Ever since the final decline of the ancient Egyptian Empire people have struggled to understand the detailed pictures the Egyptians used to describe their lives for more than thirty centuries. The pictures, called hieroglyphs, were everywhere in Egypt: in common tombs, on monuments and temples, and especially in the ornate burial rooms of Egyptian rulers, called pharaohs, which were contained within the great pyramids. The hieroglyphs were small pictures of common objects including feathers, lions, birds, pots, and many other items. In the time when Greeks had traded with and ruled Egypt between about 332 B.C.E. and 146 B.C.E. , outsiders had known how to read the hieroglyphs, which made up a complex language. But as the Roman Empire came to power in Egypt after 146 B.C.E. , the ability to understand the hieroglyphs disappeared. The hieroglyphs, and the story they told, became a great mystery that puzzled historians for nearly two thousand years.
Over the years scholars and historians tried to understand what the hieroglyphs meant. Different people offered different explanations, but no one could ever agree. Then in 1799 French soldiers stationed near the city of Rosetta, Egypt, made a great discovery. French lieutenant Pierre François Xavier Bouchard found a large gray stone that contained three different kinds of writing: Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script (the everyday writing of the ancient Egyptians), and Greek. Bouchard believed that the stone might hold the key to uncovering the mystery of the hieroglyphs and soon, others agreed. The stone, which became known as the Rosetta Stone, had the information needed to translate both of the lost Egyptian languages. Modern readers understood Greek and needed to make the connections between Greek, the demotic script, and the hieroglyphs, and the mystery would be solved. But it was not so easy.
In 1801 the English, who were at war with France, captured the Rosetta Stone and brought it to the British Museum in England. Egyptologists, people who study the culture of ancient Egypt, traveled to the British Museum to try to crack the code of the Rosetta Stone, pieces of which had cracked off and been lost. A well-known and gifted English doctor named Thomas Young (1773–1829) was the first to try. He translated the Greek and then tried to match patterns in that language to patterns in the two lost Egyptian languages. He discovered a great deal about how the languages worked. For example, he learned that the symbols stood for sounds and that the demotic script was closely related to the hieroglyphs. But he couldn't quite make the languages match up.
Beginning in 1807 a Frenchman named Jean François Champollion began to study the Rosetta Stone. For fifteen years he tried to break the code, racing against Young to see who would succeed first. Finally in 1822 Champollion made a breakthrough. He understood that the pictures didn't stand for the single sounds of individual letters but for more complex sounds. For example, he discovered that the hieroglyph of a bird known as an ibis stood for the Egyptian god Thoth. He substituted the sound "thoth" for the bird picture and did the same with other sounds. His plan worked. He had cracked the code of the Rosetta Stone, and people could finally understand Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Champollion traveled to Egypt to confirm his discovery. He visited vast temples whose walls were covered with hieroglyphs, and he poured over ancient scrolls of papyrus, a form of ancient paper. He was the first man to "read" the history of ancient Egypt in well over a thousand years. Champollion made a translation dictionary and explained the grammar of Egyptian writing. Soon others learned to read the lost languages. Today we know a great deal about ancient Egypt thanks to the work of the scholars who discovered the secrets of the hieroglyphs.