Em Hotep Digest vol. 02 no. 06: Jean-François Champollion

   Posted by: Keith Payne   

Categories: Em Hotep Digest

000 tab champollionThis week’s digest is dedicated to the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion, who is credited with the translation of the Rosetta Stone, thereby cracking the code of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and opening the mysteries of the ancients for all Egyptologists who followed.



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Contributors:  Celeste Albo, Claudia Ali, Yvonne Buskens, José Luis Santos Fernandez, Ia Georgia, Heidi Kontkanen, Luxor Times, Vicky Metafora, Nebty, Keith Payne, Jean Smith, François Tonic, and the many people who contributed to the various conversations in the Em Hotep BBS group on Facebook.

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Jean-François Champollion


From Amelia Peabody’s Egypt: A Compendium by Elizabeth Peters

“Antiquities collecting was likewise engaged in by two Nineteenth Century scientific missions to Egypt, the Franco-Tuscan Expedition of 1828-29 and the Prussian Expedition of 1842-45.  The former was the joint venture of the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (principal decoder of Egyptian hieroglyphs) and Tuscan scholar Ippolito Rosellini, who with a team of a dozen architects and draughtsmen explored the length of the Nile into Nubia.  Excavation was not the objective of the Expedition, but rather the recording and collecting of that which was already exposed.  Regrettably, that included the removal—for transport to France and Italy—of two wall reliefs from the Belzoni-discovered tomb of Seti I.

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“By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, a staggering quantity of artifacts, statuary, wall reliefs and paintings, and architectural fragments had left Egypt to grace the great museum collections of Europe, in what might be described as officially sanctioned looting of that country’s ancient legacy.  But clearly, Egyptian portable antiquities were ultimately exhaustible, and as early as 1935 Champollion (who had removed the Seti I reliefs, as he claimed defensively, in order to preserve them) called for the establishment of a French-directed Egyptian commission to conserve the pharaonic monuments.  It was not until 15 years later that this began to be a reality” (pp. 20-1).


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Copied from the tomb of Siphtha, great room, right wall, from Champollion’s “Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie” (Public domain).

Copied from the tomb of Siphtha, great room, right wall, from Champollion’s “Monuments de l’Égypte et de la Nubie” (Public domain).


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Early Life

From Jean-François Champollion: The Father of Egyptology by Jimmy Dunn, via Tour Egypt

002 - uu - kp - 07“Champollion was born on December 23rd, 1790 in the town of Figeac, France to Jacques Champollion and Jeanne Francoise. He was their youngest son, and was educated originally by his elder brother, Jacques Joseph (1778-1867). While still at home, he attempted to teach himself a number of languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean and Chinese. In 1801, at the age of ten, he was sent off to study at the Lyceum in Grenoble. There, at the young age of sixteen, he red a paper before the Grenoble Academy proposing that the language of the Coptic Christians in contemporary Egypt was actually the same language spoken by the ancient Egyptians. Today, most scholars do, in fact, consider that language to be at least an evolutionary form of the language spoken in the pharaonic period, spiked with the tongues of its foreign invaders such as the Greeks.”


A Passion for Language, A Passion to Learn

From “Jean-François Champollion and the True Story of Egypt” by Muriel Mirak Weissbach in 21st Century

“Champollion did make the discovery where others failed.  What strikes one in reading through his letters, is the passion which drove him forward. What was decisive to this discovery, was passion, concentration—over 15 years—and hard work, day in, day out. From childhood, Jean François had a passion to learn, especially about Egypt. He was extremely fortunate to receive a Classical education, of the sort the great German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt was to design in Prussia. It was his elder brother, Jean Jacques, known as “le Figeac,” who supervised the education of Jean François, “le Jeune.” Their father was a book dealer in Figeac, a bibliophile, with a huge library.

A poem on papyrus, Probably from Memphis, Nineteenth Dynasty, One of the first pieces of Egyptian literature read by Champollion (Yvonne Buskens, contrib.)

A poem on papyrus, Probably from Memphis, Nineteenth Dynasty, One of the first pieces of Egyptian literature read by Champollion (Yvonne Buskens, contrib.)

“Jean-François was an avid reader from an early age, and displayed a lively curiosity for knowledge. When he received a parcel of books from a friend, Jean François exclaimed, ‘In principle, everything about  which nothing is understood interests me. In addition to Hebrew, Syriac, Sanskrit, Tartar, Chinese, Persian, and especially ancient languages, interest me’” (pp. 31-2)


Collège de France

From the BBC entry on Jean-François Champollion

“In 1807, Jean-François moved to Paris, where he studied at the School of Oriental Languages at the Collège de France. Dedicating himself to the study of various oriental languages – including Persian, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi and Arabic – Champollion also began work on a dictionary and grammar of the Coptic language. Still only 19, and exempted from military service thanks to the intervention of Fourier, Champollion returned to Grenoble as an assistant professor of History. In 1814 he published his two volumes, entitled ‘L’Égypte sous les Pharaons’.”

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Deciphering Hieroglyphs

From the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia article on Jean-François Champollion

“By means of the triple inscription of the Rosetta Stone, he succeeded in ascertaining several of the signs, and on 17 September, 1822, he read before the Academy of Inscriptions his now famous “Lettre a M. Dacier”, in which he gave the fruits of his researches. The mystery of the hieroglyphics had been solved. With the exception of a brief controversy with Dr.Young, relative to the priority of the discovery, his claims have never been disputed. In 1823 he outlined his system more thoroughly in a series of memoirs read in the Institute. These memoirs were put together and printed under the title “Precis du systeme hieroglyphique des anciens Egyptiens” (Paris, 1824, 2nd ed., 2 vols., 1828). In 1824 he was sent to Italy by the King of France on a scientific mission, and on his recommendation a rich collection of Egyptian antiquities was secured by the Musée du Louvre. It was during his sojourn in Italy that he catalogued the Egyptian monuments of Naples, Florence, and Rome.”

Cartouches of Greek rulers of Egypt from Champollion's Précis du systéme hiéroglyphique (Jean Smith, contrib.)

Cartouches of Greek rulers of Egypt from Champollion’s Précis du systéme hiéroglyphique (Jean Smith, contrib.)


He Worked Up Until His Death

From the British Museum entry on Jean-François Champollion

“Champollion was appointed Conservator of the Egyptian collections at the Louvre, Paris in 1826. He made his sole visit to Egypt in 1828-29, conducting the first systematic survey of the country’s monuments, history and archaeology. On his return, the first chair in Egyptian history and archaeology was created for him at the Collège de France, Paris. Champollion died on 4 March 1832 as a result of a stroke, while preparing the results of his expedition for publication. His Egyptian grammar was published posthumously.”

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Yvonne Buskens shared this photograph of Champollion’s grave marker, appropriately an Egyptian-style obelisk (Photo by Gede)


Academic Achievements

From Jean-François Champollion and the Rosetta Stone, via Translator Interpreter Hall of Fame

Champollion's notes of his study of the cartouche of Cleopatra (Yvonne Buskens, contrib)

Champollion’s notes of his study of the cartouche of Cleopatra (Yvonne Buskens, contrib)

“A number of academic achievements distinguished his career. His first papers on hieroglyphics were published in 1821 and 1822. In 1826 he was appointed Conservator of the Musee Egyptien at the Louvre, and 1831 he was named Professor of Egyptian Antiquities, a post created specifically for him, at the College of France. He published a number of works, including an Egyptian grammar and dictionary, the Primer of the Hieroglyphic System, and a book entitled Egyptian Pantheon.

“Champollion studied collections of Egyptian antiquities in European museums and led a 14-month expedition in 1828 to Egypt to make a systematic survey of the monuments and copy their inscriptions. After returning in late 1829 he wrote to Egyptian authorities, deploring the deterioration of the monuments and the sale of artifacts. Partly in response, Mohammed Ali Pasha, who had taken power in 1805, issued the Ordinance of 1835, the first law protecting ancient monuments, prohibiting the export of antiquities, and establishing a museum in Cairo to conserve and display materials from excavations.”



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The Mnevis bull, sacred to the sun cult, from “Pantheon egyptien” by Champollion (Public domain)

The Mnevis bull, sacred to the sun cult, from “Pantheon egyptien” by Champollion (Public domain)


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The Rosetta Stone and Understanding Egyptian


Discovery of the Rosetta Stone

From An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt by Kathryn A. Bard

“Soldiers of Napoleon uncovered the Rosetta Stone while building fortifications in the Delta, and, recognizing its significance as a possible aid to the decipherment of hieroglyphs, Napoleon had Parisian lithographers brought to Egypt to make copies of it. The Rosetta Stone was subsequently handed over to the British, who defeated Napoleon’s fleet in Egypt, and it now resides in the British Museum in London, but Jean-François Champollion, a French scholar who studied copies of the Rosetta Stone, made the decipherment of ancient Egyptian” (p. 5)

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Champollion and the Decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs

From An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt by Kathryn A. Bard

“Jean-François Champollion is credited with deciphering ancient Egyptian because he was the first to prove, by systematic analysis, that the hieroglyphic writing system was significantly phonetic. Working with a copy of a bilingual text in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs, from an obelisk brought to England by the traveler W. J. Bankes (1786–1855), Champollion recognized the phonetic values of signs in two cartouches, of the rulers Ptolemy and Cleopatra. He then identified the phonetic values of more Egyptian hieroglyphs from copies of temple inscriptions, expounding his discovery in the famous “Lettre à Monsieur Dacier” in 1822. In his 1824 Précis of the Hieroglyphic System (Précis du système hiéroglyphique), Champollion made a classified list of Egyptian signs, and formulated a system of grammar and general decipherment, which laid the foundation for all Egyptological studies of the last two centuries.  Champollion’s great achievement built upon his knowledge of Coptic, which helped him to identify many hieroglyphic signs and their phonetic values from their Coptic equivalents. But Champollion did not identify multiconsonantal signs, which was subsequently accomplished by Carl Richard Lepsius” (p. 34).

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“I’ve Got it!”

From “Two Types of Scholarship: The Contrast between Anquetil-Duperron and Champollion” by Michel Despland in Historical Reflections

“He was introduced to the Coptic language by Dom Raphael of Monachis, a monk of Greek origin.  Champollion was convinced at the outset that this language stemmed from the ancient Egyptian tongue (this was one of the first of his many successful guesses).  He went to Paris in 1807 to pursue his work and immediately devoted himself to the study of oriental languages, Persian in particular, which he learned with the leading linguist of the time, Silvestre de Sacy.  He developed his attention to Egypt through collecting and scrutinizing demotic texts on handwritten papyri.  An enormous histiographical revision took place quietly, calmly, in his mind:  the Hebrews of the Bible no longer held a central place in Eastern history but were shunted aside.  Champollion accordingly took an interest in the trilingual text of the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1801.  (The stone itself was taken to London by the English but rubbings were preserved by the French.) Silvestre de Sacy, however, strongly advised Champollion not to get too involved and waste time trying to decipher it, stating as a rule that: ‘success in this type of research is more often the result of good circumstances than that of obstinate research.’  Champollion stubbornly refused to give up and, in 1810, summarized his conclusions and hypotheses on hieroglyphics.  His passion for the ancient Egyptian script was finally rewarded on September 14, 1822 when rushing to his brother’s house he shouted, ‘I’ve got it!’ before falling into a faint.

The replica of the Rosetta stone, between the message boards, at the courtyard of the Citadel at Rosetta or Fort Julien, where the Rosetta stone was found (Photo by Heidi Kontkanen, 2011)

The replica of the Rosetta stone, between the message boards, at the courtyard of the Citadel at Rosetta or Fort Julien, where the Rosetta stone was found (Photo by Heidi Kontkanen, 2011)

“Upon regaining consciousness Champollion immediately started to write his Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l’alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques.  Under the reign of Charles X, both the ardent Republican and the monarch eager to foster national glory agreed to a modus vivendi.  Champollion was granted funds for an expedition to Egypt (1828-29), and brought back treasures for the new Egyptian “Musee Charles X” established at the Louvre.  While Bonaparte’s scientists were mainly interested in the Ptolemaic Era, Champollion focused his attention on Ancient Egypt.  He travelled up the Nile, studied all the monuments and, at the end of his journey at the Second Cataract, proudly wrote to Dacier that his 1822 text could stand without modification since his alphabet worked equally well with jieroglyphcs from every era.  He dies in 1832 after holding for only one year the Chair of Egyptology created for him at the Collège de France” (pp. 421-2).


A Written Language for All People—Or At Least Those Who Learned It

From “Jean-François Champollion and the True Story of Egypt” by Muriel Mirak Weissbach in 21st Century

“The conclusions reached at the end of the Précis dealt the death blow to the British lie that the hieroglyphic system had been a cult object for a tiny elite. ‘It is also certain,’ Champollion wrote:

‘as opposed to common opinion, that hieroglyphic writing, that is, the holy system, the most complicated of the three, was studied and understood by the most distinguished of all the classes of the nations—far from being, as had been said so often, a mysterious, secret script, whose knowledge was reserved to the priestly caste, to communicate only with a very small number of initiates. How could one persuade oneself, in effect, that all public buildings were covered inside and outside, by an innumerable quantity of inscriptions in sacred characters, if these characters were understood by only a few initiates?’

Champollion added, that the inscriptions were to be found on all sorts of materials, including humble wood, and that even amulets and other personal objects were decorated with them. Given the relatively simple, extremely systematic nature of the alphabet, there should have been little difficulty, he argued, for the general population to learn to read it.”

Marble Bust of Champollion by Paul-Roussel – 1923 (Ia Georgia, contrib.)

Marble Bust of Champollion by Paul-Roussel – 1923 (Ia Georgia, contrib.)


Champollion and the Secret of Egyptian Art

From “How Champollion Deciphered the Rosetta Stone” by Muriel Mirak Weissbach, via the Schiller Institute

“Champollion went beyond his scientific findings, to explore the implications of this unique system, on the artistic expression of Egyptian civilization as a whole. Unlike Greek art, he wrote, “these arts did not have as their special aim the representation of beautiful forms of nature; they tended only toward the expression of a certain order of ideas, and were intended solely to perpetuate, not the memory of the forms, but that of persons and things.” Whether the colossal statue or the tiny amulet, he said, the perfection of form was strictly secondary. Form was “but a powerful means to paint thought.” Champollion developed the interesting concept, that unlike the Greeks, who perfected form, and separated imitative arts from writing, “in Egypt, writing, design, painting and sculpture march constantly towards the same portal.” Everything flowed into one “art par excellence: that of writing.” The great temples, he wrote, were “representative characters of celestial abodes.” Further, “this intimate union of the fine arts with the Egyptian graphic system, effortlessly explains to us the causes of the state of naive simplicity in which painting and sculpture always persist in Egypt.” (Précis, pp. 431-432)”

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Ramesses II smiting a group of prisoners before Amun-Re, copied from Abu Simbel, from Champollion’s “Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie” (Public domain)

Ramesses II smiting a group of prisoners before Amun-Re, copied from Abu Simbel, from Champollion’s “Monuments de l’Égypte et de la Nubie” (Public domain)


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Recommended Reads


Ia Georgia recommends The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs by Lesley and Roy Adkins.

Ia Georgia also suggests The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone by Daniel Meyerson.


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Symbols of the goddess Hathor, from Champollion’s “Pantheon egyptien” (Public domain, Vicky Metafora, contrib.)

Symbols of the goddess Hathor, from Champollion’s “Pantheon egyptien” (Public domain, Vicky Metafora, contrib.)


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Links and Online Reading


Friend and contributor Ia Georgia was busy this week and provided numerous links

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Celeste Albo shared this link to an online edition of The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt by W. Stevenson Smith.

François Tonic posted a link to a complete index from Toutankhamon Magazine.

Claudia Ali posted this link to “Archaeologists outraged by ‘derogatory’ statue [of Champollion] at College de France” by Al-Masry Al-Youm, via Egypt Independent.

Yvonne Buskens posted this link to a video of Andrew Robinson’s lecture about Champollion, Cracking the Code.


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Copied from the tomb of Beni Hassan, from Champollion’s “Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie” (Public domain)

Copied from the tomb of Beni Hassan, from Champollion’s “Monuments de l’Égypte et de la Nubie” (Public domain)


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In the News and on the Blogs


014 - uu - kp - 20Les Ateliers de Nebty:  “Discussion of a Pillar from the Tomb of Horemheb (French)” (Nebty)

Terrae Antiqvae Video:  “Templo de Wadi El Seboua” (José Luis Santos Fernandez)

Luxor Times:  “Saving the Twin Statues of Amenhotep III in Kom El Hetan” (Luxor Times)

Luxor Times:  “Netery-Menu has been reconstructed at Karnak, Open to Public by the End of February” (Luxor Times)

Luxor Times:  “Dr. Suzanne Onstine says “Our mission is to make their lives make sense scientifically and give them a proper burial” (Luxor Times)

Niebla y Luz:  “National Museum’s Archaeological Expedition Uncovers More of Ancient Nubia’s Secrets” (Celeste Albo)


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Copyright by Keith Payne, 2013.  All rights reserved.

Photography by Heidi Kontkanen is copyrighted 2013 by Heidi Kontkanen, all rights reserved, used with permission.  All other photography and images are either shared via a Creative Commons license or is in the public domain.  All text is used in accordance with the Fair Use provision of copyright law, and all rights remain held by the original producers.

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This entry was posted on Monday, February 18th, 2013 at 11:00 am and is filed under Em Hotep Digest. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments so far

Joan Slish

Absolutely fascinating article. You never cease to amaze me on the knowledge you have acquired to help the layman like me understand the background of Egyptology. Kudos!

February 18th, 2013 at 10:23 pm

Hi Joan!

Thank you, it has been very educational to me to put it together. I always learn a lot pulling together the sources for these digests. Of course, with the digests I am citing the work of others, but there will be some more original writing coming up too. The digests give me the materials from which to write my own stuff. And of course they would be impossible without the input from the Em Hotep BB group on Facebook.

See you there!

February 19th, 2013 at 9:36 am

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    Em Hotep Digest Vol. 02 No. 06: Jean-François Champollion

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