A Touch of France: The keys of Egypt: Jean-François Champollion

The keys of Egypt:
Jean-François Champollion
by R. Adkins and L. Adkins, United Kingdom

Jean-François Champollion was born on 23 December 1790 in the town of Figeac. He was sent to Grenoble in 1801 to live with his brother Jacques- Joseph and became obsessed by ancient languages and Egypt. At the age of sixteen he went to Paris to study for two years, and on returning to Grenoble he taught at its new university. He also continued researching hieroglyphs, but was frustrated with his copies of the Rosetta Stone, which had been discovered in Egypt during Napoleon’s expedition, though later handed over to the British. Champollion inadvertently contacted his rival Thomas Young in London, who was also trying to decipher hieroglyphs. Supporting Napoleon on his escape from Elba was disastrous for Champollion, as he lost his job and was exiled to Figeac. After returning to Grenoble, further trouble occurred in 1821, and in poor health he went to Paris, where he worked assiduously on hieroglyphs. The breakthrough came in 1822 when he began to understand how hieroglyphs worked. Trips to Italy were followed by his appointment as curator of the Egypt collections at the Louvre Museum. He next headed a joint French-Tuscan expedition to Egypt, where he made huge advances in decipherment, and was back in Paris in 1830. The next year he began to give university courses, but illness forced him to retreat to Figeac, where he worked on a hieroglyphic grammar. Soon after returning to Paris he suffered a stroke and on 4 March 1832 died at the age of forty-one.

Medicographia. 2013;35:113-123 (see French abstract on page 123)

The house at 28 rue Mazarine in Paris, where Jean-François Champollion lived and carried on his research into Egyptian hieroglyphs, was less than 200 meters from the Institute of France where his older brother Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac worked at the Academy of Inscriptions and Literature. Towards midday on14 September 1822, clutching his papers, Champollion fled along the narrow street, around the corner and into the Institute. Not fully recovered from his latest spell of ill-health, he was already breathless as he burst into his brother’s office, flung his papers on the desk and managed to shout “Je tiens l’affaire!” (I’ve got it!).

Portrait of Jean-François Champollion, by Léon Cogniet. Oil on
canvas, 73.5×60 cm, 1831. Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN–Grand
Palais/René-Gabriel Ojéda.

Champollion had been scrutinizing some highly accurate drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions that the architect Jean- Nicolas Huyot had recently copied at the temple of Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt. After years of work, often interrupted by the ever-changing political situation, Champollion had at last spotted the system underlying the seemingly unintelligible hieroglyphs. He began to explain to Jacques-Joseph what he had discovered, but only managed a few words before collapsing unconscious on the floor. For a few moments his brother feared he was dead.

Conquest of Egypt

Over one and a half thousand years had passed since anyone could read and write hieroglyphs, the ancient Egyptian writing system, because under Roman rule in Egypt the use of hieroglyphs declined with the rise of Christianity and the closure of pagan temples. The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in 642 and the Ottoman Turks in 1516 meant that the country was closed to most western Europeans for hundreds of years. Even so, interest in hieroglyphs was rekindled in the early fifteenth century by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Latin documents.

The story of decipherment really began with the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon in July 1798. Along with his military force of some 38 000 troops, there were also more than 150 civilian savants, including astronomers, engineers, linguists, poets, artists, musicians, and mathematicians. Less than a month later, on 1 August, disaster struck when the French fleet was destroyed by a Royal Navy fleet under Rear-Admiral Nelson in Aboukir Bay. In England, this battle became known, erroneously, as the “Battle of the Nile.”

Despite this military setback, the savants embarked on an extraordinary study of ancient and modern Egypt. Exploring as far south as Aswan in Upper Egypt, they were astonished at the ancient ruins, all covered in hieroglyphs. However, the chance discovery of a substantial stone slab caused particular excitement. It was unearthed during work on the defenses of the Fort St Julien near Rosetta in 1799 and had three inscriptions written in three different scripts (Greek, demotic and hieroglyphs) and yet only two languages (Greek and Egyptian). Although damaged, especially the hieroglyphic part, the Rosetta Stone appeared to offer a key for the decipherment of hieroglyphs. It did not take long for the Greek inscription (in uppercase letters) to be translated, revealing that it was a decree of the priests of Memphis, dated 27 March 196 BC, commemorating the pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes. Although the savants managed to make copies of the three inscriptions, in 1801 the Rosetta Stone itself was handed over to the British as part of the spoils of war when the French capitulated.

Champollion’s beginnings

The reports and popular books written by the savants triggered a wave of Egyptomania across Europe, but the quest to decipher hieroglyphs had barely begun and was to cause years of rivalry, particularly between two scholars, the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion and the Englishman Thomas Young. Champollion was born on 23 December 1790 in the town of Figeac, in the Quercy region of France, and so was nearly eight years of age when Napoleon invaded Egypt. In March 1801, he left Figeac and traveled to Grenoble, over 300 kilometers away, to live with his brother Jacques-Joseph and where he received a more rigorous education. Prodigiously talented, Champollion became obsessed with ancient languages, initially in order to read the original Old Testament texts, because the Bible was believed to be the most reliable evidence for how the world began. He also became increasingly absorbed by ancient Egypt and started to learn Coptic with Dom Raphaël de Monachis when visiting Grenoble. A Greek Catholic priest from Egypt, Monachis taught Arabic at the Special School of Oriental Languages in Paris. Champollion was convinced that Coptic was the key to the Egyptian language and to deciphering hieroglyphs. At this stage, he thought that hieroglyphs comprised a simple alphabet and that he would eventually be able to match Coptic words with hieroglyphic ones. Although he was wrong, knowledge of Coptic would prove invaluable in working out ancient Egyptian words, and he was right to think that spoken Coptic had evolved from ancient Egyptian.

Napoleon Haranguing the Army Before the Battle of the Pyramids, by Antoine-Jean
Gros (1771-1835). Oil on canvas, 389×311 cm, Versailles, Châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon. © RMN–
Grand Palais (Château de Versailles)/Daniel Arnaudet/Jean Schormans.

At the age of sixteen, in September 1807, Champollion went to Paris, where he studied for two years, dividing his time between the College of France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library, and the Commission of Egypt that was responsible for publishing the volumes of the Description de l’Égypte —the results of the work of Napoleon’s savants in Egypt. Intellectual and cultural Paris was without parallel in Europe, though Champollion disliked the city itself, where he suffered poverty, poor health, and threats of conscription into Napoleon’s army. On top of learning languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Persian, any spare time was concentrated on becoming fluent in Coptic, with the help of Dom Raphaël and also Yuhanna Chiftichi the Coptic priest of the church of Saint-Roch in the rue Saint-Honoré.

The Rosetta Stone, found in 1799 in Rashid (Rosetta).
112×76 cm, dark gray stone, 196 BC. British Museum, London.
© The British Museum, London, dist RMN–Grand Palais/
The Trustees of the British Museum.

Champollion also examined Egyptian papyri with hieratic writing, believing that hieratic was the same as the demotic on the Rosetta Stone. In fact, hieroglyphs were a type of formal writing, and hieratic was a more simple, handwritten, cursive type of hieroglyphs. Hieratic writing became very stylized and developed into what is called demotic, which replaced hieratic from around 650 BC. After Alexander the Great invaded Egypt in 332 BC, Greek became the main bureaucratic language. From the subsequent Roman period, the Egyptian language was written using a new script, Coptic, which was a mixture of Greek and demotic letters. Although Arabic became the main language and writing system in Egypt, the Christians continued to speak and write the Coptic language. This succession of different scripts and languages was part of the problem facing scholars, and by the end of 1808 Champollion declared to Jacques-Joseph that he could progress no further with hieroglyphs and that the Rosetta Stone was of no further help.

The discovery of Thomas Young

Returning to Grenoble in 1809, Champollion became a teacher at its new university, where his older colleagues were jealous of his success, even though his salary was far lower. His penury constantly undermined his health, and although he wanted to marry Rosine Blanc, a local girl, her father stubbornly opposed the marriage. Champollion’s research into Coptic and hieroglyphs continued, but was limited by insufficient material and disrupted by the political upheavals in France. Throughout the chaos he tried to continue working and returned to the Rosetta Stone. In November 1814, he finally wrote to London saying that he was confident of reading the entire inscription if only he could be sent what was illegible on his copy. His letter fell into the hands of Thomas Young.

Unknown to Champollion, Young was his greatest rival. Seventeen years older than Champollion, he was from a Quaker family from Milverton in Somerset. Gifted in both sciences and languages, Young studied medicine and traveled in Europe as much as was possible during Napoleon’s campaigns. In 1799, he settled down to a medical career in London and began to publish articles on medicine and ancient languages. A considerable inheritance from his uncle ensured that he never suffered financial hardship, nor was he affected by political turmoil. In 1814, Young was given a papyrus from Egypt, written in hieratic, which inspired him to begin research on the Rosetta Stone, which was on display in the British Museum. Initially, he analyzed its demotic inscription, which he termed enchorial, and sent his results to Professor Silvestre de Sacy in Paris, a staunch Royalist who once taught Champollion. Shortly afterwards, Young made some progress with the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphic text, surpassing anyone else’s work, even though much of his analysis would turn out to be incorrect. In his role as foreign secretary of the Royal Society, Young now received Champollion’s letter claiming his own virtual success.

Title page and a page illustrating “The vicinity of Sebennytus, in the Egyptian Delta region,” from the Description of Egypt, published
in 1809. Left, © akg-images/Pietro Baguzzi. Right, Private collection, Cairo. © akg-images/François Guénet.

The political situation once again touched Champollion with a heavy hand. Having escaped from Elba, Napoleon reached Grenoble on 7 March 1815, where he persuaded Jacques- Joseph to become his secretary. Champollion was presented to Napoleon, who pledged support for his Coptic dictionary and grammar. The emperor and the linguist, the two men who between them, but in such different ways, did the most to establish the study of Egyptology, met for just a few minutes— it was their only meeting.

Jacques-Joseph accompanied Napoleon to Paris, but Champollion remained in Grenoble, the last town in France to offer resistance to the allied forces, where he was forced to run through exploding shells to safeguard the library from fire. It was now that Champollion received a reply from Young, containing little new information, but showing that de Sacy had failed to forward material from Young. After Waterloo and with Louis XVIII back on the throne, the two brothers were regarded as dangerous and lost their university posts, and in March 1816 they were condemned to internal exile in their home town of Figeac. De Sacy now tried to discredit Champollion, warning Young not to trust him with his discoveries in case he claimed them as his own—an unfounded charge frequently used by his detractors.

Only in October 1817 did Champollion dare return to Grenoble, where he became immersed in a project to establish new schools. Unable to work at the university, he accepted a teaching post in the Royal College and at the end of December 1818 finally married Rosine. By now Thomas Young had amassed a huge amount of information on hieroglyphs and succeeded in recognizing the hieroglyphic name Ptolemy on the Rosetta Stone and in working out some of the hieroglyphic alphabet. He published his results at the end of 1819 as a supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, far exceeding anything published by Champollion.

In Grenoble, the Ultras (extreme Royalists) were causing much unrest, and Champollion lost his teaching post. During an uprising against the Prefect, Baron d’Haussez, in March 1821, Champollion dared raise the tricolor flag over the citadel with a group of other men, for which he was threatened with trial for treason. Although eventually acquitted, his spirit and health were broken, and he abandoned Grenoble in July, making his way to Paris to be with his brother. By the end of the summer the entire family including his wife moved to the rue Mazarine.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Young, by Henry Perronet Briggs (1792-
1844). Royal Society, London. © Bridgeman Art Library.

The breakthrough

Champollion was now left in peace to rebuild his health and concentrate entirely on ancient Egypt and its writing systems. His deep knowledge of Coptic and his persistence began to bear fruit, and he rapidly overtook Young. Two major events precipitated his progress.

In January 1822 he was given a copy of an inscription from a six-ton obelisk that had recently been transported from Philae in Egypt to the country home of William Bankes in Dorset. From this, he worked out the hieroglyphs of the name “Cleopatra” and began to appreciate the complexities of hieroglyphs when used for the Egyptian language and when spelling out foreign names like Cleopatra and Ptolemy.

Then, on the morning of 14 September 1822, he found further crucial evidence on inscriptions from Abu Simbel and realized that phonetic signs were not just used for foreign names in the Greek and Roman periods, but in earlier Egyptian writing as well.

Duck hieroglyph representing the sound “sa,” and solar disk
hieroglyph, representing the sound “ra.” Limestone, 7th century
BC. Musée du Louvre, Paris. © akg-images/Erich Lessing.

The nature of hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs are signs that appear to be mainly pictures of animals, people, plants, and objects, and the earliest scholars believed they contained hidden, mysterious meanings. The main types of signs are pictographs, ideograms, phonetic symbols, and determinatives. The simplest are pictographs, where a word is represented by a single picture, so that a duck means simply “a duck.” In ideograms, a hieroglyphic sign represents an idea, so that “daytime” is shown by a picture of a sun. Phonetic signs represent a particular sound. There were twenty-four representing single consonants, similar to an alphabet. Others represented a combination of two or even three consonants. Decipherment was made more difficult, because a sign could be used in different ways depending on its context. The sign “duck,” for example, can be used as a pictogram meaning “a duck” or an ideogram meaning “son of,” or it can represent the sound “sa.”

Champollion’s Egyptian Grammar. Left: On monuments, men’s clothing was usually white, with red lines to depict folds, (2nd row of
hieroglyphs); women’s clothing was white, green, or red (3rd row); on sarcophagi, garments were always green (last row). Right: the last
bird on the top row of hieroglyphs is painted in red to denote a newborn bird without feathers; yellow was for wooden objects (2nd row);
green was for bronze objects, (3rd row); on monuments, any color could be used (4th and 5th rows). Principes Généraux de l’Écriture
Sacrée Égyptienne. Facsimile edition, pages 7 and 10. © 1984, Institut d’Orient/Michel Sidhom, Paris, France.

Where signs had several meanings, a scribe might add other signs called “determinatives.” They were not pronounced, but gave clues about a word’s meaning, so that a pair of legs indicated a meaning associated with movement. Other difficulties were that vowels were rarely shown and that hieroglyphs could be read from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom, depending on how they had been written, with no spaces between words. For decipherment, the most crucial hieroglyphs were those surrounded by cartouches, because they represented royal names. After the profound shock of his discoveries, Champollion recovered sufficiently to give a talk on demotic on 22 September and then prepared another paper for the Academy of Inscriptions on the 27th, his report on phonetic hieroglyphs, which he immediately expanded into a publication formally addressed to Bon-Joseph Dacier, the Perpetual Secretary of the Academy. This publication, now known as the “Letter to Monsieur Dacier,” became a landmark in Egyptology. The paper read on 27 September was a momentous event, even though Champollion held back his very latest results and thinking. He was warmly congratulated by those present, including Thomas Young who by sheer coincidence was in Paris for a short visit and had witnessed his rival’s triumph. Despite friendly exchanges of correspondence, Young spent the rest of his life, until his death in 1829, bickering over who was responsible for identifying a few letters, not helped by Champollion giving him scant acknowledgement in his publications and highlighting where Young had gone wrong.

Abu Simbel temple. © Roy and Lesley Adkins.

An Italian interlude

In 1824, Champollion was sent to Turin in Italy to study their newly acquired Egyptian collection. He surged ahead with translations of hieroglyphic texts, each one providing more startling discoveries than the last, including the disturbing revelation that pharaohs ruled Egypt long before the date of Creation calculated from Biblical texts. His earliest dreams had come true—he now had access to completely new evidence for the earliest history of mankind and maybe Creation itself. From now on, the Rosetta Stone really was of no further use. After some months, Champollion traveled elsewhere in Italy, making one detour to Livorno to examine a collection of Egyptian antiquities that was being sold by Henry Salt, British Consul in Egypt. Champollion was astounded by its quality, immediately writing to his brother that it must be purchased by France. In November 1825 Champollion returned to France and was informed a few weeks later that the king had allocated him finance to return to Livorno to study the Salt collection. News soon reached him there that the collection was definitely being purchased and that he should prepare it for shipment to Paris, and in May 1826 he was appointed curator of a new Egypt section at the King Charles X Museum within the Louvre Palace.

While waiting for the ship to arrive to transport the collection to Paris, Champollion became acquainted with Ippolito Rosellini, Professor of Oriental Languages at Pisa, and for several weeks they worked closely together, with Champollion teaching Rosellini about hieroglyphs and Egypt. By November 1826, Champollion was back in Paris, where he ran into opposition over the new exhibits at the museum. At the same time he was putting together a joint French-Tuscan expedition to Egypt, with Rosellini as his assistant, and he set sail from Toulon on 31 July 1828, almost exactly three decades after Napoleon had sailed from the same port with his own expedition.

The Egypt expedition

To Champollion, being in Egypt was almost like coming home, as he took so readily to its life and climate, and his indifferent health improved greatly. The plan was to go from Alexandria to Cairo, then as far as the second cataract at Abu Simbel, assessing and identifying sites as they traveled upstream. On the return journey, the expedition members, mainly artists and draftsmen, would undertake the detailed recording. Some sites took longer to assess than planned, but they were horrified to discover that countless significant monuments recorded by Napoleon’s savants had recently been destroyed for building works or burnt in lime kilns. As for the pioneering work of the savants, Champollion complained that their copies of hieroglyphs were often inaccurate.

Cartouches of Ramesses II (the Great), Abu Simbel temple.
On the left, Ramesses’ throne name (Usermaatra-setepenra =
The Justice of Ra is Powerful, Chosen by Ra); on the right, his birth
name (
Ramesses, with the title “meryamun” = Ra Has Formed Him,
Beloved of Amun). © Roy and Lesley Adkins.

Ramesses II overlooking the River Nile, an area that was destroyed by the building of Lake Nasser in the 1960s, though these two temples were rescued. Discovered in 1813, desert sand still buried the façade of the monument, and inside the temples the temperature was like a furnace. By March, the expedition had reached Thebes and spent several weeks on the west bank of the Nile, taking up residence in the tomb of the pharaoh Ramesses IV in the Valley of the Kings. They later concentrated on the temples on the east bank at Luxor and Karnak. In front of the magnificent Luxor temple were two obelisks, and Champollion wrote to Jacques-Joseph that the French government should consider removing one to Paris. Back at Cairo once more, Champollion was shocked to learn that his adversary Thomas Young had died a few months previously, while they were in the Valley of the Kings. His ship was then delayed, so that Champollion did not return to France until 23 December 1829, followed by a month of quarantine. He was terrified of further illness if he went back to damp, cold Paris, but in March he did return, having learned of opposition towards him and rumors of falsifying the evidence about deciphering hieroglyphs.

Reproduction of frescoes in Abu Simbel
temple by Champollion,
first published
under the title: Monuments de l’Égypte et de
la Nubie d’Après les Dessins Exécutés sur
les Lieux (1835-1845). © De Agostini Picture
Library/G. Dagli Orli/Bridgeman Art Library

Final words

In the second half of 1830, France experienced revolution, and in late July thousands of armed citizens broke into the Louvre Museum and stole numerous objects from Champollion’s Egyptian galleries, some of which he had only just brought back. Charles X fled to England, but fortunately the new king Louis-Philippe was sympathetic towards Champollion’s work, and in March he was appointed as Professor at the College of France. In May, he began his new university course, but his deteriorating health forced him to break off and retreat to Figeac, where he was left in peace to work on his hieroglyphic grammar. His health started to improve, and he reckoned he needed one more month to complete the grammar, but Jacques-Joseph insisted he was needed in Paris. He arrived there on 28 November and resumed his university course to great acclaim a few days later. In mid-December he suffered a stroke and had trouble writing. He was gradually improving, but on 12 January 1832 he collapsed and could barely talk. By the end of February he was drifting in and out of consciousness, and on 4 March he died, at the age of forty-one. Two days later his body was taken to the nearby church of Saint-Roch, where he had learned Coptic from the priest, and a massive funeral cortège set off for the Père Lachaise cemetery. While Jacques-Joseph embarked on preparing his papers for publication, including his Egyptian grammar and a dictionary, the tragic early death of Champollion did not soften the attitude of some of his opponents, who continued to deny the value of his work. Other scholars such as Richard Lepsius in Germany, Samuel Birch in England, Edward Hincks in Ireland, and Emmanuel de Rougé in France acknowledged his vast achievements and took steps to build upon them, expanding the understanding of hieroglyphic texts and the secrets they contain. Today Champollion’s work is universally recognized. By discovering the keys to the ancient Egyptian language, he unlocked the chronicles of a complete civilization. _

Place des Écritures at Figeac, Champollion’s birthplace, in the
Lot department. On the ground is an enlarged 14×7-m copy of the
Rosetta Stone in black granite from Zimbabwe, by American conceptual
artist Joseph Kosuth (2000). © Hervé Champollion/akgimages.

Champollion’s tomb at the Père-Lachaise cemetery, Paris. © Roy
and Lesley Adkins.

apyrus from the Book of the Dead of Tchahapiimou, Superior of the Astronomers of Amun. Ptolemaic period, 500-100 BC.
Musée du Louvre, Paris. © RMN–Grand Palais/Franck Raux.

Further reading
– Adkins L. The Keys of Egypt: The Race to Read the Hieroglyphs. London, UK: Harper Collins; 2000.
– Adkins L, Adkins R. The Little Book of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton; 2001.
– Allen JP. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press; 2000.
– Parkinson R. Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. London, UK: British Museum Press; 1999.
– Strathern P. Napoleon in Egypt: The Greatest Glory. London, UK: Jonathan Cape; 2007.
– Wilkinson RH. Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London, UK: Thames & Hudson; 1994.