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From Fort St Julien, el-Rashid (Rosetta)
Height: 112.3 cm
Width: 75.7 cm
Thickness: 28.4 cm
Excavated by Pierre François Xavier Bouchard
Gift of George III
Room 4: Egyptian sculpture
Enlightenment: Ancient Scripts
Hieroglyphs were the form of writing used by the ancient Egyptians. They were used mainly on temples and official monuments, but handwritten forms of the script also existed for everyday use. They were no longer used after about the fourth century AD, however, and they acquired an almost magical significance.
By the eighteenth century, scholars throughout Europe were attempting to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, which they believed could help them rediscover the mystical wisdom of ancient Egyptian priests. Their fascination sprang from the fact that each sign is a picture. This made people think that hieroglyphs were symbols recording ideas rather than the sounds of a spoken language.
The key to deciphering hieroglyphics was an inscribed stone discovered at Rosetta by the French army in 1799. The stone was handed over to the English after they defeated Napoleon's army in 1801. The work of scholars from both countries led to the decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1824. They discovered that hieroglyphs did in fact record the sounds of the Egyptian language. As a result, the Rosetta Stone has become an icon of all decipherments and of attempts to access the ancient past in its own terms.