Jean François Champollion
Jean François Champollion
The French Egyptologist Jean François Champollion (1790-1832) was the father of Egyptology and the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Born on Dec. 23, 1790, in Figeac, Lot Department, Jean François Champollion was educated at the lyceum in Grenoble (1801-1807). His interest in the civilization of ancient Egypt, and especially in the then-undeciphered hieroglyphic script of that land, was first aroused when as a boy he learned about the Rosetta Stone, a key monument having Greek and Egyptian versions of the same text. At the age of 16 he read a paper before the Grenoble Academy maintaining that Coptic was the ancient language of Egypt.
Champollion studied Oriental languages in Paris under the famous Orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy and during this period (1807-1809) produced the first parts of his Egypt under the Pharaohs: the Religion and History of Egypt and the Geography of Egypt. In 1809 he was appointed to a teaching post in history and politics at Grenoble and married Rose Blanc.
Despite his republican sympathies Champollion secured the patronage of King Louis XVIII and then of King Charles X and was thus able to concentrate on his studies of Egyptian language and archeology. In 1824 he went abroad, especially to Italy, to study Egyptian language and archeological finds. On his return 2 years later he was made conservator of the Egyptian collections at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Champollion and a team of assistants visited Egypt in 1828-1829 and made the first systematic survey of the accessible standing monuments. In 1831 the chair in Egyptian history and archeology was created for Champollion at the Collège de France. While preparing to publish the results of his Egyptian expedition, he suffered a stroke and died in Paris on March 4, 1832.
Champollion possessed a phenomenal flair for languages and a genius for deciphering texts. He took his first steps in this field in 1808, when he equated 15 demotic signs with those of the Coptic alphabet; by 1818 he had established a key to the hieroglyphic version of the Rosetta inscription. He was now ahead of all contemporary scholars in the field, and his famous Lettre à M. Dacier (1822) marked a turning point in the story of Egyptology. The centenary of the publication of the Dacier letter was celebrated by a volume of studies from 45 Egyptologists in 1922.
Champollion's brother, Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac, published a number of Champollion's works posthumously, including an Egyptian grammar (1836-1841), a hieroglyphic dictionary (1841-1844), and, the most famous, Monuments de l'Egypte et de la Nubie … (4 vols., 1835-1847).
Although there are works on Champollion in French and German, there is no full-length study in English. C. W. Ceram, ed., The World of Archeology: The Pioneers Tell Their Own Story (1966), reproduces an English translation of Champollion's letter to M. Dacier, in which he makes his first clear account of his decipherment. Ernest Doblhofer, Voices in Stone: The Decipherment of Ancient Scripts and Writings (1957; trans. 1961), provides biographical material, as does Warren R. Dawson, Who Was Who in Egyptology, revised edition by Eric Uphill (in press). □