04 September 2017

Rosetta Stone

The term "Rosetta stone" has been used to represent any crucial key in the process of decryption of encoded information. This is especially true when only a small but representative sample is recognized as being the clue to understanding a larger whole.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first figurative use of the term appeared in 1902. In H. G. Wells' 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, a manuscript written in shorthand provides a key to understanding additional material sketched out in both longhand and on typewriter.

Theodor W. Hänsch wrote in 1979 that "the spectrum of the hydrogen atoms has proved to be the Rosetta stone of modern physics" and understanding the key set of genes to the human leucocyte antigen has been described as "the Rosetta Stone of immunology."

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum - by © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0

The original Rosetta Stone is a black granodiorite (an igneous rock similar to granite) slab that was found in 1799. It is inscribed with three versions of a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V.

Because the top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian (using hieroglyphic script and Demotic script, respectively) while the bottom is in Ancient Greek, the Rosetta Stone proved to be the translation key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Carved during the Hellenistic period, it is believed to have originally been displayed within a temple, but was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period. It was rediscovered in 1799 as part of a the building material in the Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta by a French soldier during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt.

Lithographic copies and plaster casts were made for European museums and scholars to study.

It has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously since 1802 and is the most-visited object there, but ever since its rediscovery, the stone has been the focus of nationalist rivalries, including its transfer from French to British possession during the Napoleonic Wars, and demands for the stone's return to Egypt.

Some readers will know the term Rosetta Stone used as the title of translation and language-learning software published by Rosetta Stone Ltd.

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