The Mona Lisa of the British Museum

Source: Wikipedia

I’ve always wondered how heavy the Rosetta Stone is and now I know: about 760 kilograms or 1,676 lb. I never wondered if one could buy a Rosetta Stone novelty tie, but apparently one can. Anyway, the Stone itself is an example of the Ptolemaic Decrees, the Ptolemaic Dynasty being the one you should look into if you are into things Hellenic and Roman or even Asterix, because the Dynasty begins with a general of Alexander the Great and winds down with Cleopatra. For someone interested in history, that’s pretty cool. But for someone interested in linguistics and writing, this slab of stone is the Holy Grail. It’s like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in that there’s always a group of people around it, making it almost impossible to see anything but the backs of people’s heads, but while I did not have the patience to wait for my turn to take a closer look at the Mona Lisa, I waited patiently to get to see this piece.

If you don’t know the story of how it ended up in the British Museum after Napoleon’s archaeologists found it in the coastal city of Rosetta, Wikipedia is your friend. There’s also a TV movie about Champollion, the guy who pulled off a small miracle translating the text, but somehow it seems more appropriate to read the story.

Source: Wikipedia

But what does the Stone itself say? There are translations available and as far as these things go it’s pretty exciting stuff. The Linear B tablets, for instance, are famous for being incredibly disappointing content-wise, just a bunch of lists for provisions of grain, wool, and the like. Nevertheless, the content is pretty boring business-stuff for someone more blown away by the fact that the thing was translated in the first place. There’s stuff about money and offerings, not to mention endless statements about how great the king is, but it is, in essence, business.

The lesson of the Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic writing on the Stone is much deeper than that. Of course it has value as a major historical document, but that’s peanuts compared to the knowledge of the scripts it made possible. The Museum’s blurb says:

Before the Ptolemaic era (that is before about 332 BC), decrees in hieroglyphs such as this were usually set up by the king. It shows how much things had changed from Pharaonic times that the priests, the only people who had kept the knowledge of writing hieroglyphs, were now issuing such decrees.

I didn’t know “Pharaonic” was a word. You learn something new every day and you should, because, as the Rosetta Stone makes quite clear, knowledge is the key to power if not power itself.

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