Growing up in the 1960s, I remember a lot of cool promotional giveaways for kids. There was the toy tanker truck and red fire engine that Texaco gas stations gave out with so many gallons of gas purchased. There was the prize hidden inside every box of Cracker Jacks and Oscar Meyer’s famous wiener whistles. But my all-time favorite was the secret decoder that came with each new pair of PF Flyers – the shoes that made you jump higher and run faster. That little plastic gadget fascinated me. It was five toys in one: a sundial, a magic whistle, a message flasher and decoder dial, all with a special hidden chamber inside. It was the ultimate purveyor of secrets.
Dial backwards 200 years to the turn of the 19th century. On his military trek through Egypt, Napoleon took a contingent of artists and scholars along with him to study and catalog its ancient secrets. During that campaign, one of his lieutenants found an inscribed stone tablet mortared into a wall of the fort they held against the Brits. It was near a port town on the Nile Delta called Rashid – known to the French as Rosetta. That stone tablet was shipped back to France but was captured by the British en-route. Today the Rosetta Stone resides in the British Museum where it has been on public display since 1802.
The tablet’s message itself wasn’t the big surprise. Ultimately it translated out as a decree of King Ptolemy V in 196 B.C. detailing specific laws including tax exemption for priests, tax amnesty on debts to the monarchy, provisions for the military, and a new festival to honor the king. The real kicker was the three distinct languages it revealed: Hieroglyphics – reserved for religious and governmental mandates; Demotic – the everyday script of ancient Egypt; and Classical Greek – used by the Ptolemaic rulers of the time.
The trilingual message was the key to cracking the code of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. On September 27, 1822, French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion announced that he had, indeed, deciphered the Rosetta Stone by cross-referencing the known with the unknown. His work ultimately unlocked the secrets of Egypt’s hieroglyphics, ushering in the discipline of modern-day Egyptology.
Today, the Rosetta Stone is still the coolest – certainly the most famous – deciphering device of all Antiquity. And yes, eons cooler than my plastic PF Flyer secret decoder.