Translator Interpreter Hall of Fame


Translator Interpreter Hall of Fame



Jean François Champollion (1790-1832)

Jean François Champollion (1790-1832)

The Rosetta Stone is a metaphor for a key that unlocks a mystery. The brilliant historian and linguist Jean François Champollion, the founder of scientific Egyptology, is credited with actually deciphering what was inscribed on the stone.

The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs for some 3500 years, beginning roughly in 3300 BC, but after this form of writing was abandoned, the ability to read it was lost for centuries. Early attempts to decipher these symbols met with limited success. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone offered scholars a way to unlock the secrets of the hieroglyphs.

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, seeking to capture the Nile delta and its rich food supply. The French army landed at Alexandria and moved inland, where it defeated the British army at Cairo. However, Lord Horatio Nelson led the British navy to a decisive victory over the French navy at the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay, thus stranding Napoleon’s troops in Egypt for three years.

The French fortified strategic positions, using stones recycled from earlier structures. In 1799, while excavating near Rashid, a small city near Alexandria that the Europeans called Rosetta, a French engineer, Pierre-François Xavier Bouchard, discovered what looked like a black basalt slab (modern-day cleaning has revealed it to be granite). It measured 3’9” long by 2’4.5” wide by 11” thick (114 x 72 x 28 cm). Inscribed on it was a text in three scripts: hieroglyphics, Demotic (a cursive script that had evolved from an earlier Hieratic script), which the discoverers did not recognize, and ancient Greek, which linguists could understand. It stated that the same text, a priestly decree from 196 B.C. celebrating the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, was to be inscribed in the three languages commonly used in Egypt at that time.

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone

The French forces were accompanied by almost 1000 civilians, including artists and scientists who came to study the art, architecture, and culture of Egypt. The 19-volume Description of Egypt that they would publish in 1809–1828 created an enormous interest in Egyptian antiquities among Europeans. Recognizing the importance of the stone, the French moved it to Cairo, where copies were made and sent to European scholars for study. In accordance with the 1801 Treaty of Alexandria, the French ceded the stone to the British, who placed it in the British Museum, where it has been on display ever since.

The ancient Egyptians had long been a source of fascination and subject of study. According to early theories, hieroglyphics represented concepts rather than being an alphabetic script. The three inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone provided a vital key that ultimately helped to decipher the hieroglyphics.

A French linguist, Silvestre deSacy, established the relationship between the Demotic symbols and sounds by identifying the characters forming the words “Ptolemy” and “Alexander.” A Swedish diplomat, Johann Akerblad, who was familiar with the Coptic language (used as early as the Fourth Century AD by Egyptian Christians, written with the Greek alphabet with seven additional characters from the Demotic script), identified the words for “love,” “temple,” and “Greek.” This established the phonetic nature of Demotic, plus the important fact that it could be translated.

The first modern translation of the Greek text on the stone was made by Stephen Weston in 1802. At this time deSacy and British physician and physicist Thomas Young were trying to decipher the hieroglyphs. Young established that foreign names had to be represented phonetically. Such names were conventionally encircled by frames, or cartouches (from the French for “cartridges”). Young deciphered five cartouches.

Jean-François Champollion was born December 23, 1790 in Figeac, France. He showed an early aptitude for languages and by the age of 16 had learned six ancient Middle Eastern languages, plus Latin and Greek. He was named Professor of History at the Lyceum of Grenoble at the age of 19.

In 1807 Champollion studied with deSacy. Later he compiled a Coptic dictionary and read the works of Thomas Young, but disagreed with the latter’s view that the writing was alphabetic. Champollion believed that both Demotic and hieroglyphics represented symbols, not sounds. Soon, however, he came to understand that not only were proper names rendered phonetically, but each hieroglyph could represent a sound. Thus he began to compile a hieroglyphic alphabet and in 1822, he identified the name of Rameses II in an inscription from an Abu Simbel temple.

Page from Champollion's notebook

Page from Champollion's notes for  Grammaire egyptienne (1836-1841)

Despite some early controversy about not crediting Young for his earlier discoveries, Champollion is generally acknowledged as having ultimately broken the code. He continued his research and in 1824 showed that the glyphs represented sounds as well as concepts, depending on context.  

A number of academic achievements distinguished his career. His first papers on hieroglyphics were published in 1821 and 1822. In 1826 he was appointed Conservator of the Musee Egyptien at the Louvre, and 1831 he was named Professor of Egyptian Antiquities, a post created specifically for him, at the College of France. He published a number of works, including an Egyptian grammar and dictionary, the Primer of the Hieroglyphic System, and a book entitled Egyptian Pantheon.

Champollion studied collections of Egyptian antiquities in European museums and led a 14-month expedition in 1828 to Egypt to make a systematic survey of the monuments and copy their inscriptions. After returning in late 1829 he wrote to Egyptian authorities, deploring the deterioration of the monuments and the sale of artifacts. Partly in response, Mohammed Ali Pasha, who had taken power in 1805, issued the Ordinance of 1835, the first law protecting ancient monuments, prohibiting the export of antiquities, and establishing a museum in Cairo to conserve and display materials from excavations. 

Although Champollion’s life was cut short in 1823 by a stroke at the age of only forty-two, his work opened the door to a vast and rich body of ancient literature that can now be read and studied. His breaking of the hieroglyphic code alone certainly justifies his title of Father of Egyptology.

Go to Top by R. Michael Conner

Recommended reading

Lesley and Roy Adkins, The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian HieroglyphsLesley and Roy Adkins The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Jean-François Champollion's biography interwoven with Napoleonic history and the functions of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

James Rumford, Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Discovered Egyptian HieroglyphsJames Rumford, Seeker of Knowledge: The Man Who Discovered Egyptian Hieroglyphs. Nicely illustrated 34-page book for children of ages 4-8.

Richard Patterson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and DecipermentRichard Patterson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Deciperment. Discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the so-called battle of the deciphers which it inspired.

English translation of Greek section of the Rosetta Stone.



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