Jean-Francoise Champollion: The Man Who Deciphered the Rosetta Stone

Who is Jean-Francois Champollion?

Jean-Francois Champollion (23 December 1790–4 March 1832) was a renowned French Linguist and Egyptologist. He is credited with unlocking the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

For a very long time, Egyptian hieroglyphics had puzzled and frustrated researchers on Ancient Egypt. What did they say? And how did one go about finding out what they said? People in contemporary Egypt didn’t use that script any more and there was no one to offer a clue to their meaning.

Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

And then, in 1799, the clue manifested itself in the shape of the Rosetta Stone. This was a large, black slab, inscribed with three scripts – Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek. It was found in Rashid, a village on the outskirts of Alexandria, by a French engineer, Pierre-Francois Xavier Bouchard, and his team of workers. They were excavating material for fortification works; the French, under Napoleon Bonaparte’s leadership, were in the middle of a war with the British. The workers thought the stone slab was of black basalt – it has since been identified as black granite – and they were impressed enough with it to keep it from being turned into fortification fodder.

The slab was turned over to French intellectuals, who had tagged along to see the Egyptian sights while their forces fought the British. The linguists amongst them recognized what a find it was and had it moved to Cairo. Since the Frenchmen referred to the Rashid village as Rosetta, the stone was promptly dubbed the Rosetta Stone. Later, after the cease fire, it became the property of the British and lies today in the British Museum.

The Key to Unlocking Hieroglyphics

So what was so special about the Rosetta Stone? Well, it was inscribed with the same text in three scripts: Hieroglyphics, Demotic and Greek. So, if you knew two of these scripts, like the linguists did Demotic and Greek, it was possible to decipher the meaning of the third, hitherto mystifying script, the Hieroglyphics. Of course that is putting it too simply, and it actually took several linguists a long time to do the deciphering.

The inscribed text was a decree written by the Priests of Memphis in 196 B.C., extolling Ptolemy V Epiphanes for restoring the glory of Egypt and rendering to the priests their due privileges. To ensure everyone could read the decree, the Priests had it inscribed in three scripts that were in widespread use in the Egypt of that period. These three scripts were the Hieroglyphic that was used by the Priests, the Demotic that was used by the common people and the Greek that the royal court used.

The Hieroglyphic and the Demotic scripts fell out of use over time, but the contemporary Coptic script had retained some alphabets of the Demotic script. By painstakingly piecing those and the Greek script with the Hieroglyphic script, the latter began to make sense as a phonetic alphabet.

The Translators who Broke the Code

The British linguist Stephen Weston deciphered the Greek part in 1802. Others, namely the British physicist Thomas Young, the Swedish diplomat Johann Akerblad and the French linguist Silvestre de Sacy attempted to decipher Demotic Script and the Hieroglyphics and had a limited measure of success.

Champollion studied their research, worked on his own and, after long years of study, went on to crack the code. His expertise in Coptic (he knew eleven languages), plus his determination gave him an edge over the others. Young’s research too played a big role in assisting him, something Champollion remained reluctant to admit.

On 27 September 1822, he presented a paper, ‘Lettre a M. Dacier’, detailing his research and compilation of 26 alphabet letters to M.Dacier, the permanent secretary of the French Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. Two years later, in 1824, he published further research in a book ‘ Précis du système hiéroglyphique’.

The remarkable work of these ground-breaking translators paved the way for unlocking the secrets of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Translation was then, and is now, an exciting career to pursue.