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How the Rosetta Stone yielded its secrets (newyorker.com)
124 points by fortran77 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments

It really makes you think about how many of the things we know today are based on very loose wisps of foundational information, and this makes knowledge both more precious (because it's so hard to come by), and also should give us great pause to consider any knowledge so sacrosanct, given how it could take a very small piece of new uncovered information to completely change how we think about the world.

George Washington didn't know about dinosaurs. What don't we know about yet, and what do we think is true that will turn out not to be?

This is exactly the problem I see with religion and how literally (some) people interpret religious texts. The texts have gone from spoken word to written and then gone through several translations. Languages have intricacies that change meanings when translated. It’s context-specific and region-specific and time-specific. Words don’t always have the same connotations. Some phrases don’t exist. The translator can put their own biases into the translation despite trying to maintain neutrality. I wouldn’t dare bring this up to a religious person, but I can’t relate to the confidence of accepting their particular linguistic and stylistic variety as being the correct one.

On a more technological note, a COBOL to Java translator has probably made unforeseen mistakes that will change reality for people.

My maternal grandparents are evangelical Christians. I once made the mistake of suggesting to them the King James Bible wasn’t the best text to pick if one was inclined to subscribe to biblical literalism.

That’s when I learned that (at least for them and many folks like them) isn’t a scholarly take but just another faith element immune to scrutiny.

Perfect and infallible texts seems like picking easy straw man though. The new testament wasn't designed or intended to be litigated like a constitution or a bill, and arguably it was a Roman response to that very critical approach to the old testament. His most challenging (final) example was that it's better to select out in pursuit of compassion at the hands of a fearful mob than to become old as a member of one.

There is a simpler view that it is the best available reference we have for the intent of a creator, and it sets a pretty high bar. We can use science and other tools to interpret that intent (or even argue against its existence at all), but in terms of leading an exemplary life, we're probably not going to do better than that example, and even attempting it is universally more moral than not.

It's not so much that faith is immune to scrutiny as it's an axiom that criticism doesn't change. If you accept your experience of existence is an artifact of some other persons logic, you can be made to accept anything. The idea of working from a fixed divine example works as an innoculation against a lot of evils (deception as a means to direct cruelty in particular). I think what most atheists find so objectionable isn't the band so much as the fans, and I thought most of Hitchens' arguments reduced to this.

When we look at peoples faith as a conclusion, it presumes some prior logic or argument subject to language, and that logic determines its reality, but when you look at it as an axiom from which the rest of their experience flows, you just have to take it or leave it. We can all certainly reason, but what we are is not mere reason. So I think this difference is at the very core of how we experience identity, and everything that flows from the possibly irreconcilable logics of ideas about it.

I've concluded a lot of people worship their translation and not the God they claim yo care about.

Their God is defined by their translation though, right? So they’re at least acting self-consistently.

They arn't worshiping the God, but the translation itself.

I think an even bigger issue is that anyone would want to read the Bible literally at all.

It's an amalgamation of various writers from different periods in history.

Are you saying that because it is an amalgamation of various writers from different periods in history, therefore no one should be interested in reading it?

I've read very little, but I've quite liked the portions I've read.

Not all religious people see sacred texts as infallible or perfect.

The same "context-specific and region-specific and time-specific" criticism could be said for science, statistics, and academics.

Both scripture and science are done by humans, but that doesn't mean there isn't truth in both of them.

> Not all religious people see sacred texts as infallible or perfect.

That’s true, but some do.

>The same "context-specific and region-specific and time-specific" criticism could be said for science, statistics, and academics.

I think we can both agree that science and religion are not on equal footing in terms of self-correction. Science goes back and forth in a matter of years to verify observations. In religion you can easily step over the line into blasphemy even when simply asking a question.

>Both scripture and science are done by humans, but that doesn't mean there isn't truth in both of them.

I don’t disagree. My concern is apparent truth derived from misinterpretation.

> That’s true, but some do.

Rarely mentioned (and often avoided during discussion, on this topic or others) is the epistemically sound, quantitative (percentage) of people who "see" "sacred texts as infallible or perfect", something which is not measurable (but rarely realized as such, as far as I can tell).

> I think we can both agree that science and religion are not on equal footing in terms of self-correction.

True, but I often wonder if the persuasiveness (with respect to one's model of reality) of individual data points like this is significantly greater than their actual importance (and therefore misleading).

> Science goes back and forth in a matter of years to verify observations.

Within the physical/materialistic realm, but often not noticed is when science [implicitly] makes statements that cross over into the metaphysical realm, which is the territory religion tends to deal with - these (admittedly perhaps not all that frequent) seem to not get a lot of attention from the scientific community/enthusiasts (to be fair, understandably so considering their beliefs). And if one is to draw their attention to it, they tend to react (purely coincidentally, of course) in a way not all that unlike stereotypical religious people when you criticize their model.

> In religion you can easily step over the line into blasphemy even when simply asking a question.

So too with science, if one is to (for example) ask whether metaphysics might possibly deserve a seat at the adult table at Thanksgiving dinner.

> My concern is apparent truth derived from misinterpretation.

Have you focused your critical analysis at science to the same degree[1] as you have at religion? (And if you have not, would you necessarily know?)

[1] magnitude and quality, taking into consideration bias, perception, intuitive skills, etc

As I see it (from a high level):

- all models are wrong

- some models are useful

- some things that are models are not realized/perceived as such (ie: reality)

- (almost) all human beings (including genuinely logical & intelligent ones) have strong emotional reactions to criticism of their models, or the discussion of metaphysical matters beyond a certain depth

And as a consequence, hilarity/tragedy ensues, potentially indefinitely.

This is why the study of ancient languages used in religious texts are important. Many churches still conduct some activities in dead languages. For example, the Roman Catholic Church still publishes texts in Latin and trains people in Latin. Other churches study Koine Greek even today. Scholars of theology sometimes study Biblical Hebrew and even Aramaic. The good scholars often use their grasp of history, politics, philosophy etc. while performing their exegesis.

Biblical professor Bart Ehrman has written many books about how the bible was put together. The Comma Johanneum, the most explicit reference to the doctrine of the trinity is not found in the original Greek (or in early non-Latin translations) until Erasmus was pressured (against his desire) to include it in his Greek Bible in 1522.

Also, the first gospel written is thought to be Mark. In the King James Bible, Catholic translations etc. Jesus is seen resurrected by the apostles and others. This does not happen in the earliest versions of Mark.

There are lots of things like this, Ehrman goes into many of them.

Would bible literalism be sensible if you understood Hebrew? Translation is a big problem with Christians specifically, but imo it's not "exactly the problem with religion".

It would still be a stretch. Most of the bible was written in Hebrew or Greek, but for literalism to make any sense, you'd have to be a native speaker, not just of modern Hebrew or Greek, but of their ancient versions. Otherwise, it's like a modern English speaker trying to take Shakespeare literally. It's just not going to make a lot of sense unless you're fully immersed in the language and culture at the time.

The Bible is written in several languages. New testiment is mostly Greek. I've been told 5, but I'm not able to verify that. Not to mention the Hebrew part covers over a thousand years so I can't imagine it didn't change

The Hebrew part (depending on what you consider cannon) was more likely composed/compiled over a few hundred years. Although the stories may be older, the spelling and other elements are from the Babylonian period.

The poems do retain the older Hebrew though.

Hebrew speaker here. The old testament is readable, but difficult. The far larger problem is the lack of context.

Fortunately, the Jews have an unbroken chain of proficient Hebrew speaking Rabbis going back to the beginnings of the faith, and throughout that entire time they have written commentary. So like tracing photographs of a person back to when they were a baby, we have an unbroken chain of context to reference.

The amount of material is daunting. It really is a profession to comprehend it all - whether one believes it to be divine or not.

Even if you understand the Hebrew, much of the original meaning has been lost. I'd recommend Kugel 'How to read the Bible' for this.

Two of my favorite artifacts in the British Museum are the Young letter and the Champollion publication, where Young in 1818 explains his theory that hieroglyphic pictograms sometimes represent sounds, and Champollion in 1822 gives a detailed phonetic breakdown of each hieroglyph (photos in https://blog.britishmuseum.org/everything-you-ever-wanted-to... and also in https://cosmolearning.org/images/a-letter-from-thomas-young-...).

They're on display in a case, easy to miss, near the replica Rosetta stone that you can touch ( https://g.co/arts/Jc9fSG2q4FfZzCPT9 )

I love these artifacts because they show a real live example of the way people did science a few centuries ago.

The pace is thought-provoking -- it took 4+ years between one person's letter and another's results? we didn't even declare the translation "done" until 1824? -- and I've always wondered what was going on there.

This is an interesting book review, helps fill in some gaps for me!

I am a little surprised to see the author use the phrase "Elgin Marbles". This was used ubiquitously a few years back but at some point in the past 5-10 years the preferred phrase seems to have become "The Parthenon Sculptures" (see e.g. https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/...). I'm not quite sure when this happened and when I looked it up recently I couldn't find good news coverage explaining the conscious choice to change the name.

Came across this podcast some weeks back where they tell the story of how various artefacts ended in British museums. Hopefully, they can expand this out to other museums round the world.


I was about to make the same recommendation. Marc Fenell is great, he's been a beloved figure in Australian radio for some time. He has a very compassionate view on the world.

Elgin Marbles is such a famous, well-known, and old name that any modern renaming of it must succeed with culture before it sticks.

It'd probably stick pretty easily if they put the things back in the Parthenon, they're only know as the Elgin Marbles as the Earl of Elgin looted them.

And if Elgin had not 'looted' them it is also possible they would be scattered around Athens as landfill and building material.

As a simple example, the Rosetta Stone that is the focus of this article was yoinked by locals for building material and used as fill in the wall of a fort some distance away from its original location. It was only saved because when some French soldiers were rebuilding the foundations of the fort wall someone recognized the significance of the inscription on the stone.

It is a sad fact that were it not for this 'looting' we would have far fewer artifacts to examine and use to inform our understanding of the past because the locals would have continued to treat these sites and objects as open-air quarries.

this is not always true.

many idols of gods in less famous and out of the way hindu temples in india were stolen and sold off to collectors in the west. these idols were there in the community forever and cared for, when they were stolen, the community simply accepted the loss because they didnt have the resources to chase it all up.

see this: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/05/07/the-idol-thief

from the article

Collectors often suggest that they are the custodians and preservers of antiquities that might otherwise suffer from neglect or mistreatment, but Ghiya described the callous mechanics that are sometimes required to smuggle a statue from one country to another. He recalled a squat stone Vahara—a depiction of Vishnu in his incarnation as a boar—that stood in the village of Attru, in southeast Rajasthan. The boar weighed more than a thousand pounds and its legs and torso were covered in a magnificent phalanx of tiny, intricately carved figurines. Ghiya’s thieves stole the statue in the late nineteen-eighties, lacing a chain through the boar’s open mouth and yanking it from its stone pedestal, shearing off its lower jaw and breaking its legs in the process. The piece was eventually sold to a private collector in Zurich.

This ignores the millions of artifacts in boxes that will almost certainly never see the light if day, and the untold number that the British destroyed while looting what they wanted/they colonized the area.

The artifacts are catalogued and stored, which is more than can be said when it comes to a lot of older cultures. I would have a lot more sympathy for the arguments that the rapacious British were nothing but a detriment to archaeology and understanding of the past when you could point me to the preservation efforts that existed before the British arrived. There were far worse outcomes in terms of historical preservation than to be colonized by the British (e.g. pity those locations colonized by the Spanish, who actually were as bad as you suggest the British colonizers to be.)

>I would have a lot more sympathy for the arguments that the rapacious British were nothing but a detriment to archaeology and understanding of the past when you could point me to the preservation efforts that existed before the British arrived.

And I would accept this excuse if they now returned the items they looted to the countries that do have significant preservation efforts in place. Like Greece.

Sure the British could have been worse, but they were still pretty bad.

what is being used is preserved simply by its use. an idol in a hindu temple is sacred and washed and annointed. only when its removed from its context it needs to be preserved. the brits and other colonizers simply take what they want because guns rule.

And so it goes on: Egyptian temples defaced by early Christians, Palmyra temples destroyed by Isis...

I found this interesting article from someone who argues that Elgin took the sculptures as a public-relations move designed to refocus public attention away from his wounded nose and strained marriage: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/TWC2404381...

The sculptures were created approx 440 BCE, and Elgin wasn't involved with them till around 1800 CE, so it's not obvious that "Elgin Marbles" is an old name in this context. It's also not obvious that Elgin removed them legitimately (the alleged source of his authority is either lost or never existed in the first place).

European museums are full of looted treasures taken from other countries. Perhaps it seemed a little inappropriate to continue to name them after the looter rather than the place they came from?

See it another way: the people who "owned" the things did nothing with them for centuries, when Champolion decoded the language millenia later, while the Egyptians were busy praying their new gods destroying their own ancient culture.

You dont need to have been shat from an egyptian vagina to deeply understand, respect and eventually contribute to its culture a thousand times better.

> Egypt fell to Rome in 30 B.C., after Caesar Augustus (at that time still called Octavian) defeated the forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium,

Actually, the fall of Egypt is much earlier. Nectanebo II in 342 BC was the last native ruler of Egypt (and even he was part of a rebel dynasty that ruled for around 40 years after successfully revolting against the Persians who had conquered Egypt under Cambyses in the 500's.

The Rosetta Stone, was probably the single greatest archeological discovery to date. It opened up the written history of arguably one of the oldest civilizations in the world and which was throughout much of history either one of or involved with the greatest empires in history.

If I remember my history well Egypt was basically like China: a more or less coherent empire that was however many times conquered and reconquered or had internal political takeovers. So you may be right that 342 is a better date but some could probably argue that an even earlier one should be taken, e.g. when the various mesopotamian empires conquered it. On the other hand the Roman takeover seems to be when Egypt truly became a vassal and lost its independence.

> the last native ruler of Egypt

What exactly does "native" mean in this context? The entire Mediterranean coast was the equivalent of a highway off-ramp for as long as boats have been a thing, which is far longer ago than the 4th century BC. I'm no Egyptologist, but given that there were 32 different dynasties (supposedly), I assume some "foreign" conquest must have been involved on more than one occasion in the millennia the Egyptian kingdoms existed. It's an area where Internet search provides no quality results, so if you can help clarify I'd greatly appreciate it.

This was the last time that someone whose high culture was Egyptian ruled Egypt. After that Egypt was ruled by people who spoke a different language and looked outside Egypt for cultural touchstones. Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to speak Egyptian. Until the Arabs conquered it from the Romans it was ruled by Greek speakers.


This is as important a discovery because it helped decipher cuneiform, a language that existed in parallel to hieroglyphics.

The Demotic language mentioned as a shorthand form of hieroglyphics... it's the script used to write what we now call "Arabic". That's right, written Arabic is a direct descendent of hieroglyphics.

To add to this: while we lost the ability to decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs until the Rosetta stone, the Egyptian language itself (the words and their meanings) continued to be known/understood/spoken to this day, in the form of the Coptic language.

The Coptic language is essentially Greek letters (plus 7 additional ones for sounds not covered by the Greek alphabet) used to write the Egyptian language.

Coptic was supplanted by Egyptian Arabic as the primary spoken language of Egypt following the Muslim conquest of Egypt, although it remains in use today as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Another fun fact: the Greek letters used to write the Coptic language were based on the Phoenician alphabet, which were based on Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. So in essence, the alphabet brought over by the foreign Greeks and then used to write the Egyptian language, was itself based on Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, bringing it full circle!

Demotic looks like the Arabic script, sure. However, it doesn't work like Arabic. It's a cursive form of the more well-known hieroglyphic script using a later form of the Egyptian language. That means bi-/tri-literals, determinatives, and all that stuff.

The modern Arabic script is only related to Demotic in the sense that it's probably derived from the Phoenician script, which in turn is probably derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Aren't most European scripts derived from Phoenecian? Latin and Cyrillic at least.

The Phoenician script used a simplified alphabet (with only 22 letters) derived from an older Semitic alphabet (which had between 27 and 29 letters). The older alphabet has not been preserved, but we know some things about it because there have been a few other alphabets derived from it, besides the Phoenician (the Ugaritic and South-Arabic alphabets).

Because the Phoenician merchants had activities all around the Mediterranean and through the Middle East, the Phoenician alphabet became known over a very large area, unlike the earlier alphabets. The consequence was that almost all alphabetic/abugida systems of writing are derived directly or indirectly from the Phoenician script.

The Greek alphabet was derived directly from Phoenician, then the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets were derived from the Greek.

Other Semitic alphabets were also derived from Phoenician, e.g Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic, but they had problems because the Phoenician alphabet had a reduced number of letters so they had to use various means to write the sounds that were missing in Phoenician. The Aramaic alphabet spread through Asia and generated various other writing systems, e.g. in India.

This quote is wrong

> "The older alphabet has not been preserved, but we know some things about it because there have been a few other alphabets derived from"

The predecessor is preserved and seems to be based on an creative re-interpretation from some of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs.


> "According to common theory, Canaanites who spoke a Semitic language repurposed Egyptian hieroglyphs to construct a different script. The script is attested in a small corpus of inscriptions found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, dating to the Middle Bronze Age (1900–1850BC)"

No, the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions are not well understood and they give only partial information about the initial Semitic alphabet.

From those inscriptions it was not possible to determine the complete list of signs, their phonetic values and their alphabetic order, things that we know only about later derived alphabets, e.g. the Ugaritic alphabet and the South-Arabic alphabet.

Even if the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions would have never been found, starting from the derived alphabets we could have guessed about the original alphabet about the same things that we know now.

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions have provided a confirmation for such guesses and they have also provided a more constrained time frame for the development of the original Semitic alphabet, but they did not add much other information.

This might change in the future only if additional inscriptions would be found or if someone would be able to make an improved analysis of the existing inscriptions to better determine the meaning of the signs, as for now the exact correspondence with the later alphabets is not clear.

Apparently yes, although most indirectly. Latin and Cyrillic are effectively derivatives of the Greek alphabet (the second one, formed after the totally unrelated Linear-B was forgotten), itself a derivative of Phoenician script. Cyrillic also borrows some characters directly from Hebrew/Arabic IIRC, which are more directly descended from Phoenician, all in the same language family.

The hard part, especially when talking about language artifacts this old, is distinguishing between "derived" and "ancestor of" compared to "influenced" and "contributed to". The difference between being the genetic offspring of something and just "borrowing" some genes.

It's easy to guess some sort of shared lineage between the Semitic writing systems, the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Demotic, and the European Latin/Greek offspring, but I bet it's not a nice tree so much as a directed graph with at least some borrowing and cross-pollination. :-)

In all such cases when a derived system of writing was created, the creator was familiar with one or more older writing systems, but different choices were made about how much to take from the old system and how many new features to add.

The creator of the Greek alphabet knew the Phoenician alphabet and its adaptation to the Greek language preserved almost all Phoenician letters, with their names and their alphabetic order and their pronunciations, with just a few exceptions when some letters have been reassigned to other sounds (the most significant being the reassignment of ALEF, HE, AYIN to the sounds A, E, O) and a few letters were added at the end of the alphabet for sounds missing in Phoenician.

On the other hand, the creator of the first Semitic alphabet (many hundreds of years before the creation of the Phoenician variant) knew the Egyptian hieratic writing system (not the Demotic, which is much more recent than even the Phoenician alphabet).

However, the Semitic alphabet preserved much less from the hieratic script, mainly the principle of using a sign for each consonant, without marking the vowels, and the writing direction from right to left.

Because we know very little of the early evolution of the Semitic alphabet (the few so-called Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions are very obscure), we do not even know for sure if any signs were taken directly from hieratic or all the Semitic signs were completely new. Also, it is not known which are the origins of the 2 traditional orders of the letters in the Semitic alphabets (the one used in Phoenician/Ugaritic, which was inherited by the European alphabets, and the different order used in the South-Arabic alphabet).

So the ancestor of the Phoenician alphabet has taken much less from the hieratic script than the Greek alphabet has taken from the Phoenician, but it can be argued that a principle like using a sign per consonant is much more important than the graphic signs that are used (especially because this idea seems to have occurred only once in history, all the other not-derived-from-Egyptian writing systems have used signs for either syllables or words, not for simpler sounds).

This article is so good we should archive it => http://archive.today/9kEh1

But, who's going to archive archive.today?

Does anyone have an educated guess as to whether we'd now understand hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone? I know other phonetic languages with likely fewer available documents have been decoded without such a tool, but at least from a laypersons perspective the pictographs would male it much more complicated. I guess Demotic would allow one to workaround that hurdle.

I can’t answer you question, but there is at least one more poorly understood ’written’ language, the Quipu, made by the Inca.


You can just look at Linear A[1] if you want a well known example of that.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_A

There are other bi-/trilingual texts, like the decree of Canopus:


The BBC radio programme In Our Time featured the Rosetta Stone earlier this year (Feb 2021). Three academic experts discuss the history of the stone and the efforts to decode the inscription. It's a very informative discussion.

You can download the programme here:

In Our Time: The Rosetta Stone: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000s2qd

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the role of Champollion in deciphering the hieroglyphs on The Rosetta Stone, when the written culture of ancient Egypt opened to the modern world.

On a similar note, no one has deciphered the Indus Valley script or Harappan Script. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indus_script

What's more interesting, IMO, how did Young come to his conclusions and how did others build on it (and on the Rosetta stone). Even if you know a little hieroglyphs, how do you extend the vocabulary?

Essentially, Egyptian language survived as Coptic, which uses a Greek alphabet. The names on the Rosetta Stone are easy to find because they are circled in the hieroglyphs ("cartouches"), and it became clear that the symbols were phonetic. Once you know some phonetic symbols, you can quickly start sounding out other words. Knowing Coptic, you can start to understand what you can read phonetically.

One of the greatest stories of humanity, to find such a wonder.

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