The Rivals Who Cracked the Code of Ancient Egypt’s Hieroglyphs

In July 1799, French troops constructing fortifications for Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian marketing campaign unearthed an odd black basalt slab. It was nearly 4 ft tall and practically 2.5 ft huge; its edges had been jagged. It was additionally lined in writing.

The troops’ commanding officer, an erudite engineer named Pierre-François Bouchard, acknowledged that the slab bore some type of message written in three languages. One of the scripts was Ancient Greek; one was unknown; and one seemed to be hieroglyphs—the misplaced sacred language of historic Egypt, which had not been understood for over a thousand years.

The stone, discovered close to the Nile Delta city of Rosetta, would show to be the key to unlocking a millennia-old thriller.

The Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab inscribed with a decree of the pharaoh Ptolemy V in three languages.

The Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab inscribed with a decree of the pharaoh Ptolemy V in three languages. / Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Hulton Archive through Getty Images

Deciphering the historic Egyptian script was a longtime purpose of European students. Centuries earlier, Greek and Roman writers had ascribed mystical qualities to Egyptian tradition, and early trendy European vacationers to Egypt had introduced again sculptures carved with the inscrutable pictographs, which appeared to help Egypt’s affiliation with occult information. Napoleon’s marketing campaign in Egypt stoked extra scholarly curiosity in the origins of the nice pyramids, temples, and writing system.

Bouchard ordered the slab to be preserved for Napoleon’s rising assortment of Egyptian treasures. Unfortunately for the French, they had been defeated by English forces in 1801. Soon after, the British military seized their assortment of Egyptian booty, together with the Rosetta Stone, which it gave as a present to King George III.

But earlier than it misplaced the priceless artifact, French students had created copies of the inscriptions that made their method round Europe. Over the subsequent decade, linguists confirmed that the inscription at the prime of the stone was written in hieroglyphs, a writing system that had died out by the finish of the 4th century CE together with students’ capability to interpret it. The center inscription was in “demotic” script, the kind of Egyptian utilized by on a regular basis individuals. Translation of the Ancient Greek textual content at the backside of the stone indicated that it was a decree issued by Ptolemy V in 196 BCE. Crucially, the final line revealed that each one three inscriptions had been equal in that means.

When the sensible British polymath Thomas Young took up the problem of deciphering it in 1814, he was unaware that an equally sensible French linguist named Jean-François Champollion had already been finding out the mysterious hieroglyphs for a number of years. The race to crack the code started in earnest.

Thomas Young knew 12 languages earlier than he turned 18 and educated as a doctor at Cambridge University. As befits somebody nicknamed “Phenomenon” by his classmates, Young later turned his consideration to an array of scientific pursuits, turning into a key member of the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. He started finding out the Rosetta Stone after studying a e book on the historical past of languages.

Thomas Young, English physicist and Egyptologist

Thomas Young, English physicist and Egyptologist / Print Collector/GettyImages

Young took a replica of the stone’s textual content with him on vacation to the seaside resort of Worthing, the place he approached the process of decipherment as if it had been a mathematical puzzle, slicing up the inscriptions into particular person traces and trying to match them with each other. But this method received him solely up to now. He nonetheless couldn’t determine if hieroglyphs represented an precise spoken language, and whether or not the written symbols associated to sounds, letters, complete phrases, and even easy ideas.

Undeterred by his lack of rapid progress, Young continued his analysis, specializing in the demotic script to decode the hieroglyphs. He printed well-respected articles on Egypt for the Encyclopedia Britannica between 1816 and 1818, together with his insights into hieroglyphic and demotic scripts. Young, raised in the Quaker custom, was fittingly modest and initially printed his findings anonymously—although many in London’s mental group knew he was the writer.

After years of dogged work, Young lastly made a breakthrough—he realized the hieroglyphic cartouches (photos surrounded by an oval) contained the identify of the ruler Ptolemy. This allowed him to start to match up the historic Greek letters in Ptolemy’s identify with their hieroglyphic equivalents. In 1819, he printed a paper wherein he tentatively urged the doable phonetic sounds made by 13 hieroglyphs—the first main step in cracking the code. Using these keys, Young started to translate each hieroglyphs and demotic, reviving two writing techniques that hadn’t been understood for millennia.

Young’s scholarly pursuits ran the gamut, however the similar couldn’t be stated for Jean-François Champollion. The dashing Frenchman, 17 years youthful than his rival, was a real Egyptologist, sharply centered on the tradition and language of the historic civilization. By the time Young printed his decipherment in 1819, Champollion had been fixated on the problem of deciphering hieroglyphs for a couple of decade. He believed his information of Egyptian Coptic—the obscure, surviving liturgical language of Egypt’s Christians—gave him the higher hand over different students.

Portrait of Jean-Francois Champollion by Leon Cogniet

Jean-Francois Champollion by Leon Cogniet / Leemage/GettyImages

“Thomas Young approached the decipherment like a crossword puzzle, because he didn’t really care about ancient Egypt,” Diane Josefowicz writes in Riddle of the Rosetta. “Champollion was much more interested in Egyptian history and culture, and because of this, he was one of the first to make extensive use of Coptic … knowledge of Coptic turned out to be key to the decipherment.”

Like Young, Champollion targeting cartouches as the most promising means for decipherment. Using a principle that hieroglyphs represented a combination of ideograms and alphabetic indicators, Champollion put his Coptic fluency into observe to decipher the cartouches of the pharaohs Ramses and Thutmose. After working day and evening to translate the imagery, Champollion realized he’d cracked the elusive code and ran breathlessly into his brother’s workplace, yelling, “I’ve got it!” Then he fainted. For the subsequent 5 days, Toby Wilkinson in A World Beneath the Sands, Champollion was confined to mattress with extreme exhaustion.

After translating a number of extra cartouches, Champollion was capable of create a sizeable alphabet of hieroglyphs and their Greek equivalents, and introduced his findings at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris on July 27, 1822. Young attended the assembly as effectively, and met his sensible French counterpart for the first time. Perhaps Young anticipated Champollion to quote his groundbreaking 1819 paper on hieroglyphs. But Champollion conceded no debt to his discoveries. The trace of a grudge started to kind in Young’s thoughts.

“He devotes his whole time to the pursuit, and he has been wonderfully successful in some of the documents which he has obtained,” Young wrote to his pal Hudson Gurney. “How far he will acknowledge everything which he has either borrowed or might have borrowed, I am not quite confident, but the world will be sure to remark que c’est le premier pas qui coûte [it is only the first step that is difficult], though the proverb is less true in this case than in most others, for here every step is laborious.”

Taken aback by the celebration of Champollion’s achievement, and fearful that the affect of his personal work was being ignored, Young threw his modesty apart.

In 1823, Young printed his rebuttal, An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature, and Egyptian Antiquities. To underline what he noticed as his foundational contribution to the decipherment, Young added a slightly snippy subtitle: Including the writer’s unique alphabet, as prolonged by Mr. Champollion. Summing up his overview of Champollion’s investigations, Young wrote, “However Mr. Champollion may have arrived at his conclusions, I admit them, with the greatest pleasure and gratitude, not by any means as superseding my system, but as fully confirming and extending it.”

Hieroglyphs in the notebook of Jean-Francois Champollion, c.1806-1832.

Hieroglyphs in the pocket book of Jean-Francois Champollion, c.1806-1832. / Art Media/Print Collector/Hulton Archive through Getty Images

The Frenchman was to not be riled by Young’s pointed offense and made his place fairly clear: “I shall never consent to recognize any other original alphabet than my own … and the unanimous opinion of scholars on this point will be more and more confirmed by the public examination of any other claim.”

Young backed down from the public squabble whereas his British colleagues referred to as out Champollion’s “effrontery” in the press. The polymath spent the previous few years of his life compiling a dictionary of demotic script. Following his dying in 1829, his pal Hudson Gurney paid for a plaque in London’s Westminster Abbey itemizing Young’s quite a few achievements as the man who “first penetrated the obscurity which had veiled for ages the hieroglyphicks of Egypt.” Young’s mates ensured that, in dying, no less than, he discovered some credit score for his foundational work in unlocking historic Egypt’s language.

Champollion, in the meantime, continued to work on deciphering hieroglyphs, and with wealthy patrons to help and promote his work, he refined and rethought his unique analysis. In 1824, he printed his definitive treatise on his decipherment, Précis du Système Hiéroglyphique des Anciens Égyptiens, wherein he defined that hieroglyphs had been in actual fact phonetic, symbolic, and figurative —finally offering the key to creating historic Egyptian hieroglyphs a readable language.

In his lifetime Champollion was lauded as the “father of Egyptology,” and he cemented his popularity by touring to Egypt, the place he deciphered quite a few inscriptions. But the rigors of abroad journey ruined his well being. Champollion died in 1832 at the age of simply 41.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is synonymous with the unlocking of any nice secret. Exactly 100 years after Champollion introduced his first breakthrough in his hieroglyphic research, British archaeologist Howard Carter moved apart a door in a long-forgotten Egyptian tomb and unveiled the riches of King Tut, displaying the world that many extra mysteries of historic Egypt awaited decipherment.

Additional supply: A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology


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