Deeper into Jeopardy! XLVIII: Historic Objects – $1600

Jeopardy! category: HISTORIC OBJECTS (10-7-2015)

$1600 Daily Double! clue: The stone that unlocked the language of the pharaohs was discovered in 1799 just outside this village

Correct response

The gist: In the local language, Rashid, meaning “guide.” To the West, however, the place where that famous stone was found is called Rosetta, hence the “Rosetta Stone” (both the Arabic and Italian names are corruptions of the earlier Coptic name for the village). It’s a port in the Nile Delta that was an important commercial centre a thousand years ago, but has been eclipsed by Alexandria for the past five hundred.

Luckily for the town, its name is now known around the world thanks to a chance encounter with a granodiorite stele that a French officer on Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition happened upon while fixing up an old fort – if not for Engineer Lieutenant Pierre-François Bouchard’s sharp eye, it might still sitting there mortared among other less-notable rocks… or perhaps destroyed by artillery fire. In any case, Bouchard noticed a series of inscriptions inscriptions on the stone and notified his superiors, who in turn notified Napoleon’s newly established Institut d’Égypte, a scholarly society the General had founded for the purpose of studying Egyptian antiquities. Everyone, it seems, recognized the potentially revolutionary importance of the stone, containing as it did three inscriptions in three scripts: ancient Greek, Demotic (the everyday script of ancient Egypt), and Hieroglyphs (ancient Egypt’s liturgical script). It was soon discovered that each inscription was essentially the same text, and that it could (and would in fact prove to be) the key to translating the as-of-then undeciphered Hieroglyphic script.

The inscription itself relates to the ruler cult of the Ptolemaic dynasty, one of the many kingdoms that arose around the Mediterranean and Middle East after the death of Alexander the Great. Before his young death, Alexander had already begun styling himself as a god, at least to certain audiences, the son of Zeus-Ammon, a syncretism of Zeus, the head of the Greek pantheon, and Amun, an Egyptian god who had been identified with Zeus for over 150 years. Alexander’s successors carried on the tradition of ruler worship, perhaps none more so than the Ptolemies, who could draw on millennia of Egyptian traditions that regarded the Pharaoh as either a representative of the gods or a god in-the-flesh. Ptolemy V, during whose resign the stone was erected, courted the priestly class of Egyptian society by exempting them from taxation, which was the specific purpose of the decree inscribed on the stone. While there was rarely a non-turbulent time in Ptolemaic history, the Rosetta Stone was erected in a particularly turbulent period, when rival kings elsewhere in the Hellenistic world were dividing up Egypt’s overseas holdings and had their eye on the mainland itself.

Today, the Stone resides in the British Museum, which has the most up-to-date translation of the inscription on its website. The name “Rosetta” has also been in the news recently, as the Philae lander, which is currently nestled in a nook on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, was flown all the way out there by the Rosetta space probe. Rosetta was named for the Rosetta Stone, while Philae was named for the Philae obelisk, which contains an inscription in both Greek and Hieroglyphic. The Rosetta and the Philae together led directly to the deciphering of the script; the space explorers were named in the same spirit of discovery and exploration that led to the opening up of the rich Egyptian culture to scholarly eyes.

A proposed reconstruction of the Rosetta Stone – the black portions are what was recovered, while the white portions are hypothetical scholarly guesses

The clue: This one sees quite easy for a Daily Double! clue in the $1600 slot, but then again I’m all about these sorts of things. Still, I would think that any mention of the “language of the Pharaohs” would immediately bring to mind Rosetta, but contestant Kathy sadly guessed “El-Wadi” or something along those lines, Arabic for “the valley,” which I’m not sure is actually a village anywhere. Perhaps she was just reaching for anything Arabic she would think of. Anyway, it’s certainly less-known why the Rosetta Stone is called that, so perhaps she just couldn’t make the connection between the name and where it was found. The bottom line, of course, is that anything about ancient Egyptian language is virtually guaranteed to be about this thing.

In Jeopardy!: The Rosetta Stone has been in 29 regular and a whopping four FJ! clues in the J!Archive. Ten regular and two FJ! clues (only!) mention Egypt, and six and two mention hieroglyphics. Two and two mention Greek, and none mention demotic, poor guy. Five and one mention the British Museum, and five regulars mention either “pharaoh” or “Ptolemy.” Jean Champollion, the French scholar who gets the credit for translating hieroglyphics, gets five as well (and his name is often the correct response for high-value clues). It’s also a favourite for wordplay answers, like “Oliver and Rosetta Stone” or “Rosetta Stone Phillips.”

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