Two centuries ago this week, French linguist Jean-François Champollion announced that he had cracked the code of hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptian writing system that had puzzled scholars for centuries. RFI tells the story of a breakthrough that revolutionised human understanding of one of the world's oldest civilisations.
In September 1822, a 32-year-old man hurtled out of 28 rue Mazarine in Paris.
He raced towards the River Seine where, on the opposite bank, the Louvre Museum had been established 29 years earlier. He stopped before the Pont des Arts, the newfangled metallic bridge built on the orders of the late Napoleon Bonaparte, dead since the previous spring.
He stormed into the Institut de France, the society of learning set up shortly after the Louvre in a grand domed building opposite.
Once inside, he rushed to the office of one Jacques-Joseph Champollion, one of the institute's corresponding members.
The young man thrust a bundle of notes onto the scholar's desk. “I've got it!” he exclaimed. Then he fell to the floor, unconscious.
A legendary discovery
That, at least, is how the story goes of one of history's most famous breakthroughs: how to decode hieroglyphics, the complex system of writing used in ancient Egypt.
Legend has it the man responsible, Jean-François Champollion – the younger brother of Jacques-Joseph – was so overcome by the feat that he remained bedridden for the next five days.
But around two weeks later, on 27 September 1822, he presented his findings publicly at France's Academy of Inscriptions and Fine Writing.
What he had realised was that hieroglyphs weren't just pictures representing words, or phonetic symbols making sounds; instead they combined the two.
And using his knowledge of other languages used in Egypt over the centuries, Champollion the younger had begun teasing out their meaning.
The story begins in the 1790s: Champollion was born at the beginning of the decade and by its end, Napoleon was leading the French invasion of Egypt.
The campaign, which saw more than 160 scholars and artists dispatched alongside soldiers, brought scores of specimens, sketches and artefacts back to France and sparked a new obsession throughout Europe: the ancient Egyptians.
But understanding the lost civilisation was impossible without understanding hieroglyphs, which no linguist alive could read.
No one had written them since around 400AD. Arab scholars had tried to translate them in medieval times, with some success, but their work was overlooked in the West. And later Europeans had floundered.
Then French soldiers unearthed a tantalising clue: a stone fragment spotted under a fort near the Egyptian port of Rashid – or as the French called it, Rosette.
It bore three inscriptions. At the top were hieroglyphics – the “language of the gods”, reserved for formal texts – in the middle, the “language of documents”, another Egyptian script used for everyday purposes, and at the bottom, in ancient Greek, the language of the final dynasty to rule ancient Egypt.
Classicists could still read the last of these scripts. That meant scholars might be able to work backwards from what the text meant to how it was written and finally understand how hieroglyphics worked.
French troops carried the stone with them to Alexandria, where they soon found themselves surrounded by British forces. They surrendered in 1801, with the British insisting on claiming their most important archaeological finds.
The “pierre de Rosette” was shipped to England, where it joined the British Museum the following year as the Rosetta Stone.
Meanwhile in France, Champollion was a precocious schoolboy with a flair for languages.
Born on 23 December, 1790 in Figeac, a small town in south-west France, he mastered Latin and Greek and then moved on to non-European languages. By his teens he had developed a fascination with Egypt, announcing to his parents at age 15: “I want to make a profound and continuous study of this ancient nation.”
Champollion moved to Paris to continue his studies, juggling classes in Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, Amharic and Assyrian. Crucially, he also found a priest to teach him Coptic, the language spoken by Egyptian Coptic Christians in Roman times and still used in the church.
“I'm surrendering myself entirely to Coptic,” he wrote to his brother in 1809, having decided that the language must be the key to understanding hieroglyphics.
“I wish to know Egyptian like my French, because on that language will be based my great work on the Egyptian papyri.”
Race for the Rosetta Stone
At the time Champollion wasn't focused on the Rosetta Stone, which had remained undeciphered.
A few scholars had made inroads. Thanks to the Greek text they knew that the inscription concerned a king called Ptolemy, so they looked for clusters of signs in the middle script that might correspond to the name. That allowed them to start pairing signs with certain sounds.
But progress stalled until a British linguist, doctor and physicist named Thomas Young turned his attention to the hieroglyphs. Though he wasn't an expert on Egypt, he approached the text like a codebreaker, scouring it for patterns and noticing similarities between the different scripts that no one else had seen.
Starting once more from “Ptolemy”, he tentatively suggested which hieroglyphs made up the sounds in the name. But he mistakenly believed that names were the exception, and that otherwise hieroglyphs didn't represent sounds at all.
In 1819 Young published his findings, which were the furthest anyone had got in the 20 years since the Rosetta Stone had been found.
Champollion read Young's work and took up the challenge. With his close knowledge of Coptic, he was able to make leaps that Young had not – intuiting, for example, that a circular sign should be read aloud as “ra”, the Coptic word for sun.
Most importantly he grasped that hieroglyphs might work differently in different cases, sometimes representing whole words and other times individual sounds. As he put it: “It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word.”
Champollion cross-checked his readings by trying them out on other samples of hieroglyphics. When he found that his system allowed him to find credible meanings in previously undeciphered texts, he was convinced he had it.
Minutes later, as his family would recount, he was dashing down the rue Mazarine to find his brother.
When Champollion presented his theory later the same month, it attracted worldwide attention – including from Young and others who resented the excitable young linguist's failure to acknowledge how much he had drawn on their groundwork.
Champollion dismissed his rivals – probably unfairly – and continued to develop his ideas, publishing ever more detailed guides to the hieroglyphs in the years that followed.
He was put in charge of building up a collection of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre and, by order of France's King Charles X, he became the museum's first Egypt curator in 1826.
Two years later he finally got to go to the country that had obsessed him for more than half his life. “I am Egypt's entirely, she is my everything,” he wrote from beside the Nile.
The trip also confirmed in Champollion's mind once and for all that he was right. “Our alphabet is correct,” he wrote to the head of the Academy of Inscriptions during his travels, declaring it applied equally well to all the monuments of Egypt.
In fact it was far from perfect. It took several decades and other experts to finally fill in the gaps. But as more texts came to light, scholars tried Champollion's method on them and found that it worked.
By March 1832 Champollion was dead, after a stroke at the age of 41. He was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, under a plain sandstone obelisk.
Another obelisk stands in Figeac, where he was born. Made of French granite, its base is lined with two bronze plaques copied from Egyptian sculptures.
Designing it just a few years after his death, Champollion's admirers understood enough to choose the right hieroglyphics. They read: “To eternity”.