Show Notes for Episode 416: The Life and Times of Jean-François Champollion

Category: French History

CHAMPOLLION – The Father of Egyptology: And the translator of the ROSETTA STONE l


There are two museums dedicated to Champollion and his work.

One is the Champollion Museum in Vif in the Isère: the old home of his older brother. Entry is free.

The Champollion Museum of World Languages in Figeac in the Lot in his Renaissance house. Here you can see a huge copy of the Rosetta Stone and learn about all the writing systems and languages of the world.

The Rosetta Stone

Many people have heard of or seen the Rosetta Stone, a large piece of granite-like stone that has a long message inscribed on it in three different languages and writing systems. It was this stone, kept in the British Museum in London, that was the key that unlocked the mysteries of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. And the person who unlocked the secret of this stone was a young French linguist named Jean François Champollion.

The story of his extraordinary life and work and the way he managed to decipher the writing is quite remarkable!

Who was Jean Francois Champollion?: Linguist of genius and Egyptologist

J-F Champollion was born in Figeac, a small city in the eastern part of the department of the Lot, in 1790. He was the youngest of eight children. There is a legend that his mother, who had him when she was 49, had had a prophecy that she would give birth to a child well after child bearing age, and that the child would have a special destiny.

His family was middle class, educated but not rich. His father was a Republican (this is the time of the Revolution) and a free thinker. Because he was so much younger than his brothers and sisters, his early education was overseen by his brother  Jacques Joseph, who took care of him as though he was his father and who remained devoted to him all his life.

Undisciplined (probably spoiled as the last and youngest male child) he was considered from an early age to have a difficult, stubborn personality and he didn’t take well to discipline. But he was brilliant.

At the age of 5, he taught himself to read from a family prayer book! But his indiscipline meant that he hated school, and then several tutors gave up on him before he had one that helped him study.

When his cherished older brother  Jacques Joseph, twelve years his senior, left to study in Grenoble, he was sent to school, but his lack of discipline and his disinterest in maths or in writing well, made his family decide to hire tutors for him. So most of his studies were done at home.

His first tutor, (as many were at the time) was an abbott, a very learned man, who taught him the beginnings of Latin, Classical Greek and natural history.

In 1801, at the age of 10, he joined his brother in Grenoble. Although he was sent there to be tutored by his brother, (who was himself doing brilliantly as a student) he began to study privately  with another tutor, Abbott Dussert.

What made him interested in languages and in the Orient?

It so happened, that this tutor, a friend of his brother’s, was an Orientalist: an intellectual whose passion was for the languages and cultures of what was called the Orient, but which in fact was really the Middle East.

Champollion, at the age of 11, began to study Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and Chaldeen, and even a little bit of Amharic. These are all languages associated with Egypt and the Middle East. Thanks to his brother and this tutor, Jean François developed a passion for archeology and for ancient languages!

From 1804 to 1807 he studied linguistics and botany at a very prestigious high school. And because his brother was fascinated by ancient Egypt, he followed in his footsteps and developed an interest in Egypt as well.

In 1806, at the age of 16, he announced in a letter to his parents and to his brother, that he wanted to make his study of Ancient Egypt his principal occupation. And this became his passion for the rest of his life

Why the Rosetta Stone?

In 1804 when he was 14, his brother sent him a report, written by the linguists and archeologists who  had gone on the Egyptian Campaign with Bonaparte, of the discovery of the stone called the Rosetta Stone.

This stele (or vertical marked stone) was discovered in the coastal city of Rosette in Egypt, when a group of Napoleon’s soldiers, were building reinforcements using ancient stones, to protect them from the English, who were going to attack. By chance, they realized that the stone had writing on it that seemed very ancient, and in fact had three kinds of writing on it, and so they saved it and took it to be analyzed. Unfortunately for them, the British won the war against Napoleon in Egypt and took the Rosetta Stone back with them.

What was so special about this Stone?

From the 1700’s on, scholars and linguists, both in France and in England, had been fascinated by the ancient writing called hieroglyphes, that was found on temples and in tombs in Egypt.

But no one could decipher this picto-writing system and there was much debate and argumentation about exactly what it was. Was it just signs? Was it really a writing system? Were the images symbols or phonetic? Many many questions and lots of theories, but no proven answers.

Several scholars had begun to break the codes or had theories, some of these scholars had ideas that were not far from the truth, but no one at that time was able to prove any of their theories. There were stones written in Copte, the language of the church in Egypt. The writing on these stones seemed to have a resemblance in form to some of the simplified glyphes, called Demotics, that were seen on stones and papyrus documents that came from the Ptolemy pharaons, who were descendants of the Greeks that arrived with Alexander the Great in the 300’s bc. It was estimated that the Rosetta Stone was from this period.

There were endless arguments among the scholars, and a lot of competition too. A British linguist named Thomas Young, very brilliant and a bit older than Champollion, had been sure that he had discovered the secret to understanding the hieroglyphs and had published some papers to that effect.

When Champollion read about the Rosetta Stone, he also had in his hand a visual copy of the stone made by rubbings and by engraving. He was fascinated by  it and he was sure that he could figure out how to read the stone.

The Deciphering of the Rosetta Stone

Champollion made friends with a monk, Raphael de Monachis, who had been in Egypt with Bonaparte. This monk spoke, read and wrote Copte. Champollion went to Paris to study Copte and Amharic specifically to be able to decipher the hieroglyphes, as he was convinced, intuitively, that there was a direct correlation between the ancient language, the Demotics, and Copte.

For the next few years he studied every language associated with the Middle East.

Brilliant, and sure of himself, he continued his comparative language studies, in Paris and then, again in Grenoble, where he and his beloved brother, were both given positions.

Champollion was convinced, and rightly so, that the hieroglyphes on the ancient structures, inside the tombs and on the obelisks, were both symbols as images, and phonetic syllables mixed together. By reading the works of other Egyptologists or linguists and methodically studying their analyses, he came to the conclusion, which was at first VERY DISPUTED, that there was a chronological and logical evolution between the hieroglyphes, the hierotics, the demotics, and finally Copte Greek.

He also postulated, correctly, at a time when it was hotly disputed, that the stone with the three writing systems, were simply three different ways of saying the same thing!

In 1811 he wrote and published,” Egpyt under the Pharaons”, a grammar of Egyptian.

In 1821, he deciphered the first of the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone; it is a royal cartouche with the name of the pharaon). And from then on, he continued to decipher one after another of the objects he could find to look at.

In 1822 he published a paper, that for him, demonstrated the correlation and evolution of all these writing systems. And he proved without a doubt that all three of the writing systems say the same thing. The Hieroglyphes are the Royal language, the Demotics was the Official language, and the Copte Greek was the language of the people.

What does the Rosetta Stone Talk About?

In fact, it is a Royal decree written by (or for) the Pharaon Ptolemy V in 196 bc. It describes the duties of the priests and their functions and tells them they are exonerated from paying taxes as long as they honor the memory of the pharaon with rituals after his death. And Champollion proved, without a doubt, that all three of the writing systems say the same thing. The Hieroglyphes are the Royal language, the Demotics was the Official language, and the Copte Greek was the language of the people.


The Final Discovery and the Fulfillment of his Dream.

In 1822, at the age of 32, Champollion wrote his famous ‘Letter to M Dacier, Relative to the Phonetic Hieroglyphes” in which he deciphers the writing on the Rosetta Stone and shows that the three writing systems say the same thing, and that the hieroglyphs are indeed a system of symbols and phonetics. And by this translation, he established the study of Egyptology and of the ancient language.

In 1825 he was given the Legion of Honor by Charles X

In 1826 he was named Curator in Chief of the Egyptian Collection of the Louvre

In 1828-29 Champollion was able to fulfill his dream of going to Egypt. He went on a scientific mission with several other Egyptologists, to see the tombs and obelisks. He was responsible for France getting the Obelisk of Luxor.

In 1831 he became the Chair of the department of Ancient Egypt at the College of France.

Champollion, already ill with tuberculosis, and probably having caught a parasite in Egypt became very ill, and died, in 1832, at the age of 41.

In his relatively short, intense life, he had learned over 12 Oriental languages, analyzed and deciphered both ancient hieroglyphes and Demotics. He translated ancient Copte texts and made the field of comparative linguistics relevant. He created the field of Egyptology and a formal study, and proved that languages are evolutive: that is that one language in both form and sense, leads into another.

He was a brilliant, unique man, who contributed immensely to our understanding of the past through writing and language.

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Category: French History