Champollion, Jean-François

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education and early career
decyphering the rosetta stone

CHAMPOLLION, JEAN-FRANÇOIS (1790–1832), French linguist and Egyptologist.

Jean-François Champollion, le jeune (the younger—to distinguish him from his older brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac), was born in southeastern France, near Grenoble, on 23 December 1790, and died forty-two years later in Paris on 4 March 1832. During his short life Champollion had achieved such an extraordinary feat—the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics—that he was called the most important man in France.

education and early career

Champollion, the second son of a bookseller wed to a merchant's daughter, was a linguistically precocious youngster who at the age of five had taught himself to read by matching passages he had already memorized to the words in his mother's missal and figuring out the phonetic system. He began his studies under his older brother, then attended the new lycée at Grenoble. There, in 1801, he met the illustrious mathematician Baron Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier, who inspired his total dedication to the study of hieroglyphics.

Fourier had been one of about 170 scholars and scientists who had accompanied General Napoleon Bonaparte on the Egyptian campaign in 1798–1799. In fact, Fourier had recently composed the preface to the Description de IÉgypte (1808–1825; Description of Egypt), which elevated French enthusiasm for Egyptian history and culture. Fourier showed the youngster his copy of the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone, a black basalt stele bearing the same inscription (from 193 b.c.e.) in Greek, hieroglyphics, and an ancient Egyptian cursive script called "demotic." French soldiers had stumbled onto the Rosetta Stone at al-Rachid in the western delta in July 1799 while digging for stones to use for building fortifications at Fort Julien. It was immediately recognized that this could be the key to unlocking the secrets of ancient Egyptian civilization. Therefore, Champollion studied all the ancient and Oriental languages needed to unlock the mystery of hieroglyphics—a project that led him to study sixteen languages and that took him twenty years.

In 1807 Champollion read a paper at the Academy of Grenoble about the Coptic geography of Egypt, which resulted in his admission to this body. He left Grenoble for Paris, where he spent the next two years (1807–1809) taking courses at the Collège de France and the École des Langues Orientales (School of Oriental Languages), laying the foundation for his own manuscripts—a grammar and a dictionary of the Coptic language. In 1809, still only nineteen, Champollion returned to Grenoble as adjunct professor of history of the Faculty of Letters and rose to professor in 1812. The geographical introduction to his Égypte sous les Pharaons (Egypt under the Pharaohs) was published in 1811, and the complete work in two volumes came in 1814.

Champollion's career was interrupted in 1815, when Napoleon returned from Elba. Bonaparte had founded the Institut d'Égypte (Institute of Egypt) and given Champollion an exemption from military conscription. In March 1815 Napoleon was received at Grenoble, and Champollion-Figeac became his secretary. When Champollion was presented to Napoleon, the latter inquired how his work was progressing and, learning that Champollion's Coptic grammar and dictionary had never been published, promised to see that it would be. Subsequently, the minister of interior sent a letter to the Third Class of History and Ancient Literature of the Institute National des Sciences et des Arts asking them to evaluate these two works and Champollion's system of translation. However, in the interval between when they started the review and when they reported back on 7 July, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Consequently, the forthcoming negative evaluation dealt a crushing blow to any hope of publication by the current government. "The Jacobin of Grenoble," as his Bourbon enemies called him, also lost his university position.

decyphering the rosetta stone

Unemployed, but undaunted by this change of fortune, Champollion continued his research. In 1821 he followed up with De l'écriture hiératique des anciens Egyptiens (Hieratic writing of the ancient Egyptians). Thereafter, he turned his attention to decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, and in 1822 published his Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l'alphabet des hieroglyphes phonétiques employés par les Egyptiens pour écrire sur leurs monuments les titres, les noms, et les surnoms des souverains grecs et romains (Letter to Mr. Dacier relative to the alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphics employed by the Egyptians in order to write on their monuments the titles, names, and surnames of the Greek and Roman sovereigns), whose fifty-two pages contained the complete hieroglyphic alphabet as well as his explanation of the whole system of ancient Egyptian writing, which he developed further in Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens égyptiens (1824; 2nd ed. in 2 vols., 1828).

By 1822 the brilliance of Champollion's path-breaking discovery that hieroglyphics was both ideographic and phonetic overwhelmed his political foes, and his career resumed, although his discovery caused an international fracas among scholars. A Frenchman had deciphered the Rosetta Stone now in the British Museum as a spoil of war, and not only had the leading British linguistic scholar Dr. Thomas Young (1773–1829) been proven partially wrong but Champollion refused to share the credit. Only the posthumous publication of Champollion's grammar (1836–1841) and dictionary (1841–1844) finally removed all doubts about the correctness of his decipherment, which had been challenged by other German and French scholars as well.

With the support of the Royalist duc de Blacas, in 1826 Champollion obtained the Egyptian curatorship at the Louvre. With Ippolito Rosellini as his second-in-command, in 1828 he mounted a Franco-Tuscan expedition up the Nile, during which he collected artifacts for the Louvre and copied ancient texts. This resulted in two great sets of plates: Monuments de I'Égypte et de la Nubie (4 vols., 1835–1847; Monuments of Egypt and Nubia) and I monumenti dell'Egitto e della Nubia (9 vols., plus 3 vols. of atlases, 1832–1844).

Upon returning to Paris on 5 March 1830, he was finally named to the Academy of Inscriptions. King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830–1848) created a chair of Egyptology for Champollion at the Collége de France, where Champollion taught until a fatal series of strokes hit him from 13 January to 4 March 1832, ending his brilliant career at a tragically young age.

See alsoEgypt; France; French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Imperialism; Napoleon; Napoleonic Empire.


Primary Sources

Hartleben, Hermien, ed. Lettres de Champollion le jeune. Paris, 1909.

Secondary Sources

Hartleben, Hermien. Champollion, sein Leben und sein Werk. 2 vols. Berlin, 1906.

Meyerson, Daniel. The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion's Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. New York, 2004. The role of Egypt in Napoleon's vision of establishing a French empire stretching from India to the Atlantic as motivation for encouraging Champollion's work.

Reid, Donald Malcolm. Whose Pharaohs?: Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I. Berkeley, Calif., 2002. Places Egyptology within the context of Egyptian nationalism and international imperialistic rivalry.

Vercoutter, Jean. The Search for Ancient Egypt. New York, 1992. A visual feast—richly illustrated with many documents and quotations in sidebars as well as a documents section.

June K. Burton

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Champollion, Jean-François

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