Digging up the past

Chapter 1 Land of the pyramids

Champollion Deciphers Hieroglyphs

But the French had made a copy of the inscriptions on the Risetta Stone, and so both French and British scholars were able to work on the translation. An Englishman by the name of Thomas Young made some progress, but it was a young Fremch genius by the name of Jean-Francois Champollion who fianally deciphered the hieroglyphics.

Champollion was born on December 23, 179. He had a phenomenal memory and a flair for foreign languages. At the age of eleven, he was fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. A school inspector named Fourier, who had accompanied Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, was impressed by the lad's extraordinary intelligence and invited him to his home, where he showed him his Egyptian collection. The boy was enchanted by his first sight of a papyrus manuscript with its hieroglyphic writing and asked, "Can anyone read this?" Fourier shook his head. "Then I am going to do it!" the boy confidently announced.

At the age of twelve, the boy Champollion wrote his first book and at thirteen, began to study Arabic, Syrian, Chaldean and Coptic. He became so proficient with this last language that he wrote many of his journals in Coptic. Strange to say, he never did see the original Rosetta Stone, but at the age of eighteen, was given a copy of the inscription, which he began to study.

For the next fourteen years, he grappled with its translation. His task was made more difficult because the top portion of the stone containing the hieroglyphs had been broken off and was missing.

In the year 1822, at the age of 32, Champollion was at last able to announce that he could read the mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphs. Six years later, just four years before his untimely death, he visited Egypt for the first time.

But the key to the hieroglyphs had been found. The historical information written on the monuments and in the papyri could now be studied and scholars were able to go to work piecing together, at last, the history of ancient Egypt.


Book by Champollion, Monuments of Egypt and Nubia

Jean Francois Champollion

Phonetic hieroglyphic alphabet by Champollion in 1822