Jean-François Champollion

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Jean-François Champollion


French Egyptologist, Linguist and Historian

Jean-Francois Champollion was one of the founders of Egyptology as it became a scientific discipline in the nineteenth century. His most important contribution was the deciphering of hieroglyphic writing after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

Champollion was born in 1790 in Figeac, France. He is sometimes called "Champollion le jeune," the younger, because his early education proceeded under the supervision of his older brother, the archaeologist Jacques Joseph Champollion. At 10 he was sent to the Lyceum in Grenoble. He was a precocious student of languages from an early age, teaching himself Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, and Chinese as well as the Latin and Greek that were part of the standard curriculum of the day.

As a 16-year-old, Champollion presented a paper to the Grenoble Academy asserting that the language spoken by the contemporary Egyptian Copts was the same language spoken in the days of the pharaohs. This turned out to be incorrect, but the realization that certain signs in Late Egyptian script corresponded to letters of the Coptic alphabet was instrumental in his later work.

After furthering his education in what were then called Oriental languages at the College de France, Champollion began teaching history and politics at the Grenoble Lyceum when he was only 18. There, he married Rosine Blanc and had a daughter, Zoraide. He also began writing books about ancient Egypt: Introduction to Egypt Under the Pharaohs (1811) and Egypt of the Pharaohs, or Researches in the Geography, Religion, Language and History of the Egyptians Before the Invasion of Cambyses (1814).

An 1818 appointment to a chair in history and geography at the Royal College in Grenoble gave Champollion more freedom to pursue his studies of the ancient Egyptian language. In 1799, after Napoleon's armies took the Nile Delta, a French soldier had found a black basalt slab with an inscription carved in hieroglyphs, a later Egyptian script called demotic, and Greek. The Greek translation provided an overall meaning for the Egyptian inscriptions, and the most distinguished European linguists competed to decipher them.

Champollion was the first to do so. His earlier studies of the Coptic alphabet and its relationship to the demotic script enabled him to see that some of the Egyptian hieroglyphs were strictly ideograms; that is, picture signs, while others also represented sounds. He published his work in 1822.

In 1826, Champollion became curator of the Egyptian department at the Louvre. It was during this period that he made his only trip to Egypt. The 1828-1829 expedition undertook a systematic survey of Egyptian monuments and their inscriptions. Champollion took voluminous notes and made sketches, from which his protégé Ippolito Rosellini produced finished engravings. In 1832, while back in Paris and still organizing the material, Champollion suffered a fatal stroke at the age of 41. His work was published posthumously and formed the basis for field studies by Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-1884) and John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875).


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Jean-François Champollion

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