Until 19th February 2023, the British Museum is exploring Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in an exhibition supported by BP. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt contains many examples of beautiful symbols that once represented a written and spoken language used in North East Africa. These symbols remained a mystery for thousands of years, although medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars deciphered a few of their meanings. In 1799, an artefact was found by chance, containing the key to unlocking the ancient language. With the help of the French philologist Jean-François Champollion, the world has a much better understanding of one of Earth’s oldest civilisations.
In 1799, French soldiers, preparing for battle with the Ottoman Empire, decided to rebuild an old fort in Rasheed, Egypt. In doing so, they found a broken stone in the rubble that contained carvings of three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphs and another form of Egyptian writing (demotic). Realising the stone’s importance, the soldiers rescued it from the rubble. At the time, the Europeans knew Rasheed as ‘Rosette’, meaning ‘little rose’, which is why the artefact is known as the Rosetta Stone today.
After French forces surrendered during the Battle of the Nile, the Capitulation of Alexandria treaty stated the French must give any Egyptian antiquities to Britain. As a result, the Rosetta Stone travelled to England, where it remains in the British Museum.
From the Greek, scholars translated the inscriptions on the stone. It contains a priestly decree from 27th March 196 BC, drawn up by a council of Egyptian priests in Memphis. The text praises the acts and honours of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the king of Egypt from 204 BC until 180 BC.
Jean-François Champollion was born on 23rd December 1790 in Figeac, in Southwestern France. His father, Jacques Champollion, was an infamous drunk, and his mother, Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu, does not feature much in her son’s biography. Instead, Champollion grew up under the care of his older brother, Jacques-Joseph (1778-1867). At the time, his brother was an up-and-coming archaeologist, so Champollion was often called Champollion le Jeune (the young). Champollion eventually lost this nickname after surpassing his brother in fame.
In 1802, Champollion attended the school of the Abbé Dussert, where he discovered he had a natural talent for languages. During his two years at the school, Champollion started learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. He also developed a keen interest in Ancient Egypt, which his brother and Abbé Dussert encouraged.
Champollion’s aptitude for languages caught the attention of Joseph Fourier (1769-1830), a French mathematician who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on his Egyptian expedition in 1798, during which the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Following the expedition, Napoleon entrusted Fourier with the Description de l’Égypte, which catalogued all the artefacts and hieroglyphs the French uncovered. Fourier invited 11-year-old Champollion to view the document and other Ancient Egyptian items. Champollion was instantly enthralled, especially after hearing that the hieroglyphs were unintelligible. From that moment on, Champollion determined to be the first person to decipher them.
In 1804, Champollion began attending a school in Grenoble, where he studied Coptic, a language similar to Egyptian. These studies proved useful during Champollion’s later attempts at translating the Rosetta Stone. From 1807 to 1809, Champollion attended a college in Paris, where he studied under Baron Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the first Frenchman to attempt to translate the Rosetta Stone. Champollion also received tuition from the orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763-1824) and former Coptic monk Raphaël de Monachis (1759-1831). Champollion divided his time between the Collège de France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library, where his brother worked, and the Commission of Egypt. So engrossed was he with his studies, that Champollion began dressing in Arab clothing and calling himself Champollion Al Seghir (the Arab translation of le jeune).
Champollion first began studying the Rosetta stone in 1808, when he was 17 years old. Around this time, he was starting to suffer from various health issues, including gout and tinnitus, most likely brought on by the unsanitary environments around Paris, yet his brother encouraged him to continue with his studies. To start with, Champollion relied on trial and error, changing his direction of research each time he hit a dead end. Like many other scholars, Champollion relied on other Egyptian artefacts, particularly papyrus, not realising there was more than one type of script. A cursive style known as Hieratic was the main script used in Egypt between the 3rd millennium BC and the first millennium BC. The Hieratic script could be read in any direction, depending on the circumstance. Conversely, the Rosetta Stone is written in Demotic script, which was only read from right to left.
Demotic script bridged the gap between Hieratic and Coptic, of which the latter came into use in the 3rd century AD. Another form of writing also developed between the two periods. Known as Sahidic or Thebaic, many early Coptic texts were written in this dialect, for example, copies of religious writings, such as the resurrection of Jesus. Champollion surmised that by studying Sahidic texts, such as the Askew Codex, containing translations of the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (teachings of the transfigured Jesus and his Disciples), he would notice similarities with the writing on the Rosetta Stone. He also looked for similar symbols, particular those representing place names.
Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Young (1773-1829), a 41-year-old Egyptologist, began working on the Rosetta Stone in 1814. Whilst Young and Champollion were rivals, Young’s efforts to decipher the text helped Champollion eventually crack the code.
Champollion and Young’s rivalry encouraged others to join the race to become the first person to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Egypt soon became a popular tourist destination, and many scholars and archaeologists visited the country to unearth more inscriptions to assist in the translation. These items, including drawings, proved useful to Champollion, particularly sketches of hieroglyphs by the copyist Frédéric Cailliaud (1787-1869).
Champollion agreed with Young’s theory that Demotic script consisted of words (or ideas) and phonetic signs. Earlier hieroglyphs may not have been read aloud, but the influence of the Greek language on the Egyptians encouraged them to include verbal language in their symbols. This observation proved to be the vital key to translating the Rosetta Stone. On 14th September 1822, Champollion excitedly exclaimed to his brother, “Je tiens l’affaire, vois!” (“Look, I’ve got it!”), and promptly collapsed from exhaustion.
Whilst Champollion had not translated the entire Rosetta Stone, he had identified and successfully deciphered several royal Egyptian names, such as “Ptolemy” and “Ramesses”. Testing this discovery on other symbols, Champollion found “Thutmose”, the name of a ruler often mentioned by classical rulers. He also found “King Taharqa”, who lived between 690 and 664 BC. Royal names were indicated by a particular symbol, and Champollion quickly discovered another sign to indicate common names.
Annoyed that Champollion was receiving all the credit, Young argued that Champollion relied on the work of other people to push him in the right direction. Young also claimed Champollion’s translations were inaccurate. For example, Champollion deciphered the names “Antiochus” and “Antigonus”, whereas the Greek text said “Antimachus” and “Antigenis”. Young thought this was proof that Champollion should not receive all the accolades but many scholars were happy to overlook Champollion’s errors. Despite Young’s protestations, Champollion continued to develop his ideas for the next five years before proclaiming on 1st January 1829 that he had nothing further to add. He had perfected his “alphabet” and could apply it successfully to all the monuments in Egypt. Unlike other scholars, Champollion grasped the structural logic of the language.
In 1828, Champollion finally had the chance to visit Egypt on an expedition with his friend and fellow Egyptologist, Ippolito Rosellini (1800-43). Champollion’s understanding of hieroglyphs made a fundamental difference, allowing far more insight than previous expeditions. A tomb discovered in 1817 was thought to belong to King Psamtek I, but with Champollion’s expertise, the name was correctly deciphered as “Sety”.
After a year, Champollion returned to France with at least 100 pieces for the Louvre Palace, now the Louvre museum. These objects left Egypt with the permission of the Ottoman authorities in Egypt, unlike the Rosetta Stone, which was taken from the French by the British. The true ownership of the Rosetta Stone remains a controversial issue.
Champollion did not limit himself to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. During his studies, he helped translate several monuments and inscriptions, including the fictional Teaching of King Amenemhat, which Champollion initially failed to realise was a work of fiction. Champollion was also the first modern scholar to identify King Ahmose as the founder of the 18th dynasty of Egypt (1550-1295 BC).
Champollion’s achievements not only deciphered a writing system but also uncovered one of the oldest written languages in human history. Aside from being able to translate hieroglyphs, scholars now understood how Egyptians measured time and years, commemorated ancestors, or in some cases, attempted to erase people from history. Whilst Champollion died young at 41, his legacy still lives on.
Champollion’s studies were all-consuming, but he also enjoyed life outside of work when he could. After two failed attempts at love, Champollion married Rosine Blanc (1794-1871), the daughter of a well-to-do family of Grenoblean glovemakers. At the time, Rosine’s father disapproved of the match but changed his tune after Champollion’s reputation grew. Champollion and Rosine had a daughter, Zoraïde, but Champollion’s work schedule prevented him from watching her grow up. Being away for weeks, months, or even years at a time put a strain on the marriage, yet they remained faithful to each other. Rosine and Zoraïde lived with Champollion’s brother, meaning Champollion did not need to worry about their well-being when he was away.
After returning from a second expedition in 1831, Champollion was appointed to the chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France by King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850). Unfortunately, Champollion only gave three lectures before illness forced him to give up the post. Exhausted by his labours during his scientific expedition to Egypt, on top of his chronic poor health, Champollion died after suffering a stroke on 4th March 1832 while in Paris. His burial took place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, where his grave is marked with a tall obelisk.
A lot of Champollion’s work was published after his death. His brother edited portions of Champollion’s papers and published his almost-finished Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian in 1838. Controversy over Champollion’s decipherment claims continued for many years, but after Champollion’s work helped his student Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-84) successfully decipher the Decree of Canopus, dating from 243 BC, Champollion’s reputation as the true decipherer of the hieroglyphs was cemented.
In Figeac, Champollion’s birthplace, he is honoured with La place des Écritures, a giant reproduction of the Rosetta Stone by American artist Joseph Kosuth (born 1945). Yet, Champillion’s greatest legacy is the continuation of his work by contemporary Egyptologists. The British Museum has Champollion partly to thank for the amount of information they packed into the Hieroglyphs exhibition. Ancient artefacts can only tell scholars so much about the lives of the Ancient Egyptians, but being able to decipher hieroglyphs gives them access to thousands of years of information.
Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is not an exhibition about Jean-François Champollion, although he is mentioned a great deal. The British Museum comments on the information these hieroglyphs unlock, including poetry, international treaties, shopping lists, tax returns and many stories about ancient beliefs. Yet it is Champollion’s initial decipherment in 1822, exactly 200 years ago, that has inspired the exhibition, so he deserves as much attention as the objects on display.
Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is on view at the British Museum until 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £18 (or £20 at weekends) and must be purchased in advance. Members and under-16s can visit for free.