Statue of Champollion in Paris

Born in France in 1790, Jean Francois Champollion saw Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time in 1801 at the age of eleven. He was told that no one knew how to decipher them yet. He made up his mind at that time that he would do it.

Fortunately, as it turned out, Champollion was not only a persistent fellow, he was also brilliant. By age 18 he had learned 12 languages, including Coptic, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, Chinese, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi, and Persian. The most important of these was Coptic, for it was the language of Egypt that was derived from ancient Egyptian.

In 1799, when Champollion was just nine years old, Napoleon Bonaparte of France was trying to conquer all of Europe. Napoleon’s army was in Egypt. Archaeologists and scientists traveled with the army because Napoleon was fascinated by Egyptian history. French troops happened upon a stone tablet that had a lot of writing on it. It was found in the town of Rosetta and thus became known as the Rosetta Stone. It had writing in Greek, in Demotic (a later Egyptian writing)Rosetta Stone, the division of the three languages, and also in hieroglyphs, the writing of ancient Egypt. Scholars went crazy with excitement. It was hoped that the Rosetta Stone would finally be the key to unlocking the ancient hieroglyphs. Indeed, it proved to be just that, but it was much more difficult than anyone thought it would be to crack the code.

Same text in three languages

Everyone was sure that the stone was saying the same thing in all three languages. The Greek could be translated, and so it was assumed that this would open up understanding for the rest. Next, the Demotic was translated. But still the hieroglyphs remained a mystery. Scholars knew that it said the same thing as the Greek and Demotic, but what they needed was a system for interpreting each symbol in order for that knowledge to be used to translate other hieroglyphs.

Champollion builds on Young’s educated guess

Finally, a man named Thomas Young came up with the idea that perhaps whenever a Pharaoh’s name was written in hieroglyphs, it was always inscribed inside a rectangle with rounded corners—what the French dubbed a cartouche (see images here). Cartouche is just French for cartridge. Now Champollion took that information and focused on the cartouche. Pharaoh Ptolemy’s name was in the Greek script 5 times, and just as Young had observed, there were 5 cartouches in the hieroglyphs. Champollion knew each one must represent Ptolemy’s name. At last he had a small group of letters to work on and he knew what they spelled. He just had to figure out which symbol went with which sound in the Egyptian language. (Just think, if ancient Egyptians had not put their pharaohs names in cartouches, we still might not know anything about the ancient Egyptians!)

The Rosetta Stone

Close up of the top of the Stone–do you see the cartouche?

Even though Champollion now knew how to tackle the text, the work was still daunting. The ancient Egyptian language turned out to be a highly complex language with complicated grammar and syntax. Languages tend to simplify over time, so this very ancient one was extremely difficult. Also, the writing system was not just one symbol for one sound in the alphabet, but over 2000 symbols of hieroglyphs which sometimes stood for sounds, sometimes for objects, and sometimes for abstract ideas. Add to that the fact that some hieroglyphs were there just to tell the reader how to read the hieroglyph beside it! Egyptian could be read up, down, or back and forth from either CartoucheOnRosettaStone01direction as well. Champollion had to figure out, for example, that the hieroglyph pictures always faced the direction in which the text should be read. No wonder other scholars had bogged down and given up!

At last Champollion had a major breakthrough. One morning in his study he finally deciphered some symbols with enough certainty to read Ptolemy’s name in the cartouche. He reportedly ran to find his brother who was working in a nearby library. Flushed with excitement he flung his papers onto his brother’s desk and cried, “Je tiens l’affaire! Je tiens l’affaire! (I’ve got it! I’ve got it!) and then promptly fell to the floor in a faint.

Because of Champollion’s genius, the world of ancient Egyptian writing is
open to scholars everywhere today, and we now know a great deal about the life and times of those ancient Africans, a people with one of the most fascinating civilizations in all of world history.


The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum



The Rosetta Stone <>

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