Hieroglyphics were a mystery until this man solved the riddle of the Rosetta Stone

Hieroglyphics were a mystery until this man solved the riddle of the Rosetta Stone

Published September 9, 2022

11 min read

The paper presented before the Academie de Grenoble in eastern France in 1806 was noteworthy for two reasons: First, the author was only 16 years old, and second the astonishingly erudite teenager made a very bold claim. He believed that the ancient language of Egypt was still alive in the form of the African language Coptic. Although his assertion would not turn out to be quite correct (Coptic is not identical to ancient Egyptian, but derived from it), the young scholar’s insights would later contribute to the solution of one of the greatest scholarly mysteries of the 19th century.

The young scholar was Jean-Francois Champollion who was born in Figeac in southern France in 1790. His childhood was shaped by the Reign of Terror, the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Champollion’s father was a book dealer. He had a serious drinking problem. His elder brother, Jacques-Joseph was the one who encouraged and supported Champollion. Champollion learned ancient languages and was able to speak Greek, Latin, Amharic, Amharic (a Semitic language originating from Ethiopia), Chinese, as well as Coptic.

Secrets of the Rosetta Stone

Champollion’s fascination with Coptic would one day come into play because of an object discovered far away during his childhood. In 1799, the year after Napoleon invaded Egypt, French soldiers repairing a fort near Al Rashid (known to the Italians and French as Rosette) noticed that some of the stones in the structure were engraved in hieroglyphs. They were likely to have been taken from older structures in order to build the newer ones. A sharp-eyed officer noticed that one of the fragments contained hieroglyphs and a second text block in Greek. The third script, now known as demotic text, was also present.

(How the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of ancient civilizations. )

The ability to read and write hieroglyphs waned with the advent of the Christian period in Egypt and finally disappeared with the decline of hieroglyphic writing at the end of the fourth century A.D. Deciphering them was a burning ambition of late 18th-century scholars. The stone was notified to the newly established, French-operated Institut d’Egypte. On September 15, 1799, the Courier de l’Egypte noted that if the Greek script turned out to be a translation of the hieroglyphs, this extraordinary stone would perhaps “provide the key” to crack the hieroglyphic code.

Before the find could be moved to France, however, Napoleon’s forces were defeated by the British, and the Rosetta Stone was taken to England where it would form the early core of the Egyptian collection of the British Museum.

Translations of the Greek inscription of the Rosetta Stone identified it as a decree issued by Ptolemy V Epiphanes, who died in 180 B.C. The Ptolemaic kings descended from the Greek-speaking conquerors in Egypt in the fourth century B.C. They used Greek while hieroglyphs were reserved to temples and priests. Scholars from different countries could now use the Greek text to identify elements in the hieroglyphic texts. These texts could be translated to unlock the secrets of Egyptian civilization and knowledge.

The hieroglyphs identified the names of the king by Thomas Young, an English scholar. Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, a scholar from England, and Johan Akerblad (a Swedish diplomat) correctly identified the phonetic signs in the names of the kings and queens in cartouches in France. These oval forms, which contained royal names, were found on the Rosetta Stone and other texts.

The scholar and the stone

The Rosetta Stone's trilingual inscription aided the deciphering of hieroglyphs.

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The Rosetta Stone’s trilingual inscription aided the deciphering of hieroglyphs.

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A patriotic Frenchman, Jean-Francois Champollion shared his compatriots’ disgust that the British had seized the Rosetta Stone from the French in Egypt in 1801 and taken it to London. Some sources say that in 1824, having made his breakthrough in deciphering hieroglyphs, Champollion visited London to see the artifact. Andrew Robinson, a Champollion biographer, claims that Champollion never mentioned such a trip in his letters and that it is unlikely that it took place. By 1824 other Egyptian texts preoccupied the French scholar, and the Rosetta Stone’s inscriptions were no longer the center of his studies.

Parisian pursuits

In 1807 Silvestre de Sacy was assigned a new pupil: the 17-year-old Champollion, who had moved from Grenoble to Paris. It would have been an exciting time for the young student: The French capital was awash with Egyptian artifacts from Napoleon’s campaigns, and the publication of the Description de l’Egypte was under way with many drawings of the inscribed monuments and objects.

(Napoleon’s defeat in Egypt yielded a great victory for history. )

Champollion was able to satisfy his obsession with Coptic by poring over numerous texts, which had been brought to Paris from the Vatican library in Rome. In 1815 he produced a Coptic dictionary, which he managed to present to Napoleon before his defeat at Waterloo. Even though Coptic was written in mostly Greek-derived languages, some of the linguistic structures of the ancient language were retained by Coptic. Champollion believed that his deep knowledge of Coptic would help him crack hieroglyphics.

Already well versed in Young’s researches, Champollion studied the Rosetta inscriptions and those on an obelisk from Philae. This obelisk, which had been transported from Egypt to Kingston Lacy in England, also had bilingual hieroglyphics and Greek inscriptions.

Despite key advances, Champollion and other scholars still could not explain what hieroglyphs actually said. Scholars who had studied the images before Champollion and others suggested that they represented what they showed, which was owls, bees. Gods, buildings, boats, gods, gods, bread, gods, gods, gods, and buildings. However, “translations” that were based on this principle produced gibberish. Champollion, Silvestre De Sacy, Young, Champollion and Champollion had identified the basic phonetic signs. However, this approach left many other signs unaccounted for, suggesting the language was not written with a simple alphabet.

Champollion’s breakthrough is celebrated as one of history’s great “lightbulb” moments: It occurred on September 14, 1822, when he fully deciphered the name Ramses in a hieroglyphic text from the Abu Simbel temple complex built by Ramses II (“the Great”). Champollion realized the name was formed by a combination of “figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once.” Filled with joy, he cried, “Je tiens l’affaire–I’ve got it!” Days later, he wrote his “Lettre a M. Dacier,” the secretary of the Academie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris with a list of 25 confirmed phonetic signs in demotic script and hieroglyphs.

(Discover some fascinating facts about hieroglyphics. )

The word Ramses is a good example of the complexity of the system whose workings Champollion had laid bare. It is written as ra-mes-su. The word ra (in hieroglyphs and Coptic) means “sun.” Mes is both a sound sign and a meaning sign (ideogram). Mes meant “gave birth to, or created” (a verb), and su means “him” (a pronoun). In hieroglyphics, signs played different roles. They did not all have a symbolic or phonetic function. Some signs could represent one, two or three sounds while others were homophones.

Coptic clues

A sherd with Coptic writing from the seventh century A.D. is originally from Thebes, Egypt.

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A sherd with Coptic writing from the seventh century A.D. is originally from Thebes, Egypt.

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Written in letters derived from the Greek alphabet, Coptic is a descendant of the ancient Egyptian language. It was widely used in Egypt since the second century A.D. It was widely spoken in Egypt since the second century A.D.

The 1822 breakthrough, exactly 200 years ago, was a remarkable beginning to Champollion’s formidable contribution to studies of ancient Egyptian writing. Champollion was a great heir to the Rosetta Stone. However, his work with other texts, as well as his unparalleled knowledge of Coptic and Semitic languages, gave him an edge over his English counterparts.

Father of Egyptology

Toward the end of his life, Champollion left the libraries where he had spent decades of patient research to see the inscriptions in situ. Beginning in August 1828, his 16-month tour of Egypt reached the Second Cataract of the Nile, just south of the Abu Simbel complex.

Champollion recorded his adventures in a stream of letters to his brother Jacques-Joseph. Cramming the letters with sketches, he described his pleasure in donning Egyptian dress, his tour of Abu Simbel in baking heat, as well as the preparations he witnessed for a dish of crocodile meat. In terms of colonialist behavior, Champollion was of his time: Despite his reverence for Egyptian artifacts, he nevertheless ordered that a wall panel from the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings be taken back to France.

Obelisk in England

The Philae obelisk stands on the grounds of W.J. Bankes's estate at Kingston Lacy in Dorset, England.

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The Philae obelisk stands on the grounds of W.J. The estate of Bankes at Kingston Lacy, Dorset, England.

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While traveling in Egypt between 1815 and 1819, an English collector, William John Bankes, took a fancy to an obelisk at Philae and arranged for it to be shipped to London. Its arrival in England in 1821 took place precisely at the moment when Champollion was poised to overtake Thomas Young in the race to crack the hieroglyphic code. The obelisk, dating to around 150 B.C. The inscription on the obelisk, which dates back to around B.C., is in Greek and hieroglyphs. A copy of the bilingual text found its way to Champollion in Paris, and it was instrumental in his deciphering of hieroglyphs in 1822. The obelisk was installed by Bankes at his rural estate, Kingston Lacy, Dorset, after his friend, Duke of Wellington, helped him transport the item there.

On returning to his native land in late 1829, Champollion’s health took a turn for the worse. Scholars believe that the strain from his travels to Egypt caused Champollion to suffer from multiple bouts of illness throughout his life. He died in Paris in 1832 at age 41. His 1824 Precis du systeme hieroglyphique des anciens Egyptiens contains 400 pages of discussion and a separate volume of plates with words, signs, and sign groups in hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Coptic, and was the greatest contribution to hieroglyphic research of any scholar at that time. Champollion’s disclosure of hieroglyphics allowed Egyptologists to gain unprecedented access to the thoughts and social structure of ancient Egyptians.

(Ancient Egypt gave rise to one of the world’s oldest Christian faiths. )

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