Curator Ilona Regulski takes a closer look at the breakthrough moment when hieroglyphs were deciphered, and explores how this changed our understanding of ancient Egypt for ever.
The story goes that on 14 September 1822 the gifted French philologist (someone who studies languages) Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) visited his brother, thrusting notes into his hands and gasping, ‘Look, I’ve got it!’ (Je tiens mon affaire, vois!) before collapsing in a dead faint. His notes would form the basis of the historic letter to M. Dacier, secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris, which changed our understanding of ancient Egypt forever.
The key to the breakthrough
Champollion’s public reading of the Lettre à M. Dacier before the Académie on 27 September 1822 marked the birth of Egyptology. In the letter, Champollion outlined his findings on the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the reasoning behind them. With his conclusions in hand scholars could finally translate the records of a civilisation that had endured for thousands of years.
Champollion had been guided by both the advances and the shortcomings of his peers and predecessors. Elaborating on the link between the different scripts they found, they had concluded that the handwritten hieratic script of the papyri was related to hieroglyphs, and that the handwritten demotic developed from the hieratic, and consequently was closely linked to hieroglyphs as well. Initially, Champollion followed previous scholars in stating that all Egyptian scripts represented things or ideas (i.e. they were ideographic scripts), not the sounds of spoken language (phonetic scripts). He made one crucial exception: hieroglyphs could represent spoken language when used phonetically to write non-Egyptian proper names, such as Ptolemy and Berenice, two Greek royal names used during the Ptolemaic period (332–30 BC). Although this had already been suggested by his rival, the British polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829), Champollion improved Young’s readings of the names of many Greek and Roman rulers of Egypt by reading them alphabetically, i.e. assigning one sound to each sign.
Recreating the sounds
In the Dacier letter, Champollion proposed phonetic transliterations (approximate renderings of the sounds of spoken language, using the Western alphabet) for non-Egyptian royal titles and names, essentially creating a hieroglyphic and demotic ‘alphabet’. From the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra alone, Champollion generated consonants and vowels corresponding to letters a, ai, e, k, l, m, o, p, r, s and t.
Recreating the sounds 2
But Champollion soon detected a fuller phonetic structure than previously imagined. Counting 1,419 hieroglyphic signs in the Rosetta Stone, Champollion reasoned that this many ideas could not possibly be conveyed in the mere 486 words of the Greek text. The large number of different hieroglyphs suggested that they were not entirely ideographic but represented a hybrid system. He also observed correspondences between hieroglyphs and the handwritten scripts from ancient Egypt: hieratic and demotic. Investigating the demotic sign sequence corresponding to ‘Alexandria’ on the Rosetta Stone, Champollion suggested that the word was constituted from a series of signs which were phonetic – the name itself – plus another, ideographic sign indicating the way in which the phonetic component should be understood, in this case as a place name. Champollion had discovered the ‘determinatives’: a unique set of qualifying signs that indicate the nature of a word, either consisting of a single sign or a group of signs. What Young hadn’t realised was that sign sequences could comprise both phonetic and non-phonetic elements, which explained why there were more hieroglyphic signs than Greek words.
When Champollion tested his ideas on pre-Alexandrian personal names already known from Greek inscriptions and the Bible, the discoveries multiplied rapidly. The conservative character of Egyptian culture, he argued, would not have tolerated a massive revision of the writing system, so if spelling based on pronunciation was present in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (332 BC – AD 395), it must have been there from the start.
Going further back in time
Champollion then discovered phonetic elements in the cartouches (an oval frame around hieroglyphs, indicating the characters represent a royal name) of two pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC): Ramesses and Thutmose. The name in the first cartouche combined a sun disc, tied fox skins and two door bolts.
Going further back in time 2
He knew the last two signs represented the sound/letter s from some cartouches of Ptolemy, and the sun disc represented the word ra, which he knew from Coptic, a much later version of the ancient Egyptian language written in an alphabetic script. Despite the unknown middle hieroglyph, Champollion linked Ra – ? – ss with the famous pharaoh Ramesses, who is mentioned in the Bible, attributing the value m to the middle sign.
The second king’s cartouche showed an ibis (a wading bird) followed by the same middle sign as in Ramesses’ cartouche (Champollion’s m), and the horizontal door bolt for s. Champollion knew the ibis was the sacred animal of Thoth and figured the hieroglyphs must spell out Thot–m–s, the great Thutmose of whom the classical authors spoke. The middle sign seemed to be confirmed, once again, as m.
The fortuitous comparison of these two names gave Champollion the key to the entire hieroglyphic writing system, apart from one small mistake. The middle sign was, in fact, the two-letter sign ms, while the horizontal sign s complemented the pronunciation of the previous sign. Nonetheless, Champollion had illuminated the mixed nature of Egyptian writing: purely phonetic signs were used alongside signs representing an entire word (Ra and Thoth) in the same cartouche, which Champollion recognised as a determinative for royal names.
Champollion’s eureka moment regarding the phonetic aspect of Egyptian language literally knocked him off his feet. But he did not include his readings of Ramesses and Thutmose in his letter to M. Dacier, as he was still feverishly testing his system. Consequently, critics called his phonetic rendering of Greco-Roman names a mere postscript, useful mainly for determining the chronology of Ptolemaic rulers. As scholarly competition aroused tensions in the course of this ground-breaking work, some scholars felt that Champollion had overlooked their role in deciphering Greek and Roman names. In 1823, Young, who had attended Champollion’s reading of the Dacier letter in Paris, published an Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities, aiming to establish his work as the basis for Champollion's achievement. Young conceded that Champollion had extended the phonetic list for foreign names but maintained that others had laid the groundwork in this regard. In an 1824 publication, Champollion acknowledged Young as the first to correctly identify several sound signs for foreign names, in particular those for Ptolemy and queen Berenice. But Young’s failure to accept the phonetic aspect of hieroglyphic script beyond the spelling of foreign names had stalled his progress.
Just the start of the journey
Champollion’s Dacier letter was the product of a long, upward trek towards decipherment and, with his next publication, Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens in 1824, he planted his flag on the summit. Champollion continued to elaborate, confirm and add translations for sign sequences gleaned from new materials. In 1828 he made a long dreamt-of journey to Egypt, collecting inscriptions but also impressions of the place, people and monuments that had occupied his thoughts for so long. On 1 January 1829 Champollion wrote again to M. Dacier, declaring that there was nothing to add to his alphabet as it could be applied successfully to all the monuments of Egypt. Champollion continued to develop his ideas over the next years, translating inscriptions until his death, at 41, in 1832. He prepared materials to draft his grammar and dictionary works, both of which were edited by his brother and published posthumously. From these, it is clear that Champollion was the first to grasp the structural logic of the ancient Egyptian language in its varied forms and complexity. The vista of discovery he had opened was staggering and Egyptologists are continuing to expand knowledge of ancient Egyptian writing to this day.
You can see the objects Champollion used to make his breakthrough and discover more about the race to understand hieroglyphs in Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt, which runs from 13 October 2022 to 19 February 2023. We’ve also published a book to accompany the exhibition, available in our shop.
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