200-year celebration: Champollion, the basalt slab & how the hieroglyphic code was cracked.
By Laura Ranieri Roy
In September 1822, the eureka moment happened. An impoverished young French scholar, Jean Francois Champollion, made a giant leap forward to solve the mystery of the hieroglyphic writing system and read what was on the Rosetta Stone.
As recounted by his nephew later on, he dashed out of his apartment to the nearby L’Academie Des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, flung his bundle of papers onto the desk and declared “Je tiens mon affaires” (I’ve done it). Then he fainted – not to be fully revived for five days.
In his famous lecture that followed on September 27, he declared to the world his Rosetta Stone breakthrough The publication of his findings was laid out in writing in his letter to M. Le Dacy. Suddenly, an ancient language was mute no more.
As dramatic as it all sounds, the cracking of the hieroglyphic and demotic codes on the famous Rosetta Stone were not discoveries made out of the blue. Nor was pulling back the curtain on the Ancient Egyptian language a one-man tour de force by Champollion, (as much as Champollion may have wished the world to think it).
The decipherment of Ancient Egyptian came as a result of 20 years of intense scrutiny, study, and fascination with the Rosetta Stone and other Egyptian sources by several impassioned scholars and linguists.
Where and when was the Rosetta Stone found?
On July 15, 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French soldier named Pierre Bouchard discovered a black stone covered in inscriptions in the walls of an Ottoman fortress. The event happened outside of the city of Rosetta (west of Alexandria in Egypt) where the troops were building Fort Julien to defend the town.
Bouchard recognized its importance and sent the black basalt stone to the Savants (the French learned scholars on Napoleon’s expedition) in Cairo who copied and cast it. It was the Savant named Jean Joseph Marcel (printer and linguist) who first correctly identified the middle text on the stone as “demotic”.
The English “seized the stone in 1801 (through the Treaty of Alexandria)– and took it home to the British Museum where it has resided ever since 1802. Luckily, the French had made a copy!
What is the Rosetta Stone – and what does it say?
The Rosetta Stone is a granodiorite block measuring 114 by 72 centimetres. The stone is a broken part of a bigger stone slab bearing a single inscription written in three types of writing. This was a veritable gift – a critical source – that helped experts learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The stone bore an official decree, about the young king Ptolemy V (204–181 BC). In fact, the decree was copied onto many stone stelae which were set up in temples across Egypt.
What was the message? Fairly boring, it concerned the coronation of the young king who had assumed the throne at age 5, his legitimacy, good deeds and tax exemptions for the temple cult. It also states that the priests of a temple in Memphis heartily supported the king. The Rosetta Stone is one of many copies of this bureaucratic decree, so not particularly important in its own right.
The core importance of stone is this: it was inscribed with the same message three times in three different scripts:
- Hieroglyphs: (the language of the Egyptian priests),
- Demotic: (the language of the Egyptian people), and
- Ancient Greek: (the language of Greeks who ruled Egypt at this time)
In all, 53 lines of Greek script and 32 of Demotic (Egyptian shorthand), survived. Sadly, the section containing the hieroglyphic script was the shortest of all: just 14 lines. These lines would be intensely scrutinized by scholars over 20 years.
Who contributed to cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs?
The decipherment of the Rosetta Stone involved the contributions of not one, but several scholars and linguists. Let’s take a look at them and recognize their important accomplishments on the path to understanding the ancient Egyptian language:
- Johan David Åkerblad (1763-1819) – A Swedish scholar.
Key achievement: A first demotic alphabet.
Akerblad was a Swedish student of Silvestre de Sacy in Paris, a professor also keen on cracking the mystery of the Rosetta Stone scripts. Through his own investigations, Sacy had been able to read five names, such as “Alexandros“. Åkerblad took on his work after 1802 and managed to identify all proper names in the demotic text in just two months.
He could also read words like “Greek”, “temple” and “Egyptian” and found out the correct sound value from 14 of the 29 signs. Akerblad, however, wrongfully believed the demotic hieroglyphs to be entirely alphabetic. Evidently in 1810 he sent to Paris for publication his work entitled MÉMOIRE: Sur les noms coptes de quelques villes et villages d’Égypte. Unfortunately, this publication of Akerblad was delayed until 1834. Political machinations afoot?
Nevertheless, Akerblad today is recognized as the first to create a Demotic alphabet; in which sixteen letters later proved to be correct and were used by Champollion and Thomas Young.
- Antoine Isaac, Baron Silvestre De Sacy (1758-1738)
Key achievement: Identifying proper names in the demotic – and teaching the other scholars
De Sacy was famous as the professor of both Champollion and Akerblad, among many other great French scholars. He was the first Frenchman to attempt to read the Rosetta Stone making some progress in identifying proper names like Alexandros in the demotic inscription. Although he was an influential professor to Champollion 1807-1809, the relationship soured (partially for political reasons as Champollion was a Napoleon sympathizer). De Sacy instead backed the work of both Young in England, and his student Akerblad, over the work of Champollion feeling they deserved more credit. Once Champollion published his definitive “Lettre” in 1822, De Sacy jumped back on the bandwagon to celebrate Champollion’s advancement in the understanding the hieroglyphic language.
- Thomas Young (1773-1829): The English scientist.
Key achievement: First to publish (only partially correctly) the Rosetta Stone translation
A polymath, scientist, and British scholar of classics and Greek, Thomas Young was actually the first person to publish a partially correct translation of the Rosetta Stone. He identified the name “Ptolemais” inside a cartouche on the hieroglyphic section of the stone – and a great many other signs and names for gods. Using insights from the demotic text, he assigned the correct values of p, t, ma/m, i, s to six hieroglyphic signs on the stone. Although Young had correctly found the sound value of many signs, he had not deduced the grammar and had therefore not deciphered the entire written language. Yet this modest English scientist had made a giant leap forward that bold and brash Champollion, no doubt, used to advance his study, yet never gave Young credit!
- William John Bankes (1786-1855): An antiquities collector, politician, and adventurer.
Key achievement: Translation of Cleopatra on the Philae obelisk (and providing access to the Philae obelisk – which he brought home from Egypt to his English manner)
In 1819, Bankes a wealthy adventurer and keen Egyptophile went to Egypt. With an architect friend (and the help of Belzoni), he arranged for the transport of a bilingual obelisk (Greco Roman period) from Philae Temple all the way to his gardens in Kingston Lacy, England, where it remains today. The inscription on the obelisk was critical to Champollion’s advances that allowed him to crack the code entirely in 1822. It was Bankes himself who was able to translate the ruler’s name in one of the cartouche’s as “Cleopatra.”
- Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832): The prodigy and multi-linguist.
Key Achievement: Ultimately publishing the most advanced and largely correct translation of the Rosetta Stone – and code for the Egyptian language
The youngest son of a poor bookseller from Figeac, Champollion was ultimately the one who cracked the code – in its most advanced form. By age 16, he had already mastered six ancient Oriental languages (in addition to Greek and Latin) and delivered a paper before the academy of Grenoblein asserting (incorrectly), that Coptic was the ancient language of Egypt. Working with an engraving of the stone and a rendering of it in the Description, Champollion managed to go further than other researchers of his time. By 1822, he was aware of the work done by Young and Bankes. Using fourteen signs, he deciphered cartouches of other members of the Ptolemaic dynasty (and even some Roman emperors) leading to his famous report, the Lettre à M. Dacier, read at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris on September 27, 1822. Sadly, Champollion died young of a stroke, just a decade after this incredible breakthrough.
Legacy of the Hieroglyphic Language Discovery and the Rosetta Stone
Today the field of Egyptology flourishes because of the hard work and passion of Champollion along with all these trailblazers. Together — and with the help of the Rosetta Stone — they made it possible to read the massive corpus of Egyptian texts – from those written on papyrii and etched on ostracon to those carved on temple and tomb walls.
It was after 1822, and Champollion’s publication, that a new window into the world of the ancients was open. The next of countless waves of Egyptomania through history arose again and mesmerized the world, thanks in part to the Rosetta Stone! It was one hundred years later (almost to the month) that Howard Carter would discover the great tomb of Tutankhamun.
Interested in learning more about Champollion?
Don’t miss our ZOOM lecture, Tuesday August 9 at 7pm. It will be recorded with a link sent out.
<Register here>: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/360204640777