Ancient History & Civilisation


When Dr. Franz Joseph Gall, the famous phrenologist, was touring France in order to popularize his skull-bump theory of personality—during which itinerary he was marveled at and laughed at, now honored, now slandered—at a certain home in Paris he was introduced to a young student who immediately interested him. Gall’s professional glance fell on the young man’s head. He was staggered by its conformations. “Ah,” he exclaimed, “what a linguistic genius!” Whether or not the skull doctor had got his information beforehand, at this time the sixteen-year-old boy had already mastered half a dozen Oriental languages as well as Latin and Greek.

No less astounding is the account of Champollion’s birth as recorded in one of the highly imaginative biographies so fashionable in the nineteenth century. Since there is no evidence to contradict the colorful tale, however, it must be included in the portrait of the controversial man to whom the science of archæology owes so much.

In the little French town of Figeac the wife of the bookseller Jacques Champollion lay abed, crippled, unable to move. Sometime in mid-year 1790 Jacques, after the regular doctors had given her up as incurable, called in the magician Jacqou. The town of Figeac, incidentally, is in the Dauphiné, in the southeastern part of France, and is known as the Province of the Seven Miracles. The Dauphiné is one of the most beautiful sections of the country, a place where God might reasonably be expected to linger. The Dauphinois are a hard, conservative race, not easily aroused from their lethargy, yet, once awakened, capable of excessive fanaticism. They are Catholic in religion and highly susceptible to the mystical and miraculous.

The magician, Jacqou—and this on the evidence of several sources—had the sick woman lie on heated herbs, and drink hot wine. If she followed his instructions, he said, she would be promptly cured. Moreover, to the astonishment of the family, he prophesied she would give birth to a boy child, now in her womb, and added that the child would achieve fame and be remembered down through the centuries.

On the third day the sick woman rose from her bed. On December 23, 1790, at two o’clock in the morning, Jean-François Champollion was born, he who was destined to decipher the hieroglyphs.

If the devil’s children, as they say, have cloven feet, it is not surprising to find some modest signs of prenatal influence where a magician has been at work. Examination of the young François revealed that the corneas of his eyes were yellow, a peculiarity commonly found only among peoples of the East and certainly a curiosity of the first order among western Europeans. Moreover, he had a strikingly sallow, almost brown pigmentation, and the whole cut of his face was decidedly Oriental. Twenty years later he was known everywhere as “the Egyptian.”

Jean-François Champollion was a child of the Revolution. The advent of the Republic was proclaimed in Figeac in September 1792. From April 1793 the Terror reigned. The Champollions lived in a house situated only thirty paces or so from the Place d’Armes—the square subsequently named after the boy—where a liberty pole had been set up. The first sounds that Jean-François remembered hearing were the noisy music of the carmagnole and the weeping of refugees seeking protection from the aroused mob in his father’s house, among them the priest who became his first tutor.

Jean-François was five years old, an impressed biographer notes, when he accomplished his first feat of decipherment: he taught himself how to read by comparing a list of words he had learned by heart with the written text. He was barely seven years old when he first heard the magical name of Egypt, a name that for the sensitive boy had the deceptive shine of a fata morgana; for his brother, Jean-Jacques, Jean-François’s senior by twelve years, had hopefully planned to accompany Napoleon’s expedition to the land of the Nile, only to be left behind at the last moment.

The young Champollion, according to both hearsay and eyewitness accounts, did not do so well in his studies at Figeac. To remedy this situation his brother, already a gifted philologist much interested in archæology, in 1801 took him to Grenoble and there took personal charge of his education. When the eleven-year-old François quickly showed a rare talent for Latin and Greek and began to devote himself with astonishing success to the study of Hebrew, his brother then and there made a decision to hide his own light under a bushel in order that the younger brother’s might shine that much the more brightly. From this time on he called himself Champollion-Figeac, later simply Figeac. His modesty and fixed conviction that the younger brother would do more than himself for the family name is all the more remarkable in view of his own indisputable abilities.

That same year Jean-Baptiste Fourier, the famous mathematician and physicist, had a conversation with the lad who knew so much about languages. Fourier had acompanied the Egyptian expedition and later served as secretary of the Egyptian Institute in Cairo. He had also been commissioner in the French military government in Egypt, chief of jurisdiction and prime mover in the scientific commission. At this time he was prefect of the department of Isère and had taken residence in the provincial capital of Grenoble, where he had quickly drawn about him a circle of enlightened spirits. During a school inspection he entered into a little debate with François and was so taken by his superior intelligence that he later invited him to his home, where he showed him his Egyptian collection. The dark-skinned little boy was enchanted by his first sight of papyrus fragments and hieroglyphic inscriptions on stone tablets. “Can anyone read them?” he asked. Fourier shook his head. “I am going to do it,” little Champollion announced with absolute certainty. “In a few years I will be able to. When I am big.” In after years he himself often referred to this incident.

Inevitably this anecdote calls to mind the other boy who said to his father: “I will find Troy.” Both showed the same sureness, the same somnambulistic certainty. Yet how differently were their boyish dreams realized! All his life Schliemann remained the autodidact; but Champollion never departed so much as an inch from the paths of orthodoxy in matters educational, though his mind developed with a speed that soon left his fellow students far behind. Whereas Schliemann began his work without any technical equipment whatever, Champollion armed himself with all the knowledge that the century could place at his disposal.

The brother supervised his education. He tried to curb the boy’s ravening hunger for knowledge, but without success. Champollion explored the most esoteric fields of learning, leaping from peak to peak. At the age of twelve he wrote his first book, a History of Famous Dogs. Finding his historical research hindered by a lack of orderly digests, he made his own chronological table, which he called “Chronology from Adam to Champollion the Younger.” When the older brother had retreated so that the limelight would fall exclusively on Jean-François, the boy repaid the compliment by calling himself “Champollion the Younger,” to remind the world that there was a Champollion to whom he deferred.

At thirteen he began to learn Arabic, Syrian, Chaldean, and finally Coptic. It is remarkable, in this regard, that everything he learned or did, and indeed everything that chanced to come his way unasked, was somehow related to the Egyptian theme. No matter what he turned his mind to, he seemed to be led insensibly to some Egyptian problem. He took up Old Chinese in order to seek out a connection between it and Old Egyptian. He studied textual excerpts from the Zend, Pahlavi, and Parsi—rare linguistic material available in Grenoble only through Fourier’s intervention. Having used every source he could lay hands on, in the summer of 1807 Champollion, then seventeen years old, drew up the first historical chart of the kingdom of the Pharaohs.

The daring of this attempt can be appreciated only when it is realized that he had no other source material to draw on excepting Biblical references, garbled Latin, Arabic, and Hebraic texts, and comparisons with the Coptic, the only language providing a link with the Old Egyptian. The Coptic tongue had actually been spoken in Upper Egypt as late as the seventeenth century.

Learning that Champollion wished to transfer his studies to Paris, the lycée authorities asked him to write a paper on a subject of his own choosing. They expected the usual schoolboy essay; instead Champollion sketched out a whole book for them: Egypt under the Pharaohs.

On September 1, 1807 he read the introduction to this projected work. The whole teaching staff of the lycée of Grenoble had assembled to listen to the slender boy. He stood before them very erect and serious, his face aglow with the feverish beauty of prodigy. His ideas unfolded in a series of bold theses, impelled by powerful logic. The professors were overwhelmed to such degree that on the spot they elected the boy to join them on the faculty. Renauldon, the president, got up and embraced Champollion. “In making you a member of the faculty, we of the lycée are taking into account your accomplishments to date,” he said. “Yet beyond that we are counting on what you will do in the future. We are convinced that you will justify our hopes, and that when you have made a name for yourself, you will not forget those who first recognized your genius.”

And so overnight Champollion was graduated from student to teacher.

Leaving the lycée building, Champollion fainted away. At this time he was a hypersensitive youth, an intense personality prone to elegiac moods. Already he was recognized in many quarters as a genius, and his precocious intellectual development was well known. Physically, too, he was old beyond his years. (When, for example, he made up his mind to marry just after leaving school, it was not at all a case of calf love.) He knew that he was moving into a new phase of his career. He visualized the metropolis of Paris, hub of all Europe, focal point of politics and adventures of the spirit.

By the time the heavy coach in which he and his brother had been riding for seventy hours drew near Paris, Champollion was quite lost in feverish visions, poised between dream and reality. Yellowed papyri swam before his eyes, words from a dozen different languages whispered in his ears. He thought of the Rosetta Stone, a copy of which he had seen while taking leave of Fourier. The hieroglyphs incised into the basalt haunted his racing, disjointed thoughts.

It is said on good authority that while the brothers were riding along together on this trip to Paris, Champollion suddenly blurted out his secret thoughts. He told Figeac what he had hoped to do, and now suddenly knew that the consummation of this hope lay within his power. The dark eyes gleamed in the sallow face as he said: “I am going to decipher the hieroglyphics. I know I will.”

A man called Dhautpoul is usually credited with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. Other sources name Bouchard, but close investigation reveals that Bouchard was merely the officer in direct charge of a gang of men working on the ruins of Fort Rachid; he personally did not find the stone. This fort—the French renamed it Fort Julien—was located four or five miles northwest of Rosetta, on the Nile. This same Bouchard took charge of shipping the tablet to Cairo.

The Rosetta Stone in actual fact was dug up by some unknown soldier. Conceivably he may have had some education, or at least enough common sense to recognize the rarity, or curiosity value, of the stele. Or he may have been ignorant and superstitious, to such degree that he mistook the signs on the stone for witchcraft, so creating a disturbance that brought Bouchard’s attention to the find.

The Rosetta Stone was about the size of a table top, three feet nine inches in length, two feet four and a half inches in breadth, and eleven inches in thickness. It was made of fine-grained basalt, “hammer-hard.” On one polished side were three columns of writing, partially weathered and worn away by two thousand years of sandy abrasion. The first of these columns, fourteen lines in length, consisted of hieroglyphs; the second, thirty-two lines long, was in the demotic script; and the third, fifty-four lines long, in Greek.

Greek! Therefore, it would seem, readable, understandable.

One of Napoleon’s generals, a Hellenist by avocation, immediately undertook the translation of the Greek column. The message, he found, recorded a decree of the Egyptian priesthood, issued in 196 B.C., praising Ptolemy Epiphanus for benefits conferred.

Together with other French booty, the tablet, after the capitulation at Alexandria, reached the British Museum. Fortunately the “commission” had caused plaster copies to be made of it and of all the other pieces. These reproductions were sent home to Paris. The scholars crowded round and began their comparisons.

Comparisons, for the very arrangement of the columns suggested that all three contained the same text. The Courrier de l’Égypte had already proposed that here lay the key to open the gates of the dead kingdom, the possibility of “explaining Egypt through the Egyptians.” Once the Greek inscription had been properly translated, it seemed unlikely there would be much difficulty in establishing a connection between the hieroglyphic signs and the Greek words.

The best minds of the day applied themselves to the task, in England (using the original Rosetta Stone) and also in Germany, in Italy, and in France. With no result. One and all they built on false premises. Their mistake was to read into the hieroglyphs ideas that, in part, went back ultimately to Herodotus. It was one of those typical misconceptions which persist through the historical development of the human mind. To pry into the secret of Egyptian writing a virtually Copernican change of viewpoint was needed, an inspiration that would break the bonds of tradition.

The older brother, Champollion-Figeac, had a former teacher named de Sacy who lived in Paris. De Sacy, despite his unprepossessing appearance, was a scholar of international repute. When Figeac took his younger brother, then aged seventeen, to meet de Sacy, the boy acted as if he were in the presence of an equal. Indeed, with de Sacy he behaved much as he had with Fourier when introduced to this other great man at Grenoble some six years before.

De Sacy was rather suspicious of the prodigy from the provinces. Aged forty-nine, and an intellectual leader of his times, at first he hardly knew what to make of this stripling who, in his Egypt under the Pharaohs, of which de Sacy had seen only the introduction, visualized a plan that the author himself admitted would not be realized in his day. Yet much later, recalling his first meeting with Champollion, de Sacy spoke of the “deep impression” the young man had made on him. And small wonder! This same book had almost been finished by the end of the year in which they met. Already the seventeen-year-old was earning the right to the public recognition so richly accorded him seven years afterwards when the book had finally been published.

Champollion threw himself into his studies. Holding himself completely aloof from the distractions of Paris, he buried himself in the libraries, ran from institute to institute, studied Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian—the “Italian of the Orient,” as de Sacy aptly called it. In sum, he immersed himself in all the Oriental languages, laying the groundwork for an understanding of their idiomatic developments. Meanwhile he wrote to his brother asking for a Chinese grammar, “for amusement,” as he put it.

He felt his way so perfectly into the Arabic that his voice actually took on a different quality. At a social gathering an Arab salaamed to him, mistaking him for one of his own. Through bookish contact alone he acquired such an extensive knowledge of Egypt that the then famous African traveler Somini de Manencourt, after a conversation with the young man, exclaimed: “He knew the countries we were talking about as well as I do myself!”

Only a year later he spoke and wrote Coptic so well—“I speak Coptic to myself,” he said—that for practice he kept journals in Coptic. This eccentricity, forty years later, resulted in a famous gaffe. A French scientist mistook these notes for Egyptian originals from the time of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and wrote a commentary on them as such. This was the French counterpart of the German Professor Beringer’s solemn finding that certain bones planted as a joke by the schoolchildren of Würzburg were fossils of vast antiquity.

During the Parisian period Champollion ran into hard times. But for his brother’s selfless generosity and support, he would have literally starved to death. He lived in a miserable little room near the Louvre, for which he paid eighteen francs a month. Unable to raise even this small sum, he wrote begging letters to his brother, saying that he was at his wits’ end and could not make ends meet. His brother wrote back that he would have to pawn his library unless François cut down expenses. Cut down? Still more? His shoes were worn through, his shirts in rags. Things got so bad that he was ashamed to appear in public. The winter was unusually severe, and he fell sick. As he lay in his damp, cold room, the seed was sown of the disease that eventually was to take his life. But for two small successes he would have completely succumbed to despair.

To add to his tribulations, the Emperor needed more soldiers and in 1808 issued an order making all males over sixteen liable to conscription. Champollion was terrified. His whole nature rebelled against coercion. Though capable of the strictest intellectual discipline, he shuddered when he saw marching squadrons of guardsmen, the pawns of a type of discipline that leveled off all individual differences. Had not Winckelmann suffered the same pangs under the threat of being swallowed up in the military? “There are days,” François wrote in dejection to Figeac, “when I completely lose my head.”

The brother, ready as always to lend a helping hand, moved into the breach to protect Champollion. He enlisted the aid of friends, he drew up petitions, wrote countless letters. The outcome was that Champollion finally was able to continue with his studies of dead languages in times deeply infected with martial unrest.

Another matter that occupied his attention, which now began to fascinate him so much that at times he even forgot the threat of being inducted into the army, was the study of the Rosetta Stone. In this regard he was much like Schliemann, who put off learning ancient Greek until he had taught himself to speak and write all the other European languages. Like Schliemann with the Greek language, so Champollion with the Rosetta Stone. Always the young man’s thoughts reverted to the enigmatic slab, yet always, up to now, he had hesitated, believing himself not to be properly equipped to tackle a problem so definitive.

Now, however, after seeing a new copy of the Rosetta Stone made in London, he could suddenly no longer restrain himself entirely. Yet he contented himself with comparing the stone with a certain papyrus instead of plunging into actual decipherment. His first try at the black stele enabled him “to find independently the correct values for a whole row of letters.” “I submit my first step to you for examination,” he wrote to his brother on August 30, 1808. He was then eighteen years old. For the first time one can sense the pride of the youthful discoverer lurking behind the typically modest explanation of his methods.

Even as he made this initial contact and, having made it, knew himself to be on the road to success and fame, he was dealt a stunning blow. He had anticipated toil and denial and did not complain; but now news came to him that seemed to destroy his laborious preparations and his soaring hopes: the hieroglyphs had been deciphered.

Though at first the news completely cast down Champollion, its effect proved to be only transitory. Champollion was walking along the street on his way to the Collège de France when he ran into the friend who broke the news to him, unaware of the havoc he was causing. Champollion turned pale, swayed, and had to cling to his friend for support. Everything he had lived and worked and gone hungry for had vanished in smoke.

“It is Alexandre Lenoir,” the friend said, “His book is just out, a brochure. He calls it the Nouvelle Explication. In it he deciphers all the hieroglyphs. Think what this means!”

Indeed, think what it means!

“Lenoir?” asked Champollion. He shook his head. Then he saw a gleam of hope. Only yesterday he had seen Lenoir. He had known him for about six months. Lenoir was a competent scholar, but far from a genius. “Impossible,” said Champollion. “Nobody said anything about deciphering to me. Even Lenoir himself didn’t mention it.”

“Does that surprise you?” his friend asked. “Who wouldn’t keep mum about such a discovery?”

Champollion suddenly pulled himself away. “Where is the bookshop?” he asked. He rushed off at breakneck speed. With trembling hands he counted out the francs on the dusty counter. Very few of Lenoir’s brochures had yet been sold. Then he ran home, threw himself on his shabby couch, and began to read.…

In the kitchen the widow Mécran set her pan on the table, almost startled out of her wits. From her lodger’s room came a hellish racket. She listened for a moment in horror, then ran to the door and looked in. François Champollion was lying on the sofa, his whole body shaking. He was laughing and laughing, in hysterical peals.

He had Lenoir’s book in his hand. Decipher the hieroglyphs? The flag had been planted a little too soon! Lenoir’s book was sheer nonsense, freely invented, a quixotic mixture of fantasy and misguided scholarship. Champollion knew enough about the possibilities to realize that.

Still, the blow had been terrible, and Champollion never forgot it. His reaction showed him just how deeply he was given over to the task of making the dead symbols talk understandably. That night when he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion he dreamed wild dreams. Egyptian voices spoke to him out of the phantasmagoria. In the dream his true being stood forth clearly, untrammeled by the press and distractions of everyday, revealing him as a man possessed, maniacally fixed, bewitched by the hieroglyphs. His dream was fraught with intimations of triumphs. Yet more than a dozen years separated him from his goal.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!