Face-Off: Rosetta Stone ‘V’ Behistun Inscription

Touching Rosetta

The Rosetta Stone and the Behistun inscriptions are both key to the decipherment of ancient languages that co-existed in time. What’s also interesting is that they were both discovered in the middle of wars and by military personnel. There is something quite ironic about armies hell-bend on destruction and division instead finding these hidden codes to decipher ancient words, the study of which will go on to unite the world.

Dr Campbell Thompson investigated Behistun on behalf of the British Museum and published his findings in 1937. He stated that:

“Two of the most important events in the advancement of historical knowledge have been the discovery of the key to the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone and the deciphering of the cuneiform inscriptions on the Rock of Behistun. The former opened the door to the Wonderland of Egyptian history, and the latter brought daylight into the dark places of antiquity in the Middle East, revealing to the modern world the vanished civilizations of Mesopotamia in all the truth of contemporary record.” (Thompson, R. Campbell, The Rock of Behistun, Wonders of the Past, Edited by Sir J. A. Hammerton, Vol. II, New York: Wise and Co., 1937, p. 761).

The two scripts are obviously key, but let’s face it, in a head-to-head face-off between the two, which do you think would win? Let’s consider the facts…

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone excitement

French Captain Pierre-Francois Bouchard (1772-1832), under Napoleon, found a black stone when guiding construction works in the Fort Julien near the city of Rosetta. He immediately understood the importance of the stone and showed it to General Abdallah Jacques de Menou who decided that it should be brought to the institute, where it arrived in August, 1799.

The Rosetta stone (stela) was the confirmation of the control of the Ptolemaic kings over Egypt (196 BC). It contains a decree inscribed three times, in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek.

The inscription begins with praise of Ptolemy, and then includes an account of the siege of the city of Lycopolis (modern Assiut), and the good deeds done by the king for the temples.

The final part of the text describes the decree’s overriding purpose, the establishment of the cult of the king.

It ends by saying that it is to be made known that all the men of Egypt should magnify and honour Ptolemy V, and that the text should be set up in hard stone in the three scripts which it still bears today.

A translation of the text is available for everyone curious enough to read it!

The Rosetta Stone is 3 feet 9 inches long and 2 feet 41/2 inches wide, and in very good condition. It is dark grey-pinkish granite stone (originally thought to be basalt in composition) with writing on it in two languages, Egyptian and Greek, using three scripts, Hieroglyphic and Demotic Egyptian, and Greek.

On Napoleon’s defeat, the stone became the property of the English under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria (1801). The Rosetta Stone has been exhibited in the British Museum since 1802 (apart from a short break in 1917, when, concerned about heavy bombing in London, it was stashed for two years in a station on the Postal Tube Railway fifty feet below the ground at Holborn).

The text was deciphered by Jean Francois Champollion, who had previously compiled a Coptic dictionary and read Thomas Youngs writing on the subject of hieroglyphics. Champollion correctly identified the names of Cleopatra and Alexandrus.

In 1822 new inscriptions from a temple at Abu Simbel on the Nile were introduced into Europe and Champollion correctly identified the name of the pharaoh who had built the temple, Ramses.

Utilizing his knowledge of Coptic he continued to successfully translate the hieroglyphics until he had a stroke, paralytic disorder or nervous breakdown (reports vary)… and died at Paris in 1832 at the age of 41.

It is so popular that it cannot be described only by writing! Beyond the crowds at the British Museum taking a peak and trying to get a good picture of it, there is also a major language learning system named after it, and has become symbolic of languag in general.

It is one of the key objects that Egypt is trying to get back for good, even if they say it is only for the opening of the new Grand Egyptian Museum…


  • It’s the number one visitor attraction at the British Museum, which is one of the most visited museums in the world, so it certainly ranks highest on drawing in tourists.
  • The decipherment of hieroglyphics by Champollion from the Rosetta Stone literally blasted Egyptology wide open, allowing many previously unscrutible scripts to be translated.
  • It’s the centre of a running dispute between Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquites and the British Museum; if everyone’s fighting over it, it must be good!


  • It’s not much of a looker.

Behistun Inscriptions

Behistun I & II

The Behistun Inscription is known as the Persian Rosetta Stone, due to its role in the decipherment of the ancient scripts. It’s located in the mountains above Behistun, or Bisotun, in modern-day Iran.

The Behistan Inscription is a carved relief which, in antiquity, was named Bagastna, meaning ‘place where the gods dwell’. About 15 meters high by 25 meters wide, the inscription is 100 meters up a cliff and it is almost completely inaccessible – the mountainside was removed to make the inscription more visible after its completion.

The Behistun Inscription is written in three different scripts: Old Persian, Elamite and Akkadian. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite text includes 593 lines in eight columns and the Babylonian text is in 112 lines.

The inscription was illustrated by a life-sized bas-relief of Darius, two servants, and ten one-metre figures representing conquered peoples; Faravahar floats above, giving his blessing to the king. One figure appears to have been added after the others were completed, as was (oddly enough) Darius’ beard, which is a separate block of stone attached with iron pins and lead. After the fall of the Persian Empire and its successors, and the fall of cuneiform writing into disuse, the nature of the inscription was forgotten.

The first historical mention of the inscription is by the Greek Ctesias of Cnidus, who noted its existence around 400 BC, but didn’t offer a translation. The inscription was then misinterpreted first by Arab travellerIbn Hawqal, around the mid-900s, who thought the text was a teacher punishing his pupils, and again by Robert Sherley, an Englishman on a diplomatic mission to Persia, who misread them as a representation of biblical figures.

In 1835, Sir Henry Rawlinson, a British army officer training the army of the Shah of Iran, decided to study the inscription. In a number of trecherous journeys to the site, he managed to make copies of the inscriptions, sometimes using papier mache.

He discovered that the first section of the text contained a list of Persian kings – and was identical to one found in a script by Herodotus. This allowed Rawlinson to decipher the code of cuneiform, leading to the possible translation of many more found texts.

The text is a statement by Darius, in which he writes about how the supreme god Ahuramazda choose him to dethrone an usurper named Gaumta, how he set out to quell several revolts, and how he defeated his foreign enemies.

The isolated rock along the road connected the capitals of Babylonia and Media (Babylon and Ecbatana), and this was maybe the ideal place for Darius I of Persia (522-486) who ruled the Persian Empire, to proclaim his military victories.

Now, the text is completely illegible from ground level, and there is a crack caused by a small stream of underground water, which would have been non-existent at the time of the inscription. It has caused considerable destruction to some figures. Sadly, the monument was further damaged when soldiers were taking potshots at it during World War II.

In 1999, a group of Iranian experts applied the photogrameteric method to the site. They took 2-D photos using two cameras and then transmuted them into 3-D pictures. The photogrameteric process is coming to an end.


  • Nice location, pretty images – the Behistun Inscription definitely wins out on looks.
  • Scaling mountains with planks and swings – the decipherment of the inscription was pure Indiana Jones.


  • It only provided the code to the Persian version of cuneiform used in that era.