Biographies: Jean François Champollion (France, 1790-1832)

Figure 1.--

Jean François as a school boy was fascinated by the Emperor Napoleon's adventures. Although he leaned to read rather late he was very gifted with languages. He also was very diligent. Upon seeing a copy of the Rosetta Stone as a school boy and learning that no one yet understood it, determined that he would be the one to unlock the mystery. He became a linquistics scholar and did indeed unlock the mystery. Which mean that the Hieroglyphics whid eludedscholars for two millennia could now be read. He is today seen as the father of modern Egyptology.


Jean François' father failed at operating book store in Paris.


Jean François was born in 1790.

Childhood Clothing

Napoleon's Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801)

Napolon made a serious error in 1798. He decided that if he seized Egypt, at the time a British protectorate, he could disrupt the supply line of the British Empire. He proceeded to invade Egypt. At the time Egypt under a British protectorate was ruled by the Mamelukes. They were the descedents of slaves who became soldiers and then warlords in Egypt. After initial victories the Egyptian campign proved a disaster. A romantic aura surronded the campaign and France and Britain were swept with an interest in archeology and Egyptology. Napoleon enlisted 167 scholars to acoompany the military. While Napoleon was engaging the Mamelukes with considerable success, Lord Nelson was searing for the French fleet and the opportunity to engage it. Nelson defeated the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile fought in Aboukir Bay (1799). [Meyerson] This isolated the French army. Napoleon soon found himself engaged not only with the Mamelukes, but the British and Ottomons as well. In the end, Napoleon abandoned his army and eluded the British fleet to get back to France. When Napoleon arrived back in France, he found the governent about to collapse. Napoleon seized control of the government. Some historians look on this as the end of the French Revolution. Meanwhile in Egypt the French forces were forced to surrender (1801). As part of the surrender they were forced to hand over the Egyptian trasures and antiquities many of which can now be found in London museums today. One of those was the Rosetta Stone which proved to be the key to deciphering ancient Egyption hieroglyphics. Before handing the Rosetta Stonre over to the British the French made impressions.


Jean François as a school boy was fascinated by the Emperor Napoleon's adventures. He was especially intreagued by the Emperor's expedition to Egypt. Although Jean François leaned to read rather late he was very gifted with languages. He also was very diligent. His oldest brother saw to his education educated him until he was 10 years old. His brother then enrolled him at the Lyceum in Grenoble. His brother was an archaeologist which help to inspire an interest languages in general and in Egypt. This was further inspired by Napoleon's exploits in Egypt. By a consequence of history, Jean-Baptiste Fourier, a noted mathamtician, visited Champollion's school. Napoleon had appointed Fourier to oversee the publishing of the data amassed from the French expedition. The result was the 24 volume Description of Egypt. Fourier was so impressed with the boy's enthusiasm that he invited him his office. Upon seeing a cofin with hieroglyphic inscriptions. Upon learning that no one yet understood it, he exclaimed, "Than I shall be the one!" While only a Lyceum (secondary) school student, he wrote a perceptive paper which theorized that the modern Coptic language evolved from that used by the ancient Egyptians and thus there would be many similarities. He persued his education at the College de France, specializing in Oriental languages. He devekloped varying degrees of proficiency in several Orienta languages, including: Arabic, Chaldean, Chinese, Coptic, Ethiopic, Hebrew, Pahlevi, Persian, Sanskrit, and Syriac. He also was familar with Greek and Latin. At only age 19 he was was awarded his Doctor of Letters. Earning such an advanced degree at this age was of course an impressive achievement.


Champollion became a linquistics scholar and did indeed unlock the mystery. Champollion after school lectured at the Royal College of Grenoble. He taught history and politics. He taught there until 1816. He obtained a chair in history and geography at the Royal College of Grenoble where he taught until 1821. While teaching, he used his spare time to persue studies on ancient Egypt. It was Champollion who using the Rosetta Stone finally succeeded in deciphering hieroglyphics (1822).


Hieroglyphics were the pictographic writing of the ancient Egyptians. It was a complicated system. Any given glyph could be used in one of three different ways. They could be used as an 1) ideogram, 2) phonograph, or a 3) determinative, although very few were used for all three. Phonograms formed the basis of a developing alphabet. Even in ancient Egypts, few could read Hieroglyphics. This knowledge was reserved primarily to the priests and nobility. A developing cursive form the hieatic was more commonly used in the Middle Kingdom. This was supplemented by the demotic which although based on hieroglyphics was so conventionalized that it was not apparent. A primitive form of hierogluphics was already in use in the 1st dynasty. They were used less in the Middle Kingdom and by the New Kingdom they were no longer well understood. The last known glyph was incribed 394 AD. For centuries the meaning of hieroglyphics was lost. European scholars attempted to dechipher hieroglyphs, but made no progress. Scholars reasoned that the characters had some phonetic value, but without knowing how ancient Egyptian sounded, this was not helpful. Also the fact that the glyphs in a cartouche could be read left to right, right to left, and topn to bottom confused scholars.

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is an engraved stone slab carved in 196 BC. It was fond by Napoleon's Egyptian expedition (1799). It was unearthed at el-Rashid (Rosetta), a port where a branch of the Nile flows into the Mediterranean. It was immediately recognized as of considerable importance. The stone was engraved in two languages (Egyptian and Greek). The Egyptian was written in two scripts (hieroglyphic and demotic). These different scripts represent the different langauges in use at the time. Egypt was ruled by the Ptolemies who following Alexander's conquests were a Greek dynasty. The Demotic was the script used by common people. Hieroglyphics was used by the priests and rulers. The text was written to honor the reigning Pharaoh and lists his various accomplishments. Scholars sould read the Greek so they knew what the stone said. They assumed it said the same in all three scripts, but still could not dechiper the Hieroglyhic glyphs.

Dechiphering (1822)

Champollion was a shrewd man with an exceptional memory. Some consider him to be the the greates specialist on ancient Egypt ever. He had staggering powers of concentration. He was able to work several days without sleep . It was Champollion's language skills that progved to be the key of dechioering hieroglyphics. Campollion could read Greek and Coptic. Studying the Rosetta stone, Champollion figure out what the seven demotic signs in coptic were. Then by studying how these signs were used in coptic he was able to deduce what they meant. The next step was to relate the demotic signs to the hieroglyphics. Here the observation by Thomas Young that foreign names would have to be written phonetically was particularly helpful. He looked for a cartoche that could contain glyphs spelling Ptolemaios phontically. Here he relied on his knowledge of Coptic, which he had earlier worked out was related to ancient Egyptian. The first glyph Champollion dechiopered was the Pharoah's family name. [Meyerson] After he had figured out what some hieroglyphs meant, he could began making informed guesses as to what the other hieroglyphs meant. Champollion is today seen as the father of modern Egyptology. His deciphering of the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone laid the foundations for Egyptian archaeology.


The dechipering of the Rosetta stone was an amazing accomplishment for an individual seen as an amateur Egyptologist. He was able to identify that the Pharoh associated with Abu Simbel was Ramses II. [Meyerson] This was an especially interesting finding because of course Ramses is mentioned in the Bible. Champollion wrote to the Academy with his findings (1822). His work was received with considerable skepticism, but after a few years scholars saw that he was indeed correct. Champollion received a prestighious appontment as the conservator of the Louvre’s Egyptian Collection (1826). As part of his work, Champollion traveled to Egypt (1828). One of his students, Ippolito Rosellini, accompanied him. Rosellini, an Italian, was to become a noted Egyptologist. The two visited many sites and took detailed notes on what they saw, especially engravings and wallm paintings. Their work was extrodinarily precise. Some of the original material they recorded is now lost. In recognition of his accomplishments, the First Chair of Egyptian antiquities was created for him at the College de France (1831). He was also elected a member of the French Academy.


Champollion died of a stroke (1832).

National Hero

The French consider to be a national hero. His story is taught in French secondary school. A French reader writes. "In my time the pupils 12 years old were taught about Champollion's story abd a bit of the Rosetta stone."


Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor:n Napoleon and Champollion's Quest to Dechiper the Rosetta Stone (Ballantine, 2004), 271p.


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Created: April 7, 2004
Last updated: April 11, 2004