Since the time of Herodotus, Europeans had been fascinated by hieroglyphs, those little pictographs of birds, geometrical figures, snakes, crouching lions, shepherd’s crooks and striding figures so familiar to us from such movies as “The Mummy.” This mysterious writing appeared on sarcophagi and the walls of royal tombs, on clay shards, obelisks and bits of papyrus. But what did the individual symbols mean?
The last known use of hieroglyphs occurred in A.D. 394, but the writing system had already grown esoteric, used principally by a priestly caste and pretty much a mystery to everyone else. As a result, hieroglyphs came to be regarded as emblematic or allegorical, each figure a concentrate of complex meaning, like a cross or the diagram of a fish among Christians. While learned scholars guessed at the significance of the various squiggles and symbols, no one could actually read the writing.
All that began to change in 1798when Napoleon’s armies invaded Egypt. The emperor brought not just a military force but also a small corps of savants and scientists, who eventually produced a nine-volume “Description of Egypt.” So when, in July 1799, near Rashid — known as Rosetta to Europeans — a squad of engineers unearthed a slab containing three parallel inscriptions, it was sent right off to headquarters in Cairo. The importance of the find was immediately recognized and copies of the inscriptions made. Eventually, though, the French lost the Rosetta Stone to the victorious English, and it now resides as the jewel of the Egyptian halls of the British Museum.
The Rosetta Stone contains essentially the same information — a court decree — in three scripts: hieroglyphics, a kind of Egyptian cursive now called Demotic, and ancient Greek. Early would-be decipherers quickly realized that recognizable names in the Greek section must appear in the other sections, as well. The Demotic lettering, it was determined, spelled out its words as did the Greek. The hieroglyphs apparently didn’t conform to this pattern. But, then, everyone knew they were symbolic, not phonetic.
Except, as it turned out, they could be both, as Champollion gradually came to recognize.
Champollion was born in Figeac, the son of a bookseller. His 12-years-older brother, Jacques-Joseph, went on to become a noted paleographer and librarian and eventually curator of manuscripts at the National Library in Paris. The two were close and Champollion-Figeac — as Jacques-Joseph came to be known — fostered and supported his more brilliant sibling’s career.
By the time he was 15, Champollion was telling the mayor of Grenoble, the city to which the family had moved, that “I wish to devote my life to knowledge of ancient Egypt.” Besides learning Latin and Greek at school, he began to teach himself “Oriental” languages, eventually studying in Paris under the great Arabist Silvestre de Sacy. In this new biography, Andrew Robinson quotes a letter in which Champollion describes course work in Hebrew, Syriac and Chaldean, then adds, “In the evening at five o’clock I am with Dom Raphael, who makes us translate the fables of La Fontaine into Arabic.” Champollion grew especially fluent in Coptic, which had once been widely spoken in Egypt.
In the period 1809-14, the young Champollion was back teaching and working in Grenoble and soon addressing his attention to the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone. As it happened, a great English polymath, Thomas Young, was also investigating the Stone’s mysteries. Today Young is honored for his groundbreaking work on the wave theory of light and his studies of the human eye (he discovered the phenomenon of astigmatism). But, as Robinson repeatedly stresses, he deserves much of the credit for preparing the way for Champollion’s eventual breakthrough. Like others since, in other fields, Champollion wanted to grab all the credit.
In any event, it took him several more years to realize that the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphs actually do spell out words, though they can also refer to larger concepts. Some of Champollion’s thinking was purely logical, as basic as comparing the total number of words and hieroglyphs, and noting the number of individual hieroglyphic signs. Robinson reconstructs some of Champollion’s reasoning:
“So 1,419 hieroglyphs corresponded to 486 Greek words; and among these 1,419 hieroglyphs there were only 166 individual signs. If each hieroglyph truly represented an idea or word, then one would have expected similar numbers of hieroglyphs and Greek words, and a larger set of separate signs, each one representing a different idea or word. All of a sudden, it must have struck Champollion that the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone could be explained not by a purely ‘ideographic’ system, but by a small set of frequently employed phonetic hieroglyphs . . . mixed with many more non-phonetic hieroglyphs that stood only for ideas or words.”
In short, these ancient Egyptian figures could be used as an alphabet, though some could also remain symbolic. Without any vowels indicated, deciphering an inscription nonetheless remains tricky and has been likened to reading a rebus, one of those childhood diversions in which, say, a picture of a bee is used for the verb “be” — except that, in the case of ancient Egyptian, it might also stand for the letter B or even the insect itself.
Although Robinson, who has written books about lost languages and the history of writing, relates Champollion’s short life with authority, the great code-breaker didn’t leave much personal material behind and seems to have spent most of his time being ill or studying in libraries. He was, however, an ardent supporter of Napoleon, distinctly prickly and eager to demand all the glory for a discovery that built, in part, on the work of others.
In his later years, Champollion actually managed to travel to Egypt and helped acquire important artifacts there and from collectors, which led to his appointment as the first professor of Egyptology at the College de France. Alas, his health declined — possibly from drinking Nile water — and he suffered a stroke before he could complete his magnum opus, a grammar of ancient Egyptian. He died at age 41.
If you’ve enjoyed books like Michael D. Coe’s “Breaking the Maya Code” or David Kahn’s massive history “The Codebreakers,” you should take a look at “Cracking the Egyptian Code.” But be prepared: Robinson does his best to be sprightly, but much of the material about the Rosetta Stone’s decipherment requires close attention.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room.