In geologic time, the Holocene epoch refers roughly to the last 11,700 years, a time delineated by the retreat of massive formations which, together, constitute the last of eight glacial periods to occur over the last 740,000 years.
The north of Africa was once wetter than it is now, a vast, green savannah of grasses, lakes and trees with abundant herds of ungulates. The geologic record reflects some of the earliest attempts at agriculture and animal husbandry in this region sometime around the sixth millennium, BC.
The gradual end of this “African humid period” led great numbers of small nomadic and tribal cultures to settle in the fertile Nile River valley where predictable, seasonal flooding supported a cessation of hunter/gatherer sustenance and an increased reliance on the growing of food products and the raising of domesticated livestock.
This inevitably led to trade among and competition between the various tribes and the growth of some, often at the expense, of others. And then at last, there were two.
In the third century BC the Egyptian priest Manetho grouped a long succession of Kings over a period of thirty dynasties, beginning with the mythical King Menes. It is he who united what was then the two kingdoms of upper and lower Egypt.
This early dynastic period gave way to the first of three relatively stable periods in ancient Egypt, separated by long intermediate periods of chaos. These were the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Taken together ancient Egypt created a system of mathematics, the earliest known peace treaty and a lasting legacy of art, and literature. Innovations in quarrying and construction led to monumental temples, pyramids and statuary inspiring scientific and archeological investigation which lasts, to this day.
The Greco-Roman period initiated a 300-year political cross pollination with the new-comers of the era. It all came to an end in the age of Cleopatra, and Roman conquest. A system of writing some three thousand years old began to die out. These were the Heiratic cursive script most often drawn out with brush and ink on papyrus and the Hieroglyphic system comprising some 900 symbols representing words and sentences most often used for permanent inscription, on stone. Within three hundred years or so the old language, was dead. The scholar viewing the ancient texts throughout much of the first 2,000 years of the modern era, had no idea of what he was looking at.
Sometime around 196BC, a black stone slab believed to be about 4-feet 11-inches in length was inscribed with a royal decree in three languages on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. It was three renditions of the same text written out in Hieroglyphic, Greek and Demotic script, the ‘language of the people’ itself derived from the much older, Hieratic.
French Captain Pierre-François Bouchard discovered this first among a handful of bilingual Hieroglyphic scripts in 1799 during the Napoleonic invasion, of Egypt. It was near the ancient city of Rashid (Rosetta) from which the stele derives its name.
The long work of translation began with that of Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy who first deciphered the 32 lines of Demotic script, in the middle.
The work was done with reference to the Coptic language derived from the ancient Egyptian tongue and fortified by reference to readily identifiable aspects of the ancient Greek text.
On this day in 1822 the French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced the successful translation, of the Rosetta Stone.
Today, large pieces of the original stele are broken away. Much of the original text is lost. Other bilingual and even trilingual inscriptions have since been found but this was the first time western scholars were able to peep through that small keyhole into one of the great civilizations, of antiquity.
Two centuries later the term “Rosetta Stone“ yet describes that first clue, which leads to new levels of human understanding.