Jean-François Champollion was a French philologist and orientalist who is widely known till date for deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Rosetta Stone. Champollion was the founding figure of Egyptology during the early 19th century. A child prodigy, young Champollion was a master at languages, having mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, Coptic, Sanskrit and Persian. At the age of sixteen he read a paper on the Coptic language before the Grenoble Academy. It was due to his love for languages that he worked extensively to retrieve the numerous kinds of information recorded by the ancient Egyptians by deciphering the function and nature of hieroglyphs script. In addition to his research, Champollion also took up academic positions. In 1822, he made the ground-breaking discovery on hieroglyphic and non-hieroglyphic scripts in ‘Lettre à M. Dacier’. Two years later, he came up with a longer thesis that contained full decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was on his trip to Egypt that Champollion read many hieroglyphic texts that had never been studied before, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions. His last academic position was as the Professor of Egyptology at the College de France
Childhood & Early Life
Jean-François Champollion was born on December 23, 1790 in Figeac, Lot, to Jacques Champollion and Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu. He was the last of the seven children born to the couple and was fondly referred to as Champollion le Jeune (the young).
Young Champollion was mostly under the care and guidance of his elder brother, Jacques-Joseph. It was his brother who taught him to read and write and supported his education. Senior Champollion also instilled in him an interest for Ancient Egypt.
Champollion attained his formal education from Abbé Dussert School. It was therein that his genius for languages was first realized. He not just learned Latin and Greek, but mastered Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean as well.
His interest in Ancient Egypt brought him to the notice of Joseph Fourier, prefect of Grenoble. Amused by the tremendous interest shown by Champollion, Fourier invited the young boy to his home and showed him his collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts and documents.
Though Champollion’s visit to Fourier’s home is highly speculated, some believe that it was during this visit that Champollion was so fascinated by the hieroglyphs that he vowed to be able to read them one day and turn them into intelligible matter. Fourier did cast an important influence over Champollion and inspired and supported the latter in his interest in Ancient Egypt.
In 1804, Champollion attended Lycee in Grenoble. He despised studying there as the institute restricted the study of oriental languages to a day per week. At Lycee, he studied Coptic, which proved to be crucial in his deciphering of hieroglyphs.
In 1806, he submitted his essay on ‘Geographical Description of Egypt before the Conquest of Cambyses’ before the Academy of Grenoble. Impressed by his work, the members admitted Champollion to the Academy.
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In 1807, Champollion moved to Paris to study under the tutelage of Silvestre de Sacy. Sacy along with Louis-Mathieu Langlès and Raphaël de Monachis, was the first Frenchman who attempted to read the Rosetta stone.
In Paris, he used his time wisely, switching himself between the College of Fance, Special School of Oriental Languages, National Library and Commission of Egypt, which was in charge of publishing the findings of Egyptian expeditions.
In 1808, he independently began his study of the Rosetta stone from its replica created by Abbe de Tersan. It was during this study that he confirmed some of the readings of the demotic made in 1802 by Johan David Åkerblad.
In 1810, he returned to Grenoble from Paris. Shortly after, he took up the chair of assistant professor of Ancient History at the then newly-opened Grenoble University.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Champollion was to be drafted into the army for military service. However, he escaped conscription with the help of his brother and prefect Grenoble Joseph who claimed that Champollion’s work on deciphering the Egyptian script was far more important.
In spite of Napoleon’s defeat at the end of Hundred Days, Champollion brothers sided with Napoleon and aided Napoleonic general, Drouet d'Erlon, escape death by helping him escape to Munich. As a result of this, Champollion lost his university position and was without an academic post.
Despite losing his academic position, Champollion did not stop working on Egyptian hieroglyphs. Examining texts brought from Egypt, he discovered a relationship between hieroglyphic and non-hieroglyphic scripts.
Along with his brother, Champollion set up Lancaster schools with an aim to provide education to the general public. It was a revolutionary effort taking into consideration that education until then was only for the privileged few.
In 1822, he summarised his ground-breaking discoveries on hieroglyphic and non-hieroglyphic scripts in his famous work, ‘Lettre à M. Dacier’. He followed this up with a longer thesis, Précis, in 1824 that gave detailed information on the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of the phonetic and ideographic signs. The thesis was the perfect answer to the much-awaited translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics
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Following the publication of his revolutionary discoveries, he met Duke of Bracas who in turn became his patron. Attaining the favour of the king, he was appointed as the Conservator of the Egyptian collections at Louvre. In the position, he travelled to Turin to inspect and catalogue a collection of Egyptian materials.
From 1828 to 1830, he travelled to Egypt, conducting the first systematic survey of the country’s monuments, history and archaeology. Therein, he read many hieroglyphic texts that had never been studied before, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.
On his return from Egypt in 1830, he was made Professor of Egyptology at the Collège de France. However, after about three lectures, he had to give up on his post due to failing health.
Champollion’s magnum opus of his career came with decoding hieroglyphs in his 1822 work, ‘Lettre à M. Dacier’. In it, he established a list of hieroglyphic signs and their Greek equivalents, recognizing some as alphabetic, some syllabic, and some determinative. He followed this up with the 1824 work Précis in which he detailed the decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of the phonetic and ideographic signs.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1818, Champollion tied the nuptial knot with Rosine Blanc, his fiancé. The couple was blessed with a daughter Zoraïde Champollion.
Briefly, Champollion was in a love affair with Italian poet, Angelica Palli. She even dedicated an ode to Champollion's work at a celebration. Though the two exchanged a couple of letters, the relationship did not go any further.
Since early days, Champollion suffered from prolonged illness, gout and tinnitus. His condition deteriorated during his years in Paris—the unhygienic living conditions and the damp climate worsened his state of health.
In 1832, he breathed his last due to apoplectic attack in Paris. Exhaustion and excessive exertion due to scientific expedition to Egypt led to the attack. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
His last work, the great Egyptian grammar and dictionary, was published posthumously by his brother.
To commemorate his discoveries including the field of Egyptology, his birthplace at Figeac in Lot has been turned into a museum. The museum is a window to Champollion's life and discoveries and also recounts the history of writing. Figeac also honoured him with a monumental reproduction of the Rosetta Stone.
Over the years, his life has been the subject of various films and documentaries. A street in Cairo bears his name. He also has a lunar crater on the dark side of the moon named after him.