On This Day

Rosetta Stone, Jean-Francois Champollion
Jean-Francois Champollion

On This Day: Jean-Francois Champollion Announces Decipherment of Rosetta Stone

September 27, 2011 05:00 AM
by Caleb March
On Sept. 27, 1822, Jean-Francois Champollion presented his paper “Lettre à M. Dacier,” which announced the first successful decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Decoding the Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone, which dates back to 196 B.C., was discovered by accident in 1799 by French Napoleonic soldiers in Egypt. It is inscribed with the same text written in Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphics, and commemorates the anniversary of Ptolemy V’s accession to the Egyptian throne.

English scientist Thomas Young theorized that hieroglyphs were not only symbols, but also had phonetic values. He failed to develop a constructive approach to matching the symbols to sounds, however, and had essentially abandoned the attempt by 1818.

French linguist and historian Jean-Francois Champollion came to similar conclusions concerning the phonetic capabilities of hieroglyphics. In 1822, his first true breakthrough came when he successfully deciphered two Egyptian names, Ramses and Thutmos, written in hieroglyphics in temple cartouches.

Champollion’s discovery meant that Egyptian hieroglyphics functioned as an alphabet, a phonetic language and a system of symbols that could stand for words or concepts. Using his new discovery as a foundation, Champollion next turned his attention to common nouns, and deciphered the phrase “birthday celebrations” from the Rosetta Stone.

Filled with excitement, Champollion went to his brother’s house and ran into his office shouting, “Je tiens l’affaire!,” meaning “I’ve got it!” Champollion then fainted and spent the next five days in bed recovering.

When Champollion presented his “Lettre à M. Dacier,” a letter that outlined his discovery, Thomas Young was in the audience. Champollion’s discovery laid the foundation for deciphering hieroglyphics.

In 1824, Champollion published “Précis du Système Hieroglyphiques des Anciens Egyptiens,” a comprehensive explanation of the hieroglyphic system.

Key Player: Jean-Francois Champollion

Jean-Francois Champollion was born in Dec. 23, 1790, in Figeac, France. He began teaching himself several languages, including Hebrew, Arabic and Chinese, before he was 10 years old.

In 1801, Champollion went to study at the Lyceum in Grenoble, where his interest in Egyptian hieroglyphs first began. In 1807, Champollion began studying Oriental languages at the College de France, learning Coptic, Sanskrit and Persian. All told, Champollion is said to have known 16 languages.

Champollion’s ultimate deciphering of the Rosetta Stone is largely attributed to his obsessive passion for Egyptian culture, and his thorough knowledge of Coptic, a later Egyptian language.

In a letter to his brother, Champollion said, “I dream only in Coptic, in Egyptian ... I am so Coptic, that for fun, I translate into Coptic everything that comes into my head.”  Following the general rules of Coptic, Champollion determined that phonetics were the missing key to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

Champollion became director of the Egyptian Museum at the Louvre in 1826. In 1828, Champollion took his first and only expedition to Egypt, where he spent two years surveying archeological sites. Champollion died of a stroke on March 4, 1832, while working on a dictionary and grammar guide to Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta Stone Today

The Rosetta Stone has been on display at the British Museum in London since 1802. The Stone has only left the museum once, in 1917, when bombing during World War I drew concerns about the artifact’s safety. After two years in an underground railway tunnel, the Rosetta Stone was returned to the museum.

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