The 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the large, flat, dark stele found by a French officer in the small port of Rosetta during Napoleon Bonaparte’s military expedition to Egypt, would hold the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
This year marks the two hundredth anniversary of the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone. To mark this important milestone, we interviewed British historian, journalist, and editor, Jonathan Downs, author of Discovery at Rosetta: Revealing Ancient Egypt (AUC Press, paperback, 2020)—the first full account of the British acquisition of the Rosetta Stone in 1801, from discovery to decipherment.
Downs is also the author of Sea-Soldier (2000), and The Industrial Revolution 1770–1809 (2010). He has lectured at universities and private associations on the subject of Napoleonic Egypt, and written numerous articles concerning the repatriation of Egyptian artefacts and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution for the UK’s History Today magazine. He currently lives in Cape Town, South Africa.
Q: How and when did you become interested in the Rosetta Stone?
A: It was something of a detective story: I was asked to edit the memoirs of a British Royal Marine officer who had fought the French in Egypt. In his memoirs was a list of Egyptian antiquities put into his care aboard the warship HMS Madras (they are now all in the British Museum): item 8 was a “stone with three inscriptions, hieroglyphics, Gobtic and Greek, black granite from Rosetta.” This was the Rosetta Stone but the British Museum had never heard of my marine, and neither had they heard of HMS Madras. I began my research to find out the truth. The more I dug for information the more I realized we did not know.
Q: In your introduction, you write: “The Rosetta Stone is arguably the most important Egyptian artefact ever discovered. Without it, Egypt would have stayed a silent civilization.” Was it really the key to unlocking a modern understanding of ancient Egypt?
A: The history of Egypt was written and inscribed in hieroglyphics, a secret script known only to the ancient priesthood, which no one had been able to read for nearly two thousand years. The only other sources for Egyptian history were Greek and Roman writers, but these were only secondhand accounts. Without the Rosetta Stone and the later decipherment of hieroglyphics, this written record of Egypt would have remained a mystery.
Q: How important was the actual decree inscribed on the stele in the three different scripts?
A: The decree clarifies the date of the stone, c.196 BCE, and largely refers to the relationship between the priesthood and the worship of the pharaoh, but its greatest contribution is not what was written in the decree, but how it was written: in hieroglyphics, demotic ,and ancient Greek—because it had been put into Greek as well, the message could be translated.
Q: You used French, Egyptian, and English eyewitness accounts to tell the complete story of the discovery, decipherment, and capture of the Rosetta. How complex was the research and how difficult was it to gain access to all those resources?
A: The French National Library (Bibliothèque nationale de France) were very helpful, as were the French Egyptological Society, who sent me little-known research from French academics not usually available to English writers. Luckily, Egyptian sources such as Nicolas le Turc and Sheikh al-Jabarti of the al-Azhar had been translated long ago, and their accounts are very clear. However I had to acquire original correspondence and memoirs, of French and British generals, academics, and travelers, tracking them down all over the world. I had to trace rare antique books and letters at the British Library, and use special viewing machines. I even found a rare forgotten library in London, and a vital clue in a single book in their collection. There were so many errors and misconceptions concerning the Rosetta Stone, I was determined to rely only upon firsthand eyewitness accounts.
Q: Why did the French hand over the Rosetta Stone to the English if it was a French lieutenant from Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt campaign who found the precious stele, near the town of Rosetta?
A: When the French agreed to an armistice in Alexandria in 1801, the British would not accept their final surrender until they handed over all of the treasures they had captured in Egypt. The French general, Menou, had fallen out badly with his own French academics and actually threatened their lives. Soon their only friends were a group of English academics sent in to work with them. I argue that the French academics distrusted General Menou and handed over the stone to the English academics to preserve it. That is why I say it was not ‘captured’ by the British army at all but given over willingly by French scholars to English scholars.
Q: You point out that there were conflicting accounts of the actual sequences of events on September 12, 1801, the day of the recovery of the Rosetta Stone. You write: “This discrepancy caused some minor controversy among the parties concerned several years later, and has created considerable confusion ever since.” What sort of confusion?
A: The confusion is that a Colonel Turner of the British Army is credited with capturing the stone, but this is based entirely on his own account. The memoirs of the leader of the English academics, Dr. E.D. Clarke, told a very different story, making it clear that Turner was not present when the stone was handed over. Turner had told a tale which had good propaganda value, but completely ignored the contribution of Clarke and his colleagues. They had gone in to Alexandria at great risk to act as spies and were secretly shown the stone by the French savants without General Menou’s knowledge. I had to find the truth, and discover whether Turner or Menou had lied, or were mistaken—and why.
‘A View of Rosetta’ from Denon: Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, (Paris, 1802)
Q: Why is it generally assumed that it was the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, the “gifted linguist and scholar,” who deciphered the Rosetta Stone when in fact there were various contributors to the decoding of what would become a world-famous stele?
A: After the end of the war with Napoleon in 1815 (a war that had lasted twenty-two years) there was great national rivalry between Britain and France. Champollion was a larger-than-life character, gifted yes, but academically unpopular: his self-promotion has eclipsed the work of his own tutor, De Sacy, the work of Akerblad in Sweden, and Sir Thomas Young in England. In fact all of these scholars corresponded regularly. Between the scholars there was no ‘race’ except in the minds of propagandists and onlookers.
Q: Do you believe that the Rosetta Stone that currently resides in the British Museum will ever be returned to Egypt?
A: I see no reason why not. It is unique in the antiquities world: it is not just an Egyptian artefact, but also part of French history and English history. Over ten years ago I published a solution to the repatriation problem of the stone: it could be possible for all three nations to own it and display it, in turn, on a continuous traveling exhibit between the great capitals of Cairo, London, and Paris, for all of our peoples to enjoy. Its message was put into three scripts to ensure that all people could read and understand it. The Rosetta Stone is in a way an ambassador to unite people through language. Perhaps now, two hundred years after its decipherment, it can be a bridge between our cultures, as it was intended. It is surely time for the Rosetta Stone to ‘come home.’