first person to reconstruct the ancient Egyptian language. Having been a child prodigy with an insatiable appetite for languages, Champollion is generally credited with deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (picture writing) In 1822 when he presented his paper Lettre à Monsieur Dacier relative à l'alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques to the French Academy. Previous attempts at decipherment by Europeans were thwarted by the widely held opinion that hieroglyphs were allegorical cryptograms with encoded arcane information, which had to be “interpreted” rather than translated. This symbolic approach was so rooted in academic circles that Champollion himself was its proponent as late as 1821.

The discovery of a stela (commemorative stone) at Rosetta, near Alexandria, in July 1799 by Pierre Bouchard, an engineer in Napoleon's army and its subsequent surrender to the British after their defeat of the French forces in Egypt In 1801 made such an impression on Europeans that this monument, now known as the Rosetta Stone, became the focus of intense academic scrutiny.

The Rosetta Stone contains a decree issued by Egyptian priests in honor of the Macedonian Greek pharaoh of Egypt, Ptolemy V Epiphanes, In 196 BCE. The text is written in hieroglyphs, demotic (a cursive script), and ancient Greek. Working on the inscription from 1814 to 1818, Thomas Young, a British polymath, identified about eighty words appearing in all three versions. He communicated his findings to Champollion by letter and published them in a supplement (1819) to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Champollion never admitted in print his indebtedness to Young. However, Champollion's knowledge of Coptic (the latest form of the ancient Egyptian language) and Greek enabled him to surpass Young's work and to lay the scientific foundations upon which the systematic study of ancient Egyptian as a language is based. The initial work by Young and its perfection by Champollion are astounding because of the great number of hieroglyphs—more than seven thousand—that existed when the Rosetta Stone was written. By contrast, the earlier, classical periods of the ancient Egyptian language used seven hundred signs.

[See also Egyptian; Hieroglyphs.]


  • Andrews, Carol. The Rosetta Stone. London, 1981.
  • Ziegler, Christiane. “Champollion et le déchiffrement des hiéroglyphes.” In Naissance de l'écriture: Cunéiformes et hiéroglyphes, edited by Jean-Paul Boulanger, pp. 369–375. 4th ed. Paris, 1982.

Robert Steven Bianchi