Malta’s Rosetta Stones

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Malta’s Rosetta Stones

Everybody is familiar with the Rosetta Stone, the ancient stone stele containing three almost similar inscriptions written in Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics,  Demotic Script and Ancient Greek.  This stone was used by the great French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion to sensibly decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time in 1822, thus opening the way for the eventual understanding of the previously undecipherable multitude of Egyptian inscriptions and papyri .  In turn, this helped us understand day to day life in Ancient Egypt in a way unprecedented until the deciphering became possible.

Within the Maltese context, a lesser known set of stone candelabra, or ornamental pillars known as cippi (plural of cippus) were used in a similar fashion to decipher the Phoenician alphabet for the first time in the late seventeenth century, making them Malta’s equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.  What and where are these cippi?

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The two white marble candelabra were discovered within the multi-period sanctuary site of Tas-Silg near Marsaxlokk in the south of Malta  in the late seventeenth century during the period of the Knights of Malta.  Tas-Silg is a very important Maltese archaeological site because it features a continuous, uninterrupted use spanning all eras from the Neolithic to the fourth century AD.  Within this time-span, the site served as a religious sanctuary containing layer upon layer of Stone Age, Bronze Age, Punic and Paleo-Christian places of worship.  The candelabra have been dated to the Punic (Phoenician) phase of the Tas-Silg site when the place was a Sanctuary of the Goddess Juno (Astarte to the Phoenicians).  They date to around 200 BCE.

The discovery of these two candelabra within the grounds of a Phoenician temple in Malta suggests that they were votive offerings in gratitude for prayers heard.   They contain inscriptions in Phoenician and Greek text in which two brothers, Abdosir and Osirshamar, sons of Osirshamar of Tyre (in modern day Lebanon) thank their Lord Melkart for having heard their voice and ask for his blessing.  The Greek text provides alternative names for the brothers, Dionysos and Serapion, sons of Serapion of Tyre and their gratitude and request for blessing is dedicated to the Greek God Heracles.

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Great detective work by the linguist Jean-Jacques Barthélémy made it possible to associate the words in the two texts in a way which made it possible to decipher 18 of the 22 letters of the Phoenician alphabet.  This preliminary translation is acknowledged as forming the foundation on which all successive Phoenician and Punic studies were based.  It took place at a time when very little was known about these great seafarers apart from scant references in sources such as the Bible and Greek texts.

So, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone, we have an archaeological find which was not only valuable in terms of its inherent uniqueness but also in terms of its larger-than-life contribution to the understanding of an important part of our common human development, this time through the deciphering of the world’s first modern alphabet.  An important, but underestimated and relatively unknown archaeological treasure which deserves to be elevated to the status and glory of its Egyptian counterpart.  These two cippi definitely deserve the status of being Malta’s own version of the Rosetta Stone.

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And where are the two cippi today?  They both survive and are given pride of place in two different locations.  The first resides, with other contemporary findings from Malta’s Phoenician past, within the confines of the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta, Malta while the second is to be found in Room 18b of the Eastern Antiquities Section of the Louvre in Paris, France.  As to how it got there: contrary to the provenance of many such collections from the past three hundred years it was not looted, but was sent to pre-revolutionary France in 1782 as a gift from the Grandmaster of the Knights of Malta Emmanuel de Rohan to King Louis XVI.

Although it would be nice to be able to view them together in Valletta’s museum in recognition of their original resting place it may also be argued that their display in the two locations is symbolically fitting and important as the Malta-based cippus commemorates the place where they were found while the Louvre-cippus commemorates the work of Barthélémy in deciphering the Phoenician alphabet.

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