J.-F. Champollion is portrayed in an 1831 painting by Léon Cogniet the year before his death.

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

Jean-François Champollion's genius tactics deciphered the Stone's code in September 1822, opening up access to a trove of ancient Egyptian writing.

J.-F. Champollion is portrayed in an 1831 painting by Léon Cogniet the year before his death.
Album/Granger, NYC

The paper presented before the Académie 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 the ancient language of Egypt lived on 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-François Champollion who was born in Figeac in southern France in 1790. The French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte formed the background to his childhood. Champollion’s father, a book dealer, had a serious drinking problem. It was his elder brother Jacques-Joseph, who encouraged and supported him. Champollion discovered ancient languages and became familiar with Greek, Latin, Amharic (a Semitic language from Ethiopia), Chinese, and 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 had likely been robbed from more ancient structures to build the newer ones. One of the fragments, a sharp-eyed officer noted, featured hieroglyphs as well as a second text block in Greek, and then a third, unidentified script (now known as demotic text).

(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 newly founded, French-operated Institut d’Égypte was notified of the stone. On September 15, 1799, the Courier de l’Égypte 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 of Egypt in the fourth century B.C., used Greek, while hieroglyphs were reserved for temples and priests. The race was now on for scholars from different countries to use the Greek text to begin the process of identifying elements in the corresponding hieroglyphic texts. Translating them would unlock Egyptian civilization and its knowledge.

The names of the king were identified in the hieroglyphs by English scholar Thomas Young. In France, meanwhile, scholar Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy and Johan Åkerblad, a Swedish diplomat, correctly identified the phonetic signs in kings’ and queens’ names in cartouches (the oval form that contained royal names) on the Rosetta Stone and other texts.

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’Égypte 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. Although written in mostly Greek-derived letters, Coptic retained some of the linguistic structures and vocabulary of the ancient language, and Champollion was convinced that his thorough knowledge of Coptic would be the key to cracking hieroglyphs.

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

Despite key advances, Champollion and other scholars still could not explain what hieroglyphs actually said. Earlier scholars suggested the pictures stood for what they showed—owls, bees, bread, gods, buildings, boats—but “translations” based on this principle produced gibberish. Åkerblad, Silvestre de Sacy, Young, and Champollion had identified the basic single-sound phonetic signs, but this approach left many more signs unaccounted for, suggesting that the language was not written using 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 à M. Dacier,” the secretary of the Académie 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). Signs, therefore, played different roles in hieroglyphics. They were not all purely symbolic or phonetic representations: Phonetic signs could stand for one, two, or three sounds, while other signs were homophones, different signs for the same sounds.

The 1822 breakthrough, exactly 200 years ago, was a remarkable beginning to Champollion’s formidable contribution to studies of ancient Egyptian writing. Although Champollion owed much to the Rosetta Stone, his work with other texts, his peerless knowledge of Coptic and other Semitic languages, and his lifelong dedication to his studies, gave him the edge over his English rivals.

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.

On returning to his native land in late 1829, Champollion’s health took a turn for the worse. Scholars believe the strain of his travels in Egypt led to repeated bouts of illness for the rest of his life. He died in Paris in 1832 at age 41. His 1824 Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens 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 opening up of hieroglyphics enabled Egyptologists to eavesdrop on the thoughts of the ancient Egyptians, and to understand in ever greater depth the religious and social composition of their world.

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

Read This Next

Can science help personalize your diet?
Hogs are running wild in the U.S.—and spreading disease
Salman Rushdie on the timeless beauty of the Taj Mahal

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet