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.
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).