Jean-Francoiş Champollion, the Egyptologist who deciphered hieroglyphics

Updated: Aug 11, 2018

Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) transformed Egyptology through his cracking of the puzzle that was hieroglyphics. Born in Figeac (with a museum dedicated to him in his native home), Champollion took advantage of the lycees created by Napoleon Bonaparte and studied in Grenoble. With a voracious appetite for languages, he was proficient in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian and Arabic in his teens. Arriving in Paris at the age of 17, Champollion held high hopes of learning at the École des Langues orientales, where he would be under the tutelage of the country’s most respected orientalists. It was in Paris that Champollion began to examine the Rosetta Stone, found by a French officer. Transferred to British hands as war booty, Champollion had to make due with a copy. He began to work on translating the text, which had Egyptian hieroglyphics on the top, Egyptian cursive and Greek in the middle and bottom respectively.

After a decade in Grenoble where he receives his Doctorat, Champollion becames a teacher, who provoked the ire of his Administration for his Republican views. Champollion and his brother (a librarian) were summarily exiled to Figeac from 1816-17.

Returning to Grenoble, he married and spent another three years. Leaving Grenoble for good in 1821, he moves to Paris, where in 1822, he finally pieced together the grammar and syntax of hieroglyphics. In so doing he screams, “Je tiens l’affaire”! (I’ve got it!). He dedicated his work to Academician Dacier of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, one of the most renowned society of scholars concentrated on ancient civilisations.

After studying the mass of Egyptian antiquities which had been taken back to Italy for 18 months, France’s King Charles X appointed Champollion as the Head of the Egyptology Department at the Louvre Museum in 1826, at the age of 36. In 1828-1829, he set out on an expedition to Egypt, which brought him into contact with a number of archaeological sites. Upon returning, he himself is named a member of the prestigious Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. The accolades kept tumbling in as King Louis-Philippe named him Professor at the Collège de France.

Having packed into a brief life what most of us could never accomplish in a much longer one, Champollion died of a stroke at the age of 42 in 1832. His Monuments de l’Egypte, based largely on his findings from his expedition to Egypt, was released posthumously in 1845.

Champollion, through his unceasing dedication to languages and in deciphering hieroglyphics, built not only a linguistic bridge between Ancient Egypt and Europe, but opened a window into the soul of a civilisation.

The Musée Champollion in Figeac, France is a fascinating experience, which not only highlights the life and work of Champollion (he was born in the house), but it also provides excellent multimedia approaches to language. It also holds an impressive collection of antiquities as well, many statues littered with some of the first writings. The museum examines cuneiform, hieroglyphics, Chinese characters and has an impressive display of some of the first writings in book form. The materials used range from terracotta and stone to parchment, leather and even wood. An enormous 5×8 metre copy of the Rosetta Stone is in an adjacent courtyard, where children can trace copies of the letters/characters.

This is a very unique museum, which tells a story about something that we use everyday, but rarely take a moment to appreciate. The Musée Champollion is well worth a visit.

Afterthought: When I was in graduate school learning Russian, it took me an entire Friday night writing “who, what, why, when, where and how” at least 100 times each in Russian for just these six words to be scratched into my memory. Too exhausted to scream, “I’ve got it” that evening, learning that language and others have paid off professionally over the years. I remember one specific encounter with a Central Asian Minister about ten years ago and we waded into the untouchable issue of corruption in his country. He paused halfway through and said, “You know, I would never say any of this through a translator.” I smiled. Yes, I did know that.

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