Ancient Egypt,  CHAMPOLLION, Jean-Francois (1790-1832) and the Rosetta Stone

The interesting thing about the Rosetta Stone is that the writing is repeated three times in different alphabets:

196 BC: Rosetta Stone engraved

In the ninth year of the reign of Egyptian King Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the temple priests recorded the events of his kingship on a black basalt stone. Discovered in 1799 by Napoleon's army in Rashid, or Rosetta, Egypt, this stone provided the key to the oldest and most difficult Egyptian writing system, hieroglyphics.

The usefulness of the Rosetta Stone was in the repetition of text in three writing systems: hieroglyphics; demotic script, a later form of hieroglyphics that was used in everyday documents "for the people," as its name means; and ancient Greek. The deciphering of the stone was the work of British physician and physicist Thomas Young, who determined the direction in which certain symbols were to be read, and the French linguist Jean-Francois Champollion, who worked on the stone in 1821 and 1822. Their work enabled scholars to understand all forms of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The Rosetta stone is an irregularly shaped stone of black basalt that was found near the town of Rashid, or Rosetta, Egypt, in 1799. It bears inscriptions in the two ancient languages of Greek and Egyptian. Jean-Francois Champollion used this stone to figure out, for the first time, the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics. In addition to his role in translating this ancient picture language, he was the founder of scientific Egyptology and a brilliant historian and linguist.

Champollion was born in Figeac, France, on Dec. 23, 1790. By the age of 16 he had mastered six ancient Middle Eastern languages as well as Latin and Greek. When only 19 he was named professor of history at the Lyceum of Grenoble. His constant preoccupation became the deciphering of hieroglyphics. He succeeded at this difficult task because the Rosetta stone is inscribed with known Greek equivalents of the ancient Egyptian writing. He published his first papers on hieroglyphics in 1821 and 1822 and established a list of the signs and their Greek translations.

In 1826 Champollion became director of the Egyptian collection at the Louvre museum in Paris, and two years later he conducted an archaeological expedition to Egypt. In 1831 he was given the professorship of Egyptian antiquities, which had been created especially for him, at the College of France. His published works included an Egyptian grammar and dictionary, the 'Primer of the Hieroglyphic System', and a book entitled 'Egyptian Pantheon'.

1822: Rosetta Stone deciphered

Visitors to the British Museum in London can inspect a piece of black basalt measuring 45 inches (114 centimeters) by 28.5 inches (72 centimeters) upon which are inscribed ancient Egyptian and Greek texts. This chunk of basalt is one of the most valuable archaeological finds ever made. It was found near Rash d (or Rosetta), Egypt, in 1799 by a Frenchman named Bouchard, after Napoleon's invasion of Egypt.

When the French were forced to surrender their conquest to England in 1801, the Rosetta Stone fell into British hands and found its way to the British Museum. When experts were allowed to examine the stone, they noted that it had inscriptions in hieroglyphics, demotic script (derived from hieroglyphics), and ancient Greek. It was the presence of Greek that provided Thomas Young of England and Jean-Francois Champollion of France with the key to translating the inscriptions.

Champollion began publishing the results of his work in 1821-22. He and Young laid the foundation for translation of all later Egyptian hieroglyphic texts.

Home Page

World History Center