On a research trip to London this past spring, while in the British Museum I came across a pretty neat story about the Rosetta Stone and its important connection with landpower. I was dawdling in the bookshop, picking up random books that I never would have considered had I been any place other than a museum and came across John Ray’s The Rosetta Stone And The Rebirth of Ancient Egypt. I started to skim and found that Ray is a Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge. The book is meant for mass consumption, but as it clearly comes from a learned source, I trust it’s accuracy.
More than having come from a proper scholar, the book taught me about the critical role landpower played in securing this key to unlocking an ancient civilization (Egyptian hieroglyphs). For those who wish a bit more on the stone in general, Wikipedia’s entry on this subject is fantastic. What follows, however, are selections from Ray’s book about how the Rosetta Stone made its way to the British Museum in June 1802 as a spoil of war with the French.
The French had been at war with the British since 1793; Napoleon led a French force to invade Egypt in 1799…
(Ray, p. 25-27):
“In May 1798 the French fleet of 400 vessels set out from Toulon, with orders to make for an undisclosed destination. Napoleon needed to strike a blow at the British…if Egypt were to fall to French arms, the links between Britain and its growing Indian empire would be severed.”
Napoleon brought “some 150 savants, experts in most of the known sciences, including astronomy, mathematics, agriculture and even musical notation, with the aim of recording everything they set their eyes on and everything they heard. This culture-added aspect of Napoleon’s invasion force is unique in history.”
“At the beginning of July, Napoleon and his troops landed in Egypt…Napoleon announced that he was a Muslim (he was always an opportunist), and that he had come to liberate the country from the Mamelukes, a cabal of former slaves who had been ruling, or misruling, Egypt for several centuries.”
(Ray, p. 34):
“The French forces had taken steps to protect the Egyptian coast against the British navy, and at Rosetta, which was the first sizable town to the east of Alexandria, they reconstructed the citadel, which they knew as Fort St. Julien. There, in the middle of July 1799, an officer of engineers named Pierre Fracois-Xavier Bouchard found the trilingual piece of granite that is the subject of this book. It was taken to the tent of General [Jacques-Francois] Menou, who had succeeded [General] Kleber, and it was soon realized that the Greek decree at the bottom of the stone stated clearly that the Egyptian registers were versions of the same text. It looked as if the stone was a true key: decipherment, after all, can only go from the known to the unknown, and in this equation it was the Greek language that was the known. Could the lines of the Greek text take us into the hieroglyphic unknown?”
(Ray, p. 34-35):
“Menou asked for an armistice on 26 August . Under the terms of this, all antiquities in the possession of the French were to be considered public property, subject to the disposal of the victorious generals. This was a euphemism for ‘forfeit to the British’. Menou then declared that the French delegation had in their possession a total of two sarcophagi, a reply which everybody knew was somewhat economical with the truth. What about the stone? That, said Menou, happened to be his own personal property, something that could not possibly fall under the terms of any armistice.”
Eventually, “Menou was a soldier and knew when he was beaten.” He turns over the Rosetta Stone to British General John Hely-Huchinson.
(Ray, p. 36-37):
“The stone arrived at Portsmouth in February 1802…
When “transferred to the British Museum…It now bore two extra inscriptions: ‘Captured in Egypt by the British Army 1801’ and ‘Presented by King George III’. These sentiments are still visible, painted on both sides of the stone, but the British Museum has had the decency to let them fade. The antiquities in London were tokens of victory and their physical ownership was settled.”