Nile Delta and revealed the true nature of ancient Egypt. For 1,500 years Egyptian hieroglyphics had been mute scribblings on walls, meaningless because the ability to read them had been lost. Then the Rosetta Stone explained what the Egyptians wrote during the 3,500 years when they used hieroglyphics.
The truth may be more complicated, but in essence the myth holds up. Without the Rosetta Stone someone would have broken the code eventually, but the discovery provided excellent clues, attracted the attention of scholars across Europe, and eventually led to the crucial breakthrough. Modern Egypt's politicians, knowing all this, classify the stone as precious stolen property and want it returned; just as the Greeks demand that the British give back the Elgin Marbles, so the Egyptians are requesting (as the London Observer recently reported) that the Rosetta Stone, "the icon of our Egyptian identity," be shipped swiftly to Egypt. And Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, has said Egypt also wants the bust of Queen Nefertiti from Berlin -- and while you're at it, that obelisk from Luxor now decorating the Place de la Concorde.
This is demagogic nonsense, and as a precedent would produce chaos in the museums of the world -- probably Greek and Egyptian museums among others. Still, nonsense repeated often enough eventually starts sounding like sweet reason to some people. Bill Clinton and even Vanessa Redgrave think the Elgin Marbles should go back, and conceivably Britain will one day give in. But at least the Elgin Marbles, the friezes from the Parthenon, are among history's most beautiful objects. No one needs help in seeing the grandeur of those magnificent marble chariot horses.
The Rosetta Stone, on the other hand, resembles an idea more than an art object. It's a symbol that matters only if you grasp the process of knowledge expansion it stands for. Today it evokes the soaring ambitions of 19th-century European scholarship at least as much as it embodies the history of post-Pharaonic Egypt. It's part of Europe's heritage because Europe revealed its meaning.
Over the years its name has burrowed into our language. On the BBC someone recently argued that Mars will be the Rosetta Stone of life beyond Earth.
Scientific American magazine said the spectrum of hydrogen atoms has been the Rosetta Stone of modern physics. Last month a journalist in Lowell, Mass., hometown of Jack Kerouac, called the 120-foot-long scroll manuscript of Kerouac's On the Road a "Rosetta Stone of Beat Generation literature," and a psychologist named Paul Ekman said the human face is the Rosetta Stone of evolution. There's teaching software called the Rosetta Stone Language Library.
The object itself came to light partly because at some point in history the temple containing it was used as a quarry for a later building, the way Christians vandalized Roman buildings in the Middle Ages to create their churches. That second building must have collapsed, because the Rosetta Stone was dug up by French soldiers as they built a fort near el-Rashid (which has been translated as Rosetta) during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt.
Scores of scientists and artists accompanied the army, studying Egypt in the early stages of what Napoleon planned as the colonization of the Nile region. They knew the Rosetta Stone could turn out to be a revelation, but in 1801 the Treaty of Alexandria forced the French to hand it over (along with other acquisitions) to the British. Soon it was in the British Museum.
What excited the scholars was that this stone was an official proclamation (of 196 BC) that used more than one language. But instead of being bilingual, like a Canadian document, it's trilingual -- Greek, everyday demotic Egyptian and hieroglyphic (or pictorial) Egyptian. It's in Greek because that was the language of the ruling Greek Macedonians, it's in everyday Egyptian so local people could read it, and it's in hieroglyphics because that was then the language of priestly decrees, like Latin in the Roman Catholic Church much later.
The content, written by priests, reminded the populace that 13-year-old Ptolemy V was a legitimate king and a good fellow who treated the priests well -- they mentioned that he remitted some of their taxes. They said he was divine, a king like Ra, and they promised to pay homage at his shrine three times a day. Ptolemaic rule over Egypt began with Alexander the Great's conquest more than a century earlier. It was growing less secure at the time the Rosetta Stone was engraved.
European scholars, passing around copies of the stone soon after it was found, understood that if the three passages carried the same message, the Greek and demotic Egyptian inscriptions could be used to decipher the hieroglyphs. A French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, began working on this problem when he was 18 and figured it out 14 years later, in 1822. He decided the hieroglyphs weren't just picture language but also represented the sounds of Egyptian, rather in the way our alphabet does. This intuition, which ran dead against conventional wisdom, became the basis of all future understanding of language and culture in ancient Egypt.
It's pleasant to report that Figeac, the town of 10,000 in southwestern France where Champollion was born, has chosen to spread its own fame by celebrating his achievement. They have a Champollion Museum, near which American artist Joseph Kosuth has covered the courtyard of a Romanesque building with a gigantic reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, many times the size of the original. Figeac also has an obelisk in the public square, a local merchants' credit card decorated with hieroglyphics, and chocolate boxes bearing Champollion's face. He's a local boy who made very good indeed.