Champollion, the decipherer of hieroglyphics

Champollion, the decipherer of hieroglyphics

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Nineteenth-century Egyptologists, Jean Francois Champollion certainly remains one of the most famous. Producing the first scientific system of deciphering hieroglyphss, the one who said "I am everything for Egypt and she is everything for me" will have made history (and not just as a discipline). Child of the Revolution and the Egyptian expedition, Champollion contributed in his own way to the establishment of a special relationship between Paris and Cairo, which two centuries later still endures. Prince of the Egyptophiles, his essential work is still visible in Paris, with a certain obelisk, Place de la Concorde ...

Champollion, genius of ancient languages

Jean François Champollion was born on December 23, 1790 in Figeac. His bookseller father, originally from Isère, displayed pro-revolutionary ideas, even favorable to the Jacobins. Seventh child of the family, Jean-François stands out for his keen intelligence. Legend has it that he learned to read on his own among the books in his father's shop. A child with a volcanic temperament, he does not always fit easily into the school system, but enjoys the support of his older brother: Jacques-Joseph.

The latter, passionate about history and archeology, sensed the full potential of his younger brother. Highly visible with the elite of Grenoble (he will befriend Fourier but also Berriat) where he resides, he brought Jean-François to the capital of the Alps to take charge of his education. The young prodigy turns out to be too gifted for his master brother, who entrusts him to an abbot. It was during this time that the future Egyptologist learned Latin and Greek, but also Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean. In 1804 Jean-François joined the imperial lycée in Grenoble (now the Lycée Stendhal) after having successfully passed the competitive examination.

Although he hardly recognized himself in the militarized organization of the establishment, he flourished there intellectually, deepening his knowledge of ancient languages ​​and embarking on his first research. His brother who worked on the famous "Description of Egypt" (the collection of research and their results, carried out during the Egyptian Expedition of 1799), as well as a meeting with a Greek monk passionate about the land of Pharaohs urge him to look at the mysterious hieroglyphics.

Barely 15 years old, Jean-François gave himself the mission of making a complete study of it, fascinated as he was by the centuries-old civilization that created them. In 1807, he left Grenoble (not without having dazzled his Academy of Sciences) for Paris where he hoped to find the necessary resources for his work. A student at the Collège de France, he further improved his language skills. Persuaded that Coptic originated from the language of the ancient Egyptians, he quickly became one of the greatest European specialists before dwelling on the famous Rosetta Stone and various papyri.

Decipher the hieroglyphics of Rosetta Stone

At 18, Champollion became professor of history at the University of Grenoble. Thanks to the political support of his brother, he was promised a brilliant career. In parallel with his teaching activity, Jean-François continues his research on Hieroglyphics. A Greek text at the bottom of a stele brought back from Egypt by the Napoleonic armies and already unsuccessfully studied by Isaac Silvestre de Sacy and Thomas Young will change everything. With the help of this Rosetta Stone, on which are inscribed texts in two languages ​​(Greek and Egyptian) and three writings (Greek, hieratic and demotic), he makes the fundamental hypothesis that the hieroglyphic system is a writing in the both symbolic and phonetic figurative.

Despite his discoveries, Champollion will pay the price for his proximity and especially that of his brother with the imperial circles. Jacques-Joseph, who during the Hundred Days was noticed by the Emperor himself (he was his secretary during his stay in Grenoble) was gradually ostracized from political and academic circles after the second Restoration. Jean-François, whose avant-garde theories and ego have earned him many jealousies, suffers the same fate, and both leave Grenoble for Figeac. This exile on the lands of his childhood is an opportunity for Champollion to perfect his work and to clean up his financial situation, which until then was complicated.

At the end of 1817, he managed to return to Grenoble, taking advantage of the appeasement of political repression. Although a simple librarian, he nonetheless continues to be noticed both for his scientific activities and for his political opinions opposing the Ultras monarchists. This earned him to leave Grenoble once again, for Paris in 1821. This year would be his greatest success.

Indeed, he then manages to decipher the name of Pharaoh Ptolemy V on an inscription in the Rosetta Stone. Next comes the deciphering of Cleopatra's name on the Philae obelisk. One thing leading to another and with great cross-checking where intuition and logic merge, he establishes a valuable picture of the different hieroglyphic signs. On September 14, 1822, at the end of exhausting work, Champollion was so convinced of having pierced the mystery of the Hieroglyphics that, overwhelmed by emotion, he suffered a mild attack (but nevertheless revealing the fragile state of health of this workaholic) . 8 eight days later he sent the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, a first summary of his discoveries. An outline of the hieroglyphic system will follow in 1824.

Champollion and Egypt, a fatal passion

The 1820s saw Champollion's work gain the recognition he longed for. With the support of scholars like Von Humboldt (the famous German linguist and philosopher) and political figures, he manages to help his brother finance a study trip to Italy. For his first departure outside France, Jean-François goes beyond the Alps to scour libraries and museums but especially the Egyptian collection of the King of Piedmont-Sardinia in Turin. He unearthed a number of pieces there, notably from the Egyptian expedition of 1799, and did a remarkable job, which won him the interest of the Pope but also of the King of France.

In 1826 Champollion was appointed curator in charge of Egyptian collections at the Louvre museum. Consecration of a lifetime's work, this function allows him to directly influence the development of nascent Egyptology. Enjoying a certain academic aura, he notably convinced King Charles X to acquire several marvels, whether they were the collection of the British consul in Egypt or an obelisk from Luxor (offered by the vice -roi Mehmet Ali)… which now sits at Place de la Concorde.

Founder of modern scientific Egyptology

In 1828 at the height of his career, Jean-François Champollion sailed for Egypt. After more than 20 years of theoretical work, he will be able to discover with his own eyes the monuments he has dreamed of for so long. Nevertheless, at almost 40 years old, Champollion is a man worn out by the sacrifices he has made to advance his science. Egypt then was a remote country, whose climate was not very successful for Europeans due to several endemic diseases. Once again neglecting his health, the Egyptologist sets out to verify in situ the validity of his theories on hieroglyphics. From his eighteen months of traveling he will come back with an inestimable mass of notes, documents and notebooks, but also with a chronic affection (bilharzia?) Which will eventually take him away.

On his return, Champollion, elected to the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, took over the chair of the very first chair of Egyptian Antiquity at the College de France. He published four volumes of drawings and sketches on the monuments studied during his trip and completed his grammar and his Egyptian dictionary, a masterful synthesis of his work. However, he will not have the opportunity to have them published (his brother will take care of that). An attack carried him off on March 4, 1832, at the age of 41, leaving behind an orphan discipline but with a bright future.


- Champollion by Jean Lacouture. Grasset, 1989.

- Egyptian dictionary by Jean-François Champollion. South acts, 2000.

- Champollion and the secret of hieroglyphics. Bd, Glénat 2009.

Video: How The Rosetta Stone Unlocked Hieroglyphics


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