Mystery of the Rosetta Stone - Part 2:
to Decipher the Code
Jacques-Joseph Champollion was working in his
office at the Institute of France on September 14 of 1822 and
worrying about his little brother. The younger Champollion, Jean-Francios,
had been working night and day on his obsession: deciphering the
strange little drawings (known as hieroglyphics) left by the ancient
Egyptians. Suddenly the elder Champollion's door burst open and
Jean-Francios rushed in and in a frenzy shouted, "I've done it!
I've done it!" He started to tell his brother what he had done,
but before he got very far he fell to the floor as if he were
When the scientists that accompanied Napoleon to
Egypt in 1798 returned to France, they started publishing their
findings. In 1802, Vivant Denon's illustrated book, Voyage
dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, came out featuring his sketches
of Egyptian ruins. It was a huge bestseller in France and throughout
Western Europe. This, and the reports from other scholars, set
off a wave of Egyptomania throughout the country. Egyptian styles
found their way into architecture, ornaments and fashions. Napoleon
actively promoted Egyptian motifs as a method of breaking away
from the symbols used by previous regimes. This mania added even
more attention to the mystery of the Egyptian's strange, unreadable
text, hieroglyphics, and scholars soon realized that solving the
riddle of understanding this script would be a way to fame and
fortune. Soon the race to decode the text was on.
Although the Rosetta Stone, which was covered with
a version of a proclamation in both Egyptian and Greek, became
property of the British, the French scientists had made multiple
copies of the text of the stone while it was in their possession
by rolling ink over the surface of the slab and pressing paper
against it. This produced a clear negative image of the writing.
Once the British got a hold of the stone they did the same thing
along with also making plaster casts of it that were sent to the
universities at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Trinity Colleges.
Soon scholars all over Europe were trying to use the copies from
the stone to figure out the meaning of the Egyptian scripts.
Most of the researchers focused on the second portion
of the stone containing the Eygptian"demotic" script. It was thought
that since this type of Egyptian lettering was cursive (that is,
the letters were connected) this script must use alphabetic symbols,
like most western languages, instead of the picture symbols of
the hieroglyphics. Once the scientists could determine the alphabet,
they thought, the words should be easy to decode. In 1802, one
French scholar, Sylvestre de Sacy, started looking at the proper
names in the Greek and tried to match them up with the names in
the demotic. He did manage to find the names, but could not determine
which markings were the individual letters. Eventually he gave
up saying, "The problem is too complicated - scientifically insoluble!"
A Swede, Johan Akerblad, who was a student of Sacy,
made better progress. He was able to find in the demotic all the
proper names mentioned in the Greek portion of the passage and
from that created an alphabet composed of 29 letters. He was also
able to demonstrate that these letters occurred in other words
in the passage that weren't proper names. There his progress stopped,
however. Later on it was found that Akerblald's demotic alphabet
was about fifty percent correct.
Thomas Young: A man of many scientific talents.
Much more progress was made by the British Dr. Thomas
Young. Young, born in 1773, had a gift for languages from an early
age. He read by the age of two and by twenty knew Arabic, Persian
and Turkish along with several other languages. Fortunately an
inheritance that was left to him allowed him to pursue any subject
of study that interested him. As it turned out, this included
medicine and physics. He even wrote a book called The Undulatory
Theory of Light. In 1804 Young got a hold of one of the copies
of the stone and decided to take a crack at decoding the unknown
scripts. Young, like everyone else, started with the demotic.
He studied the names in the Greek and compared them to the symbols
in the demotic that Akerbald had identified as names. He noticed
that each time the names appeared, they were set off on either
end by characters that looked a lot like parentheses. It occurred
to him that this was very similar to the names found in the oblong
hieroglyphic cartouches. Could this be a simpler version of the
cartouche? Young was able to go on to identify groups of letters
that composed words in the demotic, but after that he was stymied.
Instead of giving up, however, he decided to try working on the
hieroglyphic section. It was a good decision. He soon came to
recognize that for every demotic symbol, there was a hieroglyphic
one. In fact, the demotic symbols were just simpler versions of
the hieroglyphical ones. This was a major breakthough. The demotic
script was apparently just an easier to write version of hieroglyphics
in the same way that cursive writing is an easier, less formal
way of writing printed English.
Young also came to believe that in some of the non-Egyptian
names in the passage the letters didn't stand for an idea, but
for phonetic sounds, just like in English. He was right, but still
could not decode the rest of the demotic or hieroglyphic text.
What he had learned, however, Young put into an article for the
Supplement to the 14th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica
published in 1819.
Champollion: Took up the challange to decipher hieroglyphics
at the age of ten.
The French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion was
not independently wealthy, like Young, but he did possess a similar
natural gift for languages. Born in 1790, he decided and early
in his education to make his life goal to research the origins
of mankind. To do this he thought it would be necessary to learn
and understand as many of the Middle Eastern languages as he could.
Jean-Francois had an older brother, Jacques-Joseph,
who recognized the genius in his sibling and did everything he
could to furnish him with an education that would allow him to
flourish as a scholar. To this end he took him to live with him
in the city of Grenoble. While there, the younger Champollion,
at age eleven, was invited to visit the house of Jean-Baptiste-Joseph
Fourier. Fourier was a famous scientist and had been one of the
scholars that had gone to Egypt with Napoleon. Fourier was also
connected with the school Champollion was attending and had heard
good things about the young genius.
At first Champollion was so overwhelmed by being
able to meet Fourier - (who was the most powerful person in Grenoble)
- he could hardly speak. As Fourier began to tell him about the
Egyptian expedition and about the Rosetta Stone with the strange
symbols that nobody could read, Champollion became fascinated.
Fourier, had a copy of the stone's text among his Egyptian collection
and showed it to the boy. Champollion left the meeting having
decided he would not only study hieroglyphics, but determined
to be the person who would finally decipher their meaning.
To this end Champollion had learned Greek, Hebrew,
Arabic, Sanskrit and Persian along with several western languages
by the age of 17. The language he really thought would unlock
the key to the stone, though, was Coptic. Champollion suspected
that the Coptic language, once used by Egyptian Christians, might
have elements of the ancient hieroglyphics preserved within it.
Like earlier scholars, Champollion at first thought
that the hieroglyphs were completely symbolic. Around 1822, however,
he reversed his thinking and pursued the idea that at least some
of the symbols were phonetic in nature. Critics of Champollion
argue that he got the idea from reading Young's article in the
Encyclopaedia Britannica, but Champollion later denied
this. To go beyond Young's work Champollion would have to show
that other names in the hieroglyphic script were written using
phonic symbols. The number of names on the Rosetta Stone itself
was limited, so Champollion would have to search for other texts
that might fulfill his requirements. This turned out to be a frustrating
task, but fortunately a colleague sent him an inscription he'd
seen in the ruins of a temple on the Nile River island of Philae.
Like the Rosetta Stone this inscription was written in both Greek
and hieroglyphics and contained the names of Pharaoh Ptolemy VII
and his Queen, Cleopatra II. Correcting some of the mistakes made
by Young he was able to show that many of the hieroglyphic symbols
in the name Ptolemy were in the right place in the name Cleopatra
if those symbols carried phonetic values.
saw that some of the symbols in the two names were the same
if the symbols were phonic in nature.
Over the next several months Champollion was able
to decode more than eighty names and identified the meanings of
more than one-hundred hieroglyphic symbols. Still, he couldn't
be sure that the hieroglyphics were purely phonetic. He had mostly
decoded names from the period when the Greeks were ruling Egypt.
Suppose their names were special cases because they were foreign?
To test this idea, he obtained some inscriptions from an earlier
period and examined the royal names found in the oblong cartouches.
He recognized one as having a double "s" sound on the
end. The symbol in the beginning appeared to be that of the sun,
something he knew from his studies of Coptic to be pronounced
"rah." The symbol in the center seemed to be connected with the
word "birthday" on the Greek translation of the Rosetta Stone.
He decided to use the Coptic word meaning "to give birth" which
was pronounced "mes." When he put it all together he got the name
Rameses (meaning "The Child of the Sun God"). Rameses, Champollion
knew, was one of the most famous pharaohs mentioned in the Bible.
Champollion used the same approach to decode another
name and realized the significance of what it meant: hieroglyphics
were not strictly symbolic or phonetic, but a mixture of both.
This was the breakthrough that sent him running to his brother's
office to give him with so much excitement that he fainted upon
Over the next months he continued to use his knowledge
of Coptic to build up a set of translated hieroglyphics and rules
for reading the script which he published in a book in 1824. In
this book he explained that the key to understanding the writing
was that it was "symbolic and phonetic in the same text, the same
phrase, and the same word."
His success made Champollion instantly famous. He
got to meet the King of France, Louis XVIII, and in 1826 was put
in charge of the Egyptian Museum at the Louvre. Finally, in 1828
he was able to travel to Egypt itself to journey up the Nile River
and read the inscriptions on the ancient temple ruins for himself.
He continued to work on compiling a dictionary of hieroglyphics
and associated grammar until his death in 1832 at the age of 42.
Since then archeologists have been able to expand
Champollion's rules and use them to translate thousands and thousands
of lines of hieroglyphic text, opening up the ancient Egyptian
history to our understanding. Meanwhile, the strange slab of rock
that started it all when it was found at Rosetta still sits at
the British Museum in London where it is viewed by thousands of
visitors each year. Compared to the statues around it, it may
look unimportant, but more than the impressive art that surrounds
it, it was the key to understanding the Egyptian civilization.
Return to Part I
Riddle of the Rosetta Stone by James Cross Giblin, Harper Collins
British Museum Book of The Rosetta Stone by Carol Andrews, Peter
Bedrick Books, 1981.
Keys to Egypt by Lesley and Roy Adkins, Harper Collins Publishers,
Mystery of the Hieroglyphs by Carol Donoughue, Oxford University
Copyright Lee Krystek
2006. All Rights Reserved.