Jean-François Champollion – the French orientalist who famously deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs
Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) was a French scholar, linguist, and Egyptologist who is renowned for his decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. He is considered the founding father of Egyptology and is best known for his groundbreaking work on the Rosetta Stone.
Read More: Answers to popular questions about the Rosetta Stone, a 2200-year-old ancient Egyptian stele
Early life and education
Champollion was born on December 23, 1790, in Figeac, France. From an early age, he exhibited a keen interest in languages and ancient history. Growing up, he dreamed of joining Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition (1798-1801).
His passion for archeology was the reason he studied various ancient languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, and Persian. However, his true passion lay in deciphering the enigmatic hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt.
With support from his brother Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac, Jean- François enrolled at the school of the Abbé Dussert in 1802.
Spouse and Child
Champollion tied the knot with Rosine Blanc (1794-1871) in 1818. His wife was a member of an affluent business family in Grenoble. The couple had a daughter, Zoraïde Chéronnet-Champollion (1824–1889), together.
Years earlier, he was interested in a woman called Pauline Berriat. However, his love went unreciprocated. He also had an affair with a married woman called Louise Deschamps.
Champollion and Joseph Fourier
He was 11 when the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and Syria. The young man was very delighted when he received an invite to the home of famous French mathematician and physicist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. It was during this visit that Champollion got to bask in the numerous Egyptian artifacts and research works that Fourier had gathered during the Egyptian campaign.
Champollion’s meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte
As France grappled with the Napoleonic Wars, young men like Champollion stood a high chance of being drafted into the French emperor’s army, which was known for having a high mortality rate. Fully aware of this, Champollion’s brother managed to pull some strings to get Champollion exempted from the draft.
Champollion was far from an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte’s regime; however, he saw Napoleon as the lesser of two evils.
In 1815, after Napoleon had escaped from his prison on the island of Elba, he marched to Grenoble, Champollion’s town. It’s been said that Champollion met the beleaguered French general. Napoleon even enquired about his progress on the study of the Rosetta Stone. The general also urged Champollion to send his manuscripts to Paris for publication.
And when Napoleon was finally defeated after the Hundred Days (aka the War of the Seventh Coalition) in March 1815, Champollion and his brother came under heavy suspicion for being Napoleon sympathizers in Grenoble. They were both put under some kind of surveillance by the new regime and Royalist.
Major Achievements of Jean-François Champollion
In his mid-teens, Champollion wrote a paper titled Essay on the Geographical Description of Egypt before the Conquest of Cambyses. The paper was presented to the Academy of Grenoble. The content of the paper was so good that it helped him gain admission into the Academy.
Champollion and his brother Jacques Joseph defied sentiments by the Ultra-royalists and set up schools based on the Lancasterian system. The goal of the brothers was to provide education to the less privileged and lower classes. This made them come under heavy criticism of some Royalist and Ultra-royalist factions.
One of the key breakthroughs in Champollion’s career came in 1822 when he deciphered the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799, contained a decree written in three scripts: hieroglyphic, demotic, and ancient Greek. Champollion focused his efforts on comparing the Greek text to the hieroglyphs, recognizing that certain names were spelled out phonetically. Using this comparative method and drawing on his extensive knowledge of ancient languages, he successfully deciphered the phonetic values of many hieroglyphic signs.
Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs revolutionized the field of Egyptology, enabling scholars to understand and translate ancient Egyptian texts. His work opened up a new era of studying ancient Egyptian history, culture, and religion. Champollion’s publication of “Précis du système hiéroglyphique” in 1824 further solidified his reputation and influence.
Throughout his career, Champollion made significant contributions to the understanding of ancient Egypt. He traveled to Egypt in 1828-1829, where he studied and documented numerous archaeological sites, including the Temple of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings.
In 1810, he took up the position of professor of Egyptology and ancient history at Grenoble University (The Université Grenoble Alpes) in southeastern France.
Some scholars of his time accused him of plagiarism and not giving enough credit to works and contribution of English polymath Thomas Young. For example, Young’s 1819 publication in the Encyclopedia Britannica shed a lot of light on some phonetic values for glyphs. In the work, Young correctly identified the hieroglyphic form of the name of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the ruler of Egypt.
No doubt Young made tremendous contributions to our understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Demotic script. As a matter of fact, it was Young who first proposed that the Demotic script was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.
Both Young and Champollion independently found out that hieratic script was a modified form of hieroglyphic writing. However, Champollion’s works did indeed advance the field to a whole new level by proposing in 1815 that just like the Demotic script the hieroglyphic script was a combination of ideographic and phonetic signs.
Decipherment of the writing used in ancient Egypt
At the time that scholars tried to deciphering the trilingual Rosetta Stone, it was believed that the hieroglyphic script was only used for religious and ritual functions – meaning it would be extremely difficult to decipher them.
Champollion’s works revealed that those views and assumptions were wrong. He would go on to push our understanding of hieroglyphs beyond the point reached by British polymath Thomas Young. And in 1822, he published his first findings in the decipherment of the script on the Rosetta Stone. He showed that Egyptian writing system was a blend of phonetic and ideographic signs.
In 1824, he published a Précis, detailing how he deciphered the hieroglyphic script. And in 1829, he traveled to Egypt to read many more hieroglyphic texts that had never been studied before. He returned with new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.
After his death in 1832, his grammar of Ancient Egyptian was published.
Champollion’s Lettre à M. Dacier
Champollion’s “Lettre à M. Dacier” (Letter to Mr. Dacier) is a significant document in the history of Egyptology and the decipherment of hieroglyphs. It was a letter written by Jean-François Champollion to Bon-Joseph Dacier, a prominent French philologist, and member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. The letter was published in 1822 and detailed Champollion’s breakthrough in deciphering hieroglyphic script.
In the letter, Champollion shared his method of decipherment and presented his findings on the phonetic values of hieroglyphic signs. He explained how he used the Rosetta Stone as a key to understanding the ancient Egyptian writing system.
Champollion argued that the hieroglyphic signs represented a combination of phonetic and ideographic elements. He demonstrated how some signs corresponded to the names of Greek rulers found on the Rosetta Stone, which allowed him to establish the phonetic values of those signs. He also explained the use of determinatives, which are symbols that indicate word categories or help in clarifying the meaning of hieroglyphic texts.
The “Lettre à M. Dacier” was a significant milestone in the decipherment of hieroglyphs as it presented a systematic and convincing method for understanding the ancient script. It established Champollion’s reputation as the foremost authority in the field and laid the foundation for further advancements in the study of ancient Egyptian language and culture.
Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs was a breakthrough that transformed the field of Egyptology, allowing scholars to access and interpret a wealth of ancient Egyptian texts, including religious, historical, and literary works. His letter to Dacier remains a seminal piece of work and a testament to his remarkable achievements in unlocking the mysteries of the hieroglyphic script.
Did you know…?
Champollion’s “Lettre à M. Dacier” was originally addressed to his mentor, Silvestre de Sacy. However, Champollion crossed out Sacy’s name because the two men had falling out. He replaced it with Bon-Joseph Dacier, a French scholar who stood with him throughout his research.
Champollion’s “Lettre à M. Dacier” was read before the Académie in Paris. At the reading, many of leading figures in the field were present, including his academic rival Thomas Young. After reading his work, he received a rousing applause and was congratulated by Silvestre de Sacy and Thomas Young.
Poor health and death
Unfortunately, Champollion’s life was cut short at the age of 41 due to a stroke. He died on March 4, 1832 in Paris, France. His body was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
He was survived by his wife, daughter and brother. Throughout his life, he was blighted by bad health, including sometimes tinnitus and even gout.
Did you know…?
On Champollion’s tomb is a simple obelisk erected by his wife, and a stone slab with the sentence: “Ici repose Jean-François Champollion, né à Figeac dept. du Lot le 23 décembre 1790, décédé à Paris le 4 mars 1832”. It translates as “Here rests Jean-François Champollion, born at Figeac, Department of the Lot, on 23 December 1790, died at Paris on 4 March 1832”.
Despite dying young, his work had a tremendous impact on the field of Egyptology. They laid the foundation for future Egyptologists to advance the field and unlock the mysteries of ancient Egypt. His decipherment of hieroglyphs remains a pivotal achievement in the history of linguistics and the study of ancient civilizations.
Jean-François Champollion: Quick Facts
Born: 23 December 1790
Place of birth: Figeac, France
Died: 4 March 1832; Paris France
Education: Collège de France; Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales
Parents: Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu and Jacques Champollion
Spouse: Rosine Blanc
Brother: Jacques Joseph Champollion Figeac
Best known for: deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs
Epithets: Founder of Egyptology or Founder of Egyptology
Other interesting facts about Jean-François Champollion
The following are some interesting facts about Champollion, the French linguist regarded as one of the founding fathers of the field of Egyptology:
- Champollion was raised by his elder brother Jacques Joseph Champollion Figeac, a French archeologist.
- He was a child prodigy in philology.
- In his mid-teens, he presented a paper on the decipherment of Demotic, an ancient Egyptian script with roots in northern forms of hieratic style used in the Nile Delta.
- He was a multilingual, speaking languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Latin, and Coptic.
- Champollion and his former mentor Silvestre de Sacy had a big fallout. Sacy even described Champollion as a charlatan. Sacy was also suspicious of Champollion’s inclination toward the Napoleonic cause.
Answers to popular questions about Jean-François Champollion
When was Jean-François Champollion born?
The French linguist was born on December 23, 1790. He had seven siblings, including famous French archeologist Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac. His parents were Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu and Jacques Champollion. Due to his father’s absence, he was basically raised by his brother Jacques-Joseph. This explains why he was sometimes called “Champollion le Jeune”, which means “Champollion the young”.
Champollion would grow up in an era when France was going through a lot of political turmoil, including the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), a 12-year series of conflict that pitted Napoleon Bonaparte against many anti-French European nations, especially Great Britain and Austria.
Which educational institutions did he attend?
From 1802 to 1804, he studied at the school of Abbé Dussert. From there, he proceeded to lycée in Grenoble, where he studied Coptic. He even had the opportunity to practice Coptic with Raphaël de Monachis (born Anton Zakhūr Rafa’il), a Cairo-born scholar and monk of Syrian ancestry who served as a translator to Napoleon.
At the College of France (Collège de France) in Paris, he was taken under the wings of Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), a French nobleman and linguist. De Sacy became famous for being the first scholar to try to decipher the Rosetta Stone.
Champollion also had the honor of working with orientalists like Raphaël de Monachis and Louis-Mathieu Langlès.
It was also in Paris that he improved upon his Arabic and Persian. Such was his dedication to the study of those languages that he even wore Arab clothing sometimes and went by the name “Al Seghir”, which means “le jeune”.
How did he became so committed to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs?
During a visit to the home of French scientist Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) Champollion got to see Egyptian hieroglyphs and other ancient Egyptian artifacts that Fourier had collected during Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign. It’s said that it was in that moment that Champollion made a vow to crack the code on the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
When did he begin studying the Rosetta Stone?
A year after arriving in Paris, in 1808, Champollion committed himself to the study of the Rosetta Stone. He spent hours going through copy of the demotic script of the Ptolemaic-era stele.
It was not too long he identified the Coptic equivalents of fifteen demotic signs on the Rosetta Stone.
How did Champollion decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs?
Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was a result of his meticulous research, extensive knowledge of languages, and innovative approaches. The French linguist followed a number of steps and methods in deciphering the hieroglyphic script.
He focused on the Greek portion, which provided a key to unlocking the hieroglyphs. He then used a comparative method, comparing the hieroglyphic signs with their corresponding Greek names in the Rosetta Stone. He observed that certain hieroglyphic signs surrounded the names of Greek rulers and concluded that these signs represented phonetic values.
At the time, it was unclear as to whether the Egyptian script was ideographic or phonetic. After many hours studying the script, Champollion recognized that the hieroglyphic script contained both phonetic and ideographic elements. By analyzing the phonetic names of Greek rulers, he determined the phonetic values of many hieroglyphic signs.
Champollion utilized the Coptic language, the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language, to aid in decipherment. Coptic was written using the Greek alphabet with additional signs derived from demotic script. Champollion recognized similarities between Coptic words and hieroglyphic signs, which provided further clues to decipherment.
He proceeded to identify the oval-shaped enclosures called “cartouches” in the hieroglyphic inscriptions as indicators of royal names. He compared these cartouches with the Greek names of pharaohs and successfully matched hieroglyphic signs to the phonetic sounds of those names.
Champollion has been praised for going beyond deciphering individual signs and focusing on understanding the grammar and syntax of the hieroglyphic script. He studied patterns in the arrangement of signs and the use of determinatives (symbols indicating word categories) to decipher the meaning of entire texts.
Through his persistent efforts and innovative methodologies, Champollion made significant progress in deciphering the hieroglyphic script. His decipherment opened up a vast treasure trove of ancient Egyptian texts, allowing scholars to gain valuable insights into the history, culture, and religion of ancient Egypt.
Was Champollion a supporter of the Napoleonic cause?
Champollion’s brother Jacques Joseph was known supporter of the Napoleonic cause. However, as to whether Champollion supported Napoleon’s regime or not remains unclear. Regardless, the two Champollions were known in their hometown for being admirers of the Napoleonic cause. This was evident when they helped Napoleonic general Drouet d’Erlon escape a death sentence. It is said that the brothers offered d’Erlon shelter and food. For their actions, the brothers were forced to go into exile in Figeac. Much worse, Champollion lost his job at the university in Grenoble.
Who were the other scholars that aided in the decipherment of the Egyptian writing script?
Aside Thomas Young and Champollion, French orientalist Joseph de Guignes and Danish archeologist George Zoëga did provide some foundation to the decipherment. For example, de Guignes is credited with discovery that cartouches identified the names of the Egyptian rulers.
Swedish diplomat and scholar Johan David Åkerblad also contributed to the field. As a matter of fact Thomas Young based some of his initial works on Åkerblad’s decipherments.
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