When Jean Francois Champollion Set Out To Master Ancient Hieroglyphs

The day before Christmas Eve of 1790, a man named Jean Francois Champollion entered the world through the town of Figeac in France. Jean Francois was always a curious and intelligent child, teaching himself a slew of languages from Hebrew and Arabic to even Chinese before the age of 10. His skills and passion in the art of languages ignited his love for Egypt, remained present in his life until his dying day, and would rule his adulthood every step of the way.

The Child Prodigy

Towards the end of March 1801, Champollion left the city of Figeac for Grenoble to live with his brother in a small apartment in town. As the youngest of seven children, Jean Francois was brought up and homeschooled by his older brother Jacques-Joseph until the age of 11. In 1802, Jacques-Joseph decided that his younger sibling was in need of more educational structure, and sent him to the well respected school of Abbé Dussert. While the older Champollion brother loved and financially supported Jean Francois, it was almost an impossible task to be a working man while simultaneously educating a child. Champollion stayed at Abbé Dussert for two years.

While he was there, his skill for languages became even more obvious. He started out learning Latin and Greek to create a knowledge base for other tongues and quickly moved onto other similar languages such as Syriac, and Chaldean. From there, he moved schools to continue his education at a secondary school back in Grenoble. While he deeply disliked how the education system had been set up there since there was very little room for the study of languages, it was the place that first introduced him to the Copic language, which would prove to be the gate into his knowledge of Egyptian tongues and therefore the basis of his knowledge of hieroglyphs.

The Successful Scholar

By the time he was 16, Champollion had already published his first academic paper on the Coptic language, the tongue spoken at the time in Egypt. While he was incorrect in stating that this was the ancient tongue of the Egyptians, it did jump-start his very successful life as a linguist and all things Egypt. Before he graduated and left for university in Paris, which would allow him more access to the study of languages, he showcased his Essay on the Geographical Description of Egypt before the Conquest of Cambyses to the Grenoble Board of Education who saw his work in such positive eyes that he was accepted into the academy shortly after. A few years later, and at the age of 19 he became professor of history at the University of Grenoble officializing his status as the successful scholar he’d become.

The Passionate Egyptologist

It was while he was a student at Abbé Dussert that he took up an interest in Ancient Egypt, likely encouraged by Dussert himself (the cleric man who ran the school) and his own brother. Both were passionate orientalists. In fact, as a young man, Jacques-Joseph had wanted to join Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition and often regretted not being able to go. France had been living through a time of obsession with all things Egypt thanks to Napoleon’s 3-year expedition there, and his discoveries. One of which was the Rosetta Stone.

The Rosetta Stone played a key part in Champollion’s journey. It was a stone slab on which an ordinance from 196 BC had been inscribed by a group of priests in Memphis, Egypt. The decree had been marked in three different scripts: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on top, demotic Egyptian in the middle, and ancient Greek at the bottom. Many who studied the stone held the thought that deciphering it would be impossible since it was believed that the text inscribed there was of a purely religious nature. They believed it would be impossible to understand given it touched on philosophical and abstract thoughts.

When he was 11 he met Joseph Fourier, the prefect of Grenoble. Fourier had been part of the Egyptian expedition which had discovered the Rosetta Stone. As the proficient intellectual he was, he had been entrusted by Napoleon with collecting, writing, and publishing the results of the expedition. Some historians believed that Fourier invited Jean Francois Champollion to his house to show off his collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts and documents. Champollion was starstruck, and when he found out that the hieroglyphs had yet to be deciphered, he decided he would be the first one to successfully read them. Fourier ended up becoming one of Jean Francois’s biggest allies and supporters, and without a doubt, played a crucial role in the birth of his love for the Egypt of old.

The Family Man

In his personal life, Jean Francois was quite average for the time. His first love named Pauline Berriat was actually the wife of his brother. She never felt the same way and so Champollion moved on with a woman named Louise Deschamps. She was married when they met and was entangled with her for a few years.

After that relationship ended, he met Rosine Blanc with who he had a daughter named Zoraïde. He loved her deeply and was an excellent father. Although the same couldn’t be said of his skills as a husband. Given his constant travels because of his pursuits, he was rarely home and would be gone several weeks or months at a time.

The Hieroglyphs Decipherer

In 1822, Champollion published his first breakthrough in the decipherment of the Rosetta hieroglyphs, showing that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs. Up until that point, many had argued about the nature of hieroglyphic writing, and what it was truly used for. Another important aspect was to which degree the drawings represented speech sounds (phonetic, similar to the modern languages we use today) or simply reflected image-based concepts directly (ideographic, essentially creating drawings of things or concepts).

Jean Francois Champollion
Great speos: Continuation and end of the second [fourth] painting from Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie (1835-1845) by Jean François Champollion (1790-1832). Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Added to this, was that many scholars believed hieroglyphic script was only used for religious and sacred reasons, meaning it was even more unlikely they’d be able to decipher such philosophical-based ideas. If they thought they reflected tangible and real concepts such as a record of history, then the conversation would have been a different one.

The biggest aspect of Champollion’s discovery was that he was able to prove this idea was incorrect and helped make it possible to start the process of understanding the ancient Egyptians. His findings were published in a paper called Letter on the Alphabet of the Hieroglyphs, which was a letter he had sent to Bon JosephDacier. Dacier was the secretary of the Paris Academy of Languages, and also one of Champollion’s biggest supporters. He suggested that hieroglyphs were actually already phonetic which meant that Egypt had created its own version of writing separately from other groups around them.

That said, the paper also still contained some confusion regarding the actual role ideographic and phonetic signs played during that time, as well as still arguing that religious script and demotic (name of ancient Egyptian script) were mainly ideographic (meaning the hieroglyphs showed drawings to represent concepts and not sounds to build words).

His discovery was the first step in building the knowledge of hieroglyphs we have today. It’s thought that had Champollion been given more time between his breakthrough and death to fully incorporate the discovery into his thinking, he would have made even more advancements. But, the paper presented many new phonetic readings of names of rulers, demonstrating clearly that he had made a major advance in deciphering the phonetic script.

The Egyptian Expeditioner

His one and only expedition to Egypt took place in 1828. His very close friend, an Italian named Ippolito Rosellini, accompanied him on the trip. Rosellini and Champollion had met during one of Jean Francois’s first visits to Florence. They reconnected when Ippolito traveled to Paris in order to study under Champollion. His objective was to learn more about how his hieroglyphs decipherment system worked. With the idea of confirming if their learnings were correct, they set out to check directly from the source.

From their journey came the confirmation that his research had indeed been accurate. Evidenced by the letter he sent Dacier stating that he was sure now that there were no changes needed to his Letter on the Alphabet of the Hieroglyphs, and that his deductions had contained no mistakes.

The Father of Egyptology

His death in March of 1832 came way too young for the brilliant mind that was Champollion. He left behind his 41 years of linguistic passion, as well as his legacy as the father of Egyptology. The heart attack that took his life is thought to have been caused due to his chronic poor health. Constantly sick from when he was born; living in a damp and filthy city like Paris, his expedition to Egypt and the physical consequences of it after weakened his heart to the point of no return.

His death also interrupted the biggest project he had taken on. Essentially a reflection of his lifelong work, he had been writing a manual explaining Egyptian grammar, as well as an Egyptian dictionary, before he passed. They were both edited and published by his brother Jacques-Joseph posthumously. In addition to those works, his published pieces included the “Primer of the Hieroglyphic System of the Ancient Egyptians” discussing how to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the “Egyptian Pantheon, or Collection of the Mythological Figures of Ancient Egypt” which touched on Egyptian mythology.