UW News

November 1, 2013

Documents that Changed the World: The Rosetta Stone

UW News

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum.McKay Savage

Quick quiz: What’s the Rosetta Stone? What does it say — other than the words “Captured in Egypt by the British Army in 1801” helpfully painted along one side? What does it mean?

Joe Janes of the UW Information School says though he knew the basic story of the artifact, seeing it again in the British Museum on a recent trip to London got him interested in learning more. He knew it would make a good entry for his Documents that Changed the World podcast series.

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

About 9 feet long, weighing about 1,700 pounds, the 2,200-year-old  black granite Rosetta Stone bears ancient inscriptions written in four languages that later led to solving the riddle of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Its message is a decree passed by a council of priests establishing the divinity of new Egyptian King Ptolemy V a year after his coronation.

Documents that Changed the World

If you want a message to last, Janes says in his podcast, stone really does the job. “A message for the ages deserves a medium for the ages, though sometimes the medium can outlast the message.”

Then came the challenge of what to write. “The Rosetta Stone has been so studied, so discussed, so marketed, I knew I needed to find a new angle about information and documents,” Janes said. “So I focused on the journey it has taken, from plain rock to venerated symbol of ingenuity, and all the steps in between — and to come.”

He notes along the way that the stone has survived all the years “more by accident than design,” to end up with its original intent superseded by its role as a key to unlocking “long-forgotten Egyptian writing, language and culture.” Still, he says in the podcast, “It’s one of the great document stories of all time.”

The Documents that Changed the World podcasts also are available on iTunes, with about 50,000 downloads there so far.

Previous stories in the “Documents that Changed the World” series