In a departure from travel advice, John shares the history of the Rosetta Stone and story of the talented linguist whose rare genius was finally able to decipher the mysterious language of ancient Egypt via the clues embedded within the Rosetta Stone.
For more travel advice on trips to and around Egypt, check out all the other episodes of the Egypt Travel Podcast. And please feel welcome to go to www.EgyptElite.com for help planning your trip to Egypt, and we’ll be delighted to help you make it a reality.
Episode 30 Transcript
The Man Who Deciphered the Rosetta Stone
Hi, everybody. This episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast is going to be slightly different. Instead of talking about another aspect of planning travel to and around Egypt, I’m instead going to switch to the topic of history.
As many of you may know, the Rosetta Stone was one of most important discoveries in the history of Egyptology, and I would argue even in archaeology as a whole. It unlocked the lost ancient language of hieroglyphics that told the entire story of Egyptian history in plain site on tomb and temple walls, but which was unreadable for nearly 2,000 years after it was last written and spoken.
The story of how this lost language was rediscovered and that of the man whose rare genius deciphered this seemingly indecipherable ancient alphabet is one that has always fascinated me, and I want to share that story and history with you all now in this 30th episode of the Egypt Travel Podcast.
So here it is… the story of the man who finally succeeded in deciphering the Rosetta Stone and who became the father of Egyptology thereafter – Jean-Francois Champollion.
Part I. Introduction
When the Rosetta Stone was unearthed in 1799, the significance of the juxtaposed three scripts wasn’t lost on anyone. However, these were only deciphered a few decades later, after a lengthy and contentious rivalry between two of Europe’s most celebrated scholars.
In today’s episode of The Egypt Travel Podcast – the story of Jean-Francis Champollion, a child prodigy and scholar, whom we know refer to as the “Father of Egyptology.” It’s only thanks to his unorthodox ideas and ground-breaking discoveries that we know so much about ancient Egypt.
Part II. The Life of Jean-Francis Champollion
Jean-Francis Champollion – or “Jean-François,” as his non-Anglicized name is – was born on December 23, 1790, in the French town of Figeac. His parents were somewhat wealthy, hiring private tutors to educate him until the age of nine when he was sent to the Académie de Grenoble, where his brother also studied.
At the Académie de Grenoble, Champollion was introduced to Joseph Fourier, who had joined Napoleon Bonaparte’s expeditions to Egypt and was afterward appointed the General Secretary of the Egyptian Scientific Institute.
Thanks to Fourier’s influence, the teenaged Champollion focused his studies on the ancient languages of the East. He managed to master six different Oriental languages, speaking all of them fluently, in addition to Latin, Greek, and his native French.
When he was 16, Champollion delivered a research paper titled “Geographical Description of Egypt before the Conquest of Cambyses” before the Académie de Grenoble. While he wrongly stated that the ancient Egyptians spoke Coptic, the members of the esteemed institution were so impressed by his work that they admitted him into their ranks.
The following year, in 1807, Champollion moved to Paris, where he pursued further studies at the School of Oriental Languages and the Collège de France. He also worked extensively with the National Library and the Commission of Egypt, which was responsible for publishing the French Army’s findings from their North African expeditions.
From then on, Champollion devoted himself to studying ancient Oriental languages, with the scope of his research including Persian, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi, and Arabic. He also began to dissect Coptic, even going so far as to create a dictionary and map its complicated grammar rules.
In 1809 – when he was 19 – Champollion was called for his mandatory military service; however, his mentor, Fourier, intervened and managed to get him exempted. He returned to Grenoble and found work as an Assistant Professor of History in the city’s Lycée, where he would remain until 1816.
In 1812, 22-year-old Champollion married a local woman named Rosine Blanc. Their daughter, Zoraide, was born a few years later, in 1824.
Two years after leaving the Grenoble Lycée, Champollion accepted an invitation from the Royal College of Grenoble to chair its history and geography departments. Despite his packed schedule, he still managed to indulge in his love of ancient Oriental languages. He also expanded his research to include Egyptian hieroglyphs, which – at the time – had fascinated archaeologists since the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in July 1799.
Unearthed at a fort near the town of el-Rashid in Egypt, the Rosetta Stone was originally discovered by soldiers in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. It was initially disregarded; however, Officer Pierre François Xavier Bouchard recognized the potential significance of the different alphabets, which had been juxtaposed with each other. Later, experts determined that the inscription was written in three scripts – Demotic, Egyptian Hieroglyphic, and Greek.
Upon the defeat of the French armies, ownership of the Rosetta Stone was transferred to the British, who placed it as the centerpiece of an exhibition at The British Museum in London. Countless archaeologists and historians were invited to try and decipher the Rosetta Stone; however, most of them failed.
The contents of the Rosetta Stone remained a mystery until the early 19th century when a French philologist named Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy began working on it. Along with his Swedish student, John David Åkerblad, the two men managed to identify the phonetic values of several of the symbols, which allowed them to make out personal names mentioned in the Greek inscription. They tried to match these with the hieroglyphs in the Egyptian version but despite their best efforts, they were unsuccessful.
Champollion had studied Coptic under de Sacy at the Collège de France; however, the two men didn’t see eye-to-eye on politics. He was a Republican who supported Napoleon Bonaparte, while his former teacher was a staunch Royalist. This conflict between them would later set the stage for one of history’s most infamous rivalries.
By then, Champollion was no longer working as a teacher – the Faculty of Letters in Grenoble had closed down in 1815, leaving him without a post. Initially devastated, he soon found that the absence of a full-time position meant that he could finally focus on his life’s passion – deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.
During this time, Champollion began writing to a wealthy British polymath named Thomas Young, who would one day be known as “The Last Man Who Knew Everything.” Not only was he a professional physician and physiologist but he was also a renowned polyglot, who gained fame in 1813 after comparing approximately 400 languages, in order to create the Indo-European family.
Young’s interest in the Rosetta Stone began in 1814, thanks to a massive volume on the history of languages that he was attempting to finish at the time. When his editor showed him a few fragments of inscribed papyri that had been uncovered in Egypt, he found himself unable to resist the challenge.
He started studying the Rosetta Stone, even retreating to the sleepy English seaside town of Worthing so he could concentrate on it better.
In November of that year, Young wrote to Champollion after seeing his name mentioned in a letter to the president of Britain’s Royal Society. They began corresponding and sharing their ideas with each other, with Young even sending Champollion a text that he referred to as his “Conjectural Translation of the Rosetta Stone.”
Unfortunately, this partnership wouldn’t last long. The 1815 Battle of Waterloo lay bare the stark differences in their political beliefs and Young was advised to stop talking to Champollion, whose loyalties lay with Napoleon Bonaparte.
In fact, Champollion and his older brother even helped Napoleon’s general, Drought d’Erlon, escape the death penalty by taking him across the border, allowing him to reach Munich safely.
In the early 1820s, Champollion released a series of papers, wherein he shared his ideas on the relationship between hieroglyphic and non-hieroglyphic scripts. His ground-breaking discoveries were summarized in his most famous work, “Lettre à M. Dacier,” which was published in 1822.
That year – at an academic meeting in Paris – Champollion announced that he had managed to successfully decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone. This angered Young, who was present in the audience. He later published a book, claiming that Champollion’s work was a mere extension of his.
A fierce argument between the two scholars ensued; however, they remained cordial to each other in public. They even briefly worked together in 1828; by then, Champollion was already working as the first-ever curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre Museum in Paris. He agreed to share the collection and his personal notes with Young, who gratefully accepted.
Scholars remain divided on whether Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone was based on Young’s work.
According to author Andrew Robinson, quote, “Some British Egyptologists have suggested that Champollion poached from Young the concept of hieroglyphs as a ‘mixed,’ alphabetic-cum-ideographic system. The Irish clergyman Edward Hincks, an Egyptologist who later helped to decode Mesopotamian cuneiform, claimed in 1846 that Champollion was guided by Young’s alphabetic analysis of the hieroglyphic cartouches for the royal names ‘Ptolemy’ and ‘Berenice.’” End quote.
So how exactly did Champollion decipher the Rosetta Stone?
Part III. The Decipherment of the Rosetta Stone
From the get-go, Champollion was convinced that three scripts on the Rosetta Stone were essentially different versions of writing the same language. He compared these with other texts unearthed in Egypt, including the Book of the Death and various papyri.
Sometime in 1821, he came to the conclusion that the hieratic scripts were nothing but simplified versions of the hieroglyphs. He even went so far as to say that they should be considered as mere shorthand for the assortment of shapes and symbols that the ancient Egyptians had used to write with.
Armed with this idea, Champollion took groups of words written in the hieratic scripts and compared them with the hieroglyphs. By doing so, he managed to create a table of 300 signs, which he hoped would demonstrate how the three were connected.
Given this methodology, it’s clear that Champollion hadn’t intentionally sought out to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Rather, he merely wanted to identify the internal dynamics of the three different scripts to identify the coherent system that they shared.
Champollion took his hypothesis further by reasoning, quote, “If the hieroglyphics were ideogrammatic and each group stood for one idea or thing, then the number of groups [of] words in the hieroglyphic version should be approximately the same as in the Greek text.” End quote.
To test this theory, Champollion counted the Greek words on the Rosetta Stone and came up with the number 486. He then assumed that the number of words in the hieroglyphic test would be fewer; however, he was wrong. After counting, he arrived at 1,419, which proved that they were phonetical.
At the time, most archaeologists assumed that hieroglyphs weren’t related at all to spoken language. Rather, they held that these signs and symbols were merely used for esoteric or religious rituals.
However, Thomas Young – and a few other scholars – believed differently. For them, the ancient Egyptians had used these as an alphabet to express the names of their rulers. They also claimed that it was the Greeks – who ruled Egypt for a time – who had developed the phonetical use of the hieroglyphs.
Working from this idea, Champollion began comparing the hieratic script with the hieroglyphs and determined that they corresponded with each other. He contrasted these with texts on ancient papyri, using the names “Ptolemy” and “Cleopatra” as his to figure out if the writings were a match or not.
He also made use of an inscription on an obelisk found in Philae, Egypt, which contained the hieroglyphic name for “Ptolemy,” as well as a hieratic inscription that had been deciphered as “Cleopatra.”
Later, scholars would describe Champollion’s methodology as “opening one door after another.” It was said that when he managed to successfully decipher the Rosetta Stone, he ran through the streets to reach his older brother, who had been working at the nearby “Institut de France.” Bursting into the room, he immediately shouted, “Je tiens l’affaire” or “I got it.”
Champollion summarized the phonetical system of the hieroglyphs as, quote, “One imagines, then, that the Egyptians, wanting to express, be it a vowel, be it a consonant, be it a syllable of a foreign word, would use a hieroglyphic sign expressing or representing some object, whose name, in the spoken language, contained in its entirety or in its first part, the sound of the vowel, consonant, or syllable that they wanted to write.” End quote.
For example, the hieroglyph for the letter “A” is a sparrow-hawk, which the ancient Egyptians called “ahe” or “ahi.” The Coptic language followed the same principle, with the letter “R” being depicted by a symbol of the mouth – the word for which is “ro.”
Besides deciphering the hieroglyphs, Champollion also managed to demonstrate how the ancient Egyptians used all three scripts for religious and scientific works, as well as for recording administrative and personal matters. He was also able to prove that they were used across the whole of Egypt, by all classes of society.
Champollion’s work was initially controversial, thanks, in part, to Young’s assertion that an earlier work of his had been used as the basis for the decipherment. These scandals were put to rest in 1866, though, when a bilingual text known as the “Decree of Canpous” was successfully translated using the same system that Champollion had used.
Part IV. The Aftermath
Following his revolutionary discoveries, Champollion became one of Europe’s most celebrated scholars. In addition to being appointed as the Conservator of the Egyptian Collections at the Louvre, he also scored a meeting with the wealthy Duke of Bracas, who became his patron.
From 1828 to 1830, Champollion traveled extensively across Egypt. Since then, many have credited him with conducting the first-ever systematic survey of the historical and archaeological monuments found there. During this time, he brought to Europe a large collection of hieroglyphic inscriptions, many of which can still be in museums today.
Upon his return from his travels, Champollion was appointed Professor of Egyptology at the Collège de France. However, his failing health forced him to step down from the post after only three lectures. He passed away on March 4, 1832, after suffering from an apoplectic attack and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.
After his death, his older brother posthumously published the Egyptian Grammar and Dictionary that he had been feverishly working on during his final few days.
Part V. Conclusion
Contemporary scholars, historians, and archaeologists remain divided over the extent of Young’s influence on Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone.
While this question may never be answered, we do know one thing – that our knowledge of ancient Egypt wouldn’t be as deep and as extensive as it is today had it not been for Jean-Francis Champollion.