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How Champollion Deciphered Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs

Art Journey Stories - 28th February 2022

The Rosetta Stone, discovered when Champollion was 8 years old, took 23 years to crack. For the 200th anniversary of the decipherment, here is how Champollion succeeded.

Jean-François Champollion and the Rosetta Stone 200th anniversary of the decipherment

Jean-François Champollion and the Rosetta Stone, 200th anniversary of the decipherment. © 2013 RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado, British Museum.

Champollion never saw the Rosetta Stone in his life. It was found in Egypt, inside the wall of a fort during reinforcement works by a French military engineer, then seized by British troops. Yet the key to solving the hieroglyphic system was unlocked in Paris, when Champollion became the first person able to read ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs after 1,400 years. How did he do it?

How Did Champollion Crack The Rosetta Stone?

1799 direct imprint of the Rosetta Stone Borg Rashid Fort Jullien Bouchard

A direct imprint of the Rosetta Stone made in 1799, not long after its discovery inside the wall of a fort by Lieutenant Bouchard, a military engineer.

One measure of the difficulty of deciphering the hieroglyphic system is that it took twenty-three years after the Rosetta Stone's discovery to crack it. The main reason is that scholars had long assumed that hieroglyphs were only ideograms, signs expressing ideas.

To illustrate what an ideogram is, think of the ideograms we use today, road signs. We understand them without giving them a thought, as from context it is logical to us. On the highway, ideograms tell us to slow down or indicate the next exit. There, we see an ideogram depicting a man and woman silhouette. It might as well mean hotel room; yet we know what it means, even as there is no reference whatsoever to what people do in bathrooms.

That is because an ideogram needs a degree of interpretation, why for centuries all sorts of fanciful explanations to hieroglyphs were given. Now imagine attempting to decipher a writing system invented over 5,000 years ago using hundreds of signs. It's been 1,400 years since anyone knew how to read it.

And reading an inscription is one thing, understanding it another. It is easy to read ancient Etruscan texts, yet difficult to comprehend them, as there still is a lot we do not know about the language.

Of the three inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone, one, in Greek, could easily be read. The other two, written in demotic and hieroglyphic scripts, were both depicting one language, ancient Egyptian.

While great minds tried to crack its ancient ideograms, in provincial France a child learned ancient languages.

A Teenager Who Knew A Dozen Ancient Languages

Jean-François Champollion portrait

A gifted linguist, Jean-François Champollion.

Rummaging through his father's books, young Champollion taught himself to read aged 5. In the year of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, 9-year-old Jean-François was learning Greek and Latin. At 12 he learned Hebrew, quickly able to comment in Hebrew on parts of the Old Testament. Then, on top of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, young Champollion studied Aramaic, Arabic, Avestan, Chaldean, Chinese, Coptic, Ethiopian, Pahlevi, Persian, ancient Persian, Sanskrit, and Zend...

Here are the interests of an 18-year-old:

"Bring me the Chinese grammar, it will distract me a bit, I really need that. I know my Persian grammar inside out. The study of Zen and Pcheleri provides me with happy moments.

I have the satisfaction of being able to read things that no one knows, not even their name. Moreover, I am the only one who understands, aside from my master Mr. de Sacy.

I'm busy with the Etruscans at the moment, language, medals, graven stones, monuments, sarcophagi, all of it is engraved in my head. Why? Because the Etruscans come from Egypt. Here's a conclusion that would cause these Greek and Latin powdered scholars to go through the roof."

While young Champollion was wrong about the Etruscans, his curiosity and enthusiasm shine. He thought out of the box, unafraid to dismiss other scholars' work as "black pudding juice". This unconventional way of learning and being entertained by ancient languages would make all the difference 15 years later.

Teenage Champollion studied over a dozen languages. He became a member of the regional Academy and published a book about ancient Egypt at 16. Then professor at 18, receiving his doctorate the following year.

First Contacts With Ancient Egypt

Edfu temple from La Description de l'Egypte Joseph Fourier Grenoble

Edfu temple, illustration from the 'Description de l'Egypte', a monumental study of Egypt. Joseph Fourier was one of the leading members of the scholars' expedition.

Champollion's eldest brother, Jacques-Joseph, had hoped to be one of the scientists sent to Egypt. When we talk of Champollion's genius, it is the combined brainpower of two brothers, the eldest mentoring the youngest. Young Champollion needed nurturing, as a professor remarked that "some days he wants to learn everything, others he does nothing".

Although the brothers lived in provincial France, Grenoble, one of the best possible sources about the recent discoveries in Egypt came to them. Joseph Fourier, named prefect in Grenoble, was a senior member of Napoléon's scientific expedition, and one of the creators of the Description de l'Egypte. Fourier invited eleven-year-old Champollion to discuss ancient Egypt.

The child, listening to a man giving him information not yet published, was in too much awe to say a word. Fourier did show the boy hieroglyphic inscriptions, and Champollion later stated that was the moment when he decided to decipher them. At 16, he declared that:

"I want to make a profound and continuous study of this ancient nation. The enthusiasm brought me by the study of their monuments, their power and knowledge filling me with admiration, all of this will grow further as I acquire new notions. Of all the people that I prefer, I admit that none is as close to my heart as the Egyptians."

Champollion read in Greek and Latin everything ancient authors wrote about Egypt.

The Key: Champollion Dreamt In Coptic, The Language Based On Ancient Egyptian

Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac and Jean-Francois Champollion

Jean-François Champollion; his elder brother and mentor Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac. © Département de l'Isère - Musée Champollion.

For over three millennia, hieroglyphs were the written form of a language, ancient Egyptian. It evolved widely during that time until it became the language of Christian Egyptians. While it eventually ceased being a living language, it remained in use for church ceremonies, exactly like Latin for the Catholic church. Champollion daydreamed in Coptic and even wrote grammars for different Coptic dialects.

"I give myself up entirely to Coptic. I wish to know Egyptian like my French, because on that language will be based my great work on the Egypytian papyri... I find in it the greatest joy, as it is quite something to speak the language of my dear Amenophis, Sethosis, Ramesses, Thutmosis.

I dream in Coptic. I do nothing but that, I dream only in Coptic, in Egyptian... I am so Coptic, that for fun, I translate into Coptic everything that comes into my head. I speak Coptic all alone to myself, since no one else can understand me. This is the real way for me to put my pure Egyptian into my head."

Listening To The Sounds Of Ancient Egypt In Paris

Saint Roch church Coptic cermonies Champollion decipherment

The Parisian church, Saint-Roch, where an Egyptian priest, Icaha Scheptichi, helped Champollion learn Coptic. Painting c. 1840 by Mingasson de Martinazeau.

In Paris, near the Louvre, a church organized Coptic ceremonies, how Champollion heard the sounds of ancient Egypt. "I am going to visit a Coptic priest at Saint-Roch, rue Saint-Honoré, who celebrates mass there, and who will intruct me in Coptic names, and the pronounciation of Coptic letters".

Enthusiastic, he declared: "I am devoting myself entirely to the Coptic language, for I want to know the Egyptian language as well as my French, because my great work on Egyptian papyri will be based on this language."

Scholarly Jousting Between Two Geniuses, Young and Champollion

British caricature of Bonaparte's Egypt scholars expedition

British caricature of French scholars studying Egypt eaten by crocodiles. James Gillray, 'Egyptian Sketches' of 1799. V&A museum, London.

French and British antagonism accidentally led to the fortunate discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The French military campaign aimed to cut off the British route to India. Napoléon also brought a team of 160 scientists to study temples and pyramids all over the country. Yet they did not find the Rosetta Stone, as it was in the most inconspicuous of places, a derelict fortification.

A military engineer — and former member of the Arts and Sciences Commission — was tasked with reinforcing the fortress' walls. Instead of putting back the stone into another wall, he immediately realized its importance. The British Army later seized the Rosetta Stone from the French, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that the race to decipher it was at times like a proxy war between two nations. A letter sent to Young illustrates the intensity of the competition :

"If I have one counsel to give you, it is not to communicate too much of your discoveries to Champollion. It could happen that he would then claim priority. ... I'm afraid that [Champollion's claims] are nothing more than charlatanism."

That warning didn't come from a British scholar, but a French one, Champollion's former professor. Rivalries and jealousies went beyond borders, not helped by Champollion's ease at dismissing other scholars' opinions.

Champollion Closing In On The Solution

The Rosetta Stone 486 Greek words 1419 hieroglyphic signs

For twenty years, the simple comparison of the total amount of Greek words and hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone had never been done.

For over twenty years great minds, de Sacy, Young, Åkerblad, and others tried to put the puzzle of the Rosetta Stone together. Champollion's angle was language and culture, not the mathematics traditionally used to crack codes. Yet a simple calculation, doing the tally of Greek words and hieroglyphs had never been done. The man who read Chinese dictionaries for fun spent his birthday doing additions:

The logical conclusion was that one hieroglyph couldn't represent one idea, nor represent one word or sound. For centuries, scholars believed that each hieroglyph only had one meaning, an idea, a concept. The Rosetta Stone, with most of its hieroglyphic text missing, proved it was mathematically impossible.

Within a few months, Champollion was making giant steps towards the solution. In particular, realizing that hieroglyphs are not strictly ideograms nor solely phonetic signs, they are both... Hieroglyphs depict ideas but they can also be sounds, exactly like our own letters.

Three Bilingual Texts Were Used To Crack Hieroglyphs

The Bankes bilingual obelisk and the Casati papyrus

The 'Bankes obelisk' -its base with Greek inscriptions-, the Casati papyrus, Bibliothèque Nationale.

The Rosetta Stone is lauded as a groundbreaking artifact, the single document allowing the decipherment of hieroglyphs. But it wasn't the only Greek-Egyptian bilingual document used. Two new documents helped Champollion:

While the ancient Egyptians carved hieroglyphs on their monuments from floor to ceiling, the key to unlocking the memory of an entire civilization rested on three documents. Found by chance, a broken stele granting tax privileges to priests, the Rosetta Stone. An obelisk, also about tax exemption for priests. Some of its Greek text was painted and quickly lost to erosion. A papyrus sale contract found inside a clay pot.

Using his ability to read the names Cleopatra and Ptolemy, Champollion started to decipher the names of the Greek and Roman Pharaohs. Yet a bigger hurdle remained, reading proper Egyptian names, in the Egyptian language. This was the moment when fifteen years of daydreaming in Coptic were about to pay off.

Champollion needed new material, copies of Egyptian Pharaohs' inscriptions, not Greek ones. He couldn't study carvings on temple walls, as he had never been to Egypt. It was difficult to rely on drawings, for they were sketched by people understanding nothing about hieroglyphs, or weren't detailed enough.

A Sketch Of Abu Simbel Sparked The Eureka Moment

Nicolas Huyot 1819 sketches Abu Simbel Champollion decipherment

1819 watercolor of Abu Simbel by Nicolas Huyot. Top right, combinations of Ramses' name, bottom right, Thutmoses' cartouche from Amada's temple. Copies of these sketches were seen by Champollion in September 1822, prompting the 'Eureka moment'.

An architect friend of Champollion, Nicolas Huyot, just returned from his travel to Egypt. Huyot shared his drawings, with hieroglyphs detailed down to their individual color. They would turn out to be the fourth major document in the quest to decipher hieroglyphs.

Many of Abu Simbel's inscriptions had cartouches (ovals enclosing King's names) ending with S. The S sign Champollion knew from Ptolmes — Ptolemy — on the Rosetta Stone. So he tried to read them, using his Coptic knowledge. The circle, painted red, was most likely the sun. In Coptic, 're'.

Next, the hieroglyph that looked like an M, which he guessed was related to the birthday mentioned in the Rosetta Stone. In Coptic to give birth is 'mise'. So it might be an M.

Last, the two S signs. So Champollion read 𓇳𓄟𓋴𓋴 Ra-M-S-S, Ramesses, Ramses. A famous name known from ancient authors.

Then he turned to similar-looking cartouches except for the ibis bird, then the same 'M' and 'S'. The ibis known as the animal representing the god Thot. So it read 𓅝𓄟𓋴 Thot-M-S, Thutmosis. Another native Egyptian name known from ancient texts, proving the method was correct.

At that precise moment, in a Parisian attic on the 14th of September 1822, someone read genuine Egyptian hieroglyphs for the first time in 1,400 years. Champollion ran to his brother's office at the nearby Institut, yelled "I've got it", and fell into dead faint lasting five days.

Champollion Revealed His Discovery In 'Letter to Mr. Dacier'

Lettre à Mr. Dacier  and letter from Champollion to Thomas Young revealing the decipherment of hieroglyphs

Left, 'Lettre à Mr. Dacier', 27 September 1822, phonetic hieroglyphs list. Right, part of Champollion's 23rd of November 1822 letter to Young explaining how to read Ramses and Thutmosis' names.

The two Champollion brothers feverishly put together a document explaining the discovery. In front of numerous scholars, including Sacy and Young, Champollion explained his method, using Greek and Roman names.

Thomas Young's reaction was :

"Mr. Champollion, who has been living for these ten years on the Inscription of Rosetta, and who has lately been making some steps in Egyptian literature, which really appear to be gigantic. If he did borrow an English key, the lock was so dreadfully rusty... I should feel nothing but exultation at Mr. Champollion's success: my life seems indeed to be lengthened by the accession of a junior coadjutor in my researches, and of a person too, who is so much more versed in the different dialects of the Egyptian language than myself."

And that "Mr. Champollion has fully confirmed, and considerably extended the system of 'phonetic' hieroglyphics, which I had conjecturally proposed."

Young came to visit Champollion, and the two met several times. Although Champollion had not revealed his method for 'pure hieroglyphic writing' to the Academy, he did divulge it one month later in a letter to Young :

"I cannot thank you enough for the obliging things said about me in your letters. ... This examination gives us the transcription pronounced Rameses, Ramesse(s) or Ramses... I invite you to observe that this analysis of Ramesses' name singularly corroborates what you have proposed about Thutmosis name, and assures its reading, as this name is formed by the sign for the god Thoth, giving Theth-mos-is or Thutmos-is."

Acknowledging Both Young's And Champollion's Contribution

Jean-Francois Champollion and Thomas Young

Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion. © Wellcome Collection., Département de l'Isère / Musée Champollion.

Scientific endeavors are not movies nor battlefields, there needn't be a good guy winning and a bad guy losing. They result from the combined efforts of numerous scholars. In the introduction to his Précis Champollion stated:

"I hasten to declare the highest esteem that I profess for the person and the work of Dr. Young, as well as recognizing that he was the first to publish some exact notions about the ancient writings of Egypt. ... that Dr. Young was first to attempt, but without complete success, to give a phonetic value to the hieroglyphs making up the names Ptolemy and Berenice."

And in a letter to Young commenting on Young's Hieroglyphics, Champollion wrote:

"I recognized by a rapid examination your comparison of the Rosetta Stone's three texts, that the similar work I submitted to the Academy was related to yours on a great number of points ... but that they essentially differed on many others..."

In both texts, Champollion expressed his respect for Young and his work while demonstrating where he was wrong. John Ray, Professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University, explained that "Young was a genius, but of a markedly scientific kind. Champollion also was a genius, but an egyptologist as well."

Richard Parkinson, former British Museum curator and Professor of Egyptology, wrote that :

"Even if one allows that Champollion was more familiar with Young's initial work that he subsequently claimed, he is the sole decipherer of the hieroglyphic script. Young discovered parts of an alphabet - a key - Champollion unlocked an entire written language."

For the 150th anniversary of the decipherment, the Rosetta Stone was exceptionally exhibited in the Louvre.

Champollion's Calling Card To Posterity

Bonfils photos of Luxor temple and Karnak hypostyle hall Champollion

Thebes, Luxor and Karnak temples, as Champollion saw them during his visit to Egypt.

Curator of the newly created Egyptian department of the Louvre museum, Champollion received Young, just named an associate of the French Academy of Sciences.

Young recalled that Champollion "has shown me far more attention than I ever showed or could show, to any living being: he devoted seven whole hours at once to looking over with me his papers and the magnificent collection which is committed to his care ... he is to let me have the use ... of all his collections and his notes."

No doubt, the first private tour of the Louvre's Egyptian department would forever be the best.

Champollion finally visited Egypt and saw in Thebes "the greatest and most marvelous thing that the hand of man has created. I ran like a madman between colossi, obelisks, and colonnades who could only have been conceived by the most grandiose imagination."

His frail health caused his untimely death, aged 41. Champollion worried about finishing his Egyptian Grammar, hoping it would be his "calling card to posterity". His dear Amenhotep and Ramses had similar worries, their solution was carving their names deep into hard stone. Writing with the "words of the gods" formulas granting them eternal life. Why on Karnak's walls the word 𓋹 ankh, life, is inscribed over 8,000 times.

If these words disappeared, their life-giving powers were rendered useless. No one read them for 1,400 years, denying eternal life to all ancient Egyptians, until Champollion solved the riddle. Reviving an entire civilization, quite a calling card to posterity.

Champollion in Egypt 1828 sketch by Giuseppe Angelelli, illustration god writing Thot

Thot holding a scribe's palette. The palette hieroglyph 𓏞, bottom right, means 'to write', as well as 'scribe'. Scribe Champollion living the dream in Egypt.

Discover more about Champollion and ancient hieroglyphs with a private tour of the Louvre Department of Egyptian Antiquities.

𓂀 𓂀

Or follow in Champollion's footsteps along the Nile, by going to Egypt with an expert-led private tour of Egypt ancient monuments and civilization.

The department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre.

Contrary to the common misconception, the Louvre's Egyptian collection is not related to Napoléon Bonaparte's expedition of 1798-1801. The department was created in 1826 by King Charles X, who named Champollion curator. It opened to the public the following year with artworks purchased from two major private collections, that of Henry Salt, the British consul in Egypt; and Bernardino Drovetti, the French consul in Egypt.

Afterward, they were acquired under the 'partage' system of sharing of archaeological excavations until 1981. They were also acquired from the Egyptian government, or received as gifts from Egypt, like the colossal bust of Akhenaten in 1972, in tribute to the help given towards saving the temples of Nubia from flooding.

Auguste Mariette, assistant curator and then curator of the Louvre stayed in Egypt, becoming in 1858 the first director of Egypt's Antiquities Service, ancestor of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. Mariette created in 1863 the Bulaq museum, the first Egyptian museum dedicated to ancient Egypt, the predecessor of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, where Mariette Pasha is buried.

The 1972 exhibition of the Rosetta Stone in the Louvre.

"In October 1972, the Museum's Trustees agreed, after an initial refusal, to let the Stone travel to Paris for the 150th anniversary of the Lettre à Mr. Dacier. It was displayed for a month in the Henri IV gallery at Champollion's own museum, the Louvre. At this time national rivalries about decipherment were still intense enough for complaints about the permanent display to be occasionally received from French visitors to the British Museum saying that Champollion's portrait was smaller than Young's on the accompanying information panels; complaints from English visitors, however, were made that Young's was smaller. Both were actually the same size".
In Richard Parkinson, The Rosetta Stone, British Museum Press, 2005; p 47.

T.G.H. James, then British Museum keeper of Egyptian antiquities, recalled "In October 1972, I took the Rosetta Stone to Paris. It was the only time it had left the British Museum since it arrived there in 1802. ... The occasion was the 150th anniversary of Jean-François Champollion's letter to Monsieur Dacier of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, in which he announced his crucial findings about the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics".

Another 'Rosetta Stone' in the Louvre museum.

In 1801, two years after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, another decree with Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic inscriptions was found by a French engineer. It was cut in half, used a doorstep, the inscriptions erased to the point of being barely legible. A British traveller later saw it, and described stone fragments, among them "the most remarkable relique of the whole collection, since unaccountably neglected... a very large slab, covered with an inscription in hieroglyphic characters, similar in every respect to the famous trilingual stone presently deposited in the British Museum.... Some notice should be taken of it, that measures may be adopted to prevent its being finally lost."

It remained there until Champollion saw it in 1828, describing it as "a treasure for science." The stele, a copy of the Decree of Canopus, was eventually given in 1837 by Muhammad Ali of Egypt to King Charles X, and is today in the Louvre.

The fortunate discovery of the Rosetta Stone in a dilapidated fortress, Borg Rashid.

Dominique-Vivant Denon, who later became the first director of the Louvre Museum, was an artist, member of the Arts and Sciences Commission. He did visit the town of Rashid, near Alexandria, renamed Rosette in French, or Rosetta in English.

He described that "Rosetta has no monument of note". Denon did visit the Borg Rashid fortress, renamed Fort Julien by the French. "On examining the fortress of Rashid, I observed that it had been built with parts of old buildings, that a portion of the stone used for the canons' embrasures was of beautiful sandstone from upper Egypt, still covered with hieroglyphs".

Denon searched the fortress, but only found old weapons and large bats. In July 1799, while workers were reinforcing a wall, Lieutenant Pierre-François-Xavier Bouchard noticed that one broken section wasn't just another stone covered with hieroglyphs, but that it also had a Greek inscription. One month later the Courrier de l'Egypte annonced the discovery; 'Rosette, 2 Fructidor, year VII'.

"During the fortification work that Citizen d'Hautpoul, head of the engineering battalion, has been carrying out at the former Fort Rashid, now known as Fort Julien, situated on the left bank of the Nile, three thousand toises from the mouth of the Rosetta branch of the river, a stone of fine black granite, with a very delicate grain and very hard to the hammer, has been found...

This stone is of great interest for the study of hieroglyphic characters; perhaps it will even finally provide the key to deciphering them"
. An understatement if there ever was one...


Hermine Hartleben, Jean-François Champollion, Sa vie et son œuvre.
Robert Solé, Dominique Valbelle, The Rosetta Stone: The Story of the Decoding of Hieroglyphics.
Richard Parkinson, Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. University of California Press.
Lesley Adkins, Roy Adkins; The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
Andrew Robinson, Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion
Andrew Robinson, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Thomas Young.
Miscellaneous Works of the Late Thomas Young, Volume 3, J. Murray, 1855.
Léon de la Brière, Champollion inconnu, lettres inédites.
Jean Leclant, Champollion, la pierre de Rosette et le déchiffrement des hiéroglyphes. Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 116e année, N. 3, 1972.
Bulletin de la société française d'égyptologie - N° 32 Décembre 1961 Jean Leclant; Le voyage de Jean-Nicolas Huyot en égypte (1818-1819) et les manuscrits de Nestor Lhote. - N° 119 Octobre 1990 John Ray; Thomas Young et le monde de Champollion.
Dominique Farout From the Renaissance to the Bourbon Restoration: milestones in the decipherment of (Egyptian) hieroglyphs - Les Cahiers de l'école du Louvre 2016 Cahiers 9
— Thomas Young was elected in 1818 correspondent of the Académie des Sciences, part of the Institut, the Academy of Sciences. He became foreign associate in 1827. The eulogy did in tribute to his work, three years after his death, is 49 pages long.

Photos: Musée du Louvre, Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale, Département de l'Isère - Musée Champollion; Paris Musées; British Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Wellcome Collection. Text © Art Journey Paris.

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