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The Decipherment of
Egyptian Hieroglyphic Text

Up until the early nineteenth century the world knew very little of ancient Egypt other than what appeared in the Old Testament. The monuments such as the Great Pyramids at Giza were known from Grecian sources but Egypt in general was a mystery, a society that had been closed to outsiders for hundreds of years.

It took Napoleon's expedition to Egypt of 1798-1802 to make Europe aware of the richness of ancient Egyptian civilization. Militarily Napoleon's expedition was a disaster because the English decisively wiped out the French fleet at Aboukir Bay (The Battle of the Nile). Napoleon's troops were able to defeat the Mamelukes who controlled Egypt at the time but as soon as the French fleet was destroyed the expedition was doomed. Napoleon himself escaped leaving his troops to fend for themselves. The one success of the expedition was the scientific investigations carried out by the corps of scientists Napoleon took with him.

The French scientists brought back to France copies of the hieroglyphic texts from temple walls and papyrus scrolls. The perplexing thing was that in all this extensive literature not one character could be read. No one knew even the rudimentary facts of the ancient Egyptian civilization, such as the time period over which it existed.

The French expedition discovered what was thought to be the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphic text, the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone has a message in three different scripts, one of which is Greek and another which is hieroglyphic. It seemed so obvious that these inscriptions would lead to the unlocking of the hieroglyphic literature that the term "Rosetta Stone" has entered the English language as a term for a key to solving a great mystery. In fact, however, the Rosetta Stone played almost no role, other than providing inspiration, in the deciphering of hieroglyphics. The British acquired possession of the Rosetta Stone in the terms of the peace treaty but copies of the scripts and even casts of the stone itself were dispersed in western Europe.

The story of the decipherment of hieroglyphics is told masterfully in a recent book, The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphics by Leslie Adkins and Roy Adkins. The story of the decipherment is really the story of Jean-Francois Champollion of France because, although many others attempted to unravel hieroglyphics, it was only he who had the proper strategy for learning to translate the texts. Others such as Thomas Young of England had some success in ascertaining the phonetic value of a few signs but their line of approach had no hope of enabling scholars to read the texts. With Young's approach he got some hieroglyphic signs right and some wrong and the net gain was rather minimal. Nevertheless there was then and continues to exist a bitter resentment that Jean-Francois Champollion never acknowledged in print that Young had initiated the decipherment process. The Adkins' book makes clear that there was no reason to expect Champollion to give credit to Young. Champollion was indebted to no one among his contemporaries. He alone among those who tried commenced his effort to decipher hieroglyphics by learning the one existing language that was likely to be related to the language of the ancient Egyptians. That language was Coptic, the language spoken by Egyptian Christians and maintained as a part of their religious ceremonies. Without a knowledge of the nature of the language the best the other investigators such as Young could do would be to convert untranslatable hieroglyphic text into an equally untranslatable phonetic text written in Latin script. Champollion was not the first to see the likely value of a knowledge of Coptic in understanding hieroglyphics but probably no one else studied Coptic with the intensity and depth that Champollion did.

Many petty and jealous individuals vilified Champollion many years after Champollion's death in 1832 but the situation was aptly summed up by the Sir Peter Renouf, the President of the Society for Biblical Archeology, in 1896:

Two undeniable facts remain after all that has been written: Champollion learned nothing from Young, nor did anyone else. It is only through Champollion and the method he employed that Egyptology has grown into the position it now occupies.

It is hard now to appreciate how difficult the task was at the time. Here are some of the uncertainties that existed for scholars:

Some of these uncertainties were resolved before Champollion. For example, the matter of the cartouches was settled when a scholar recognized that they enclosed personal names and titles similar to what is found in ancient Chinese writings. But that scholar after making one step forward goes off on a wild tangent based upon the notion that the Chinese civilization of the Yellow River Valley was an Egyptian colony. This hypothesis which now seems ridiculous did not seem so ridiculous at the time it was proposed but it was wrong. However its proposer could never give it up and wasted his life on it. Champollion also operated on the basis of some false hypotheses but, in contrast to the others, was quite willing to abandon such hypotheses when the evidence mounted against them.

The matter of the direction in which horizontal text was to read turned out to be more complicated than left-to-right or right-to-left. Sometimes the direction was left-to-right and sometimes right-to-left. The direction was indicated by the orientation of the hieroglyphics symbols. The symbols "faced" in the direction the text was to be read. Thus the mirror image pairs of symbols were not different symbols at all, but instead rightward or leftward versions of the same symbol.

The stacking of hieroglyphic symbols was just a space saving and aesthetic feature and not a way to create different symbols. Sometimes the repetition of a symbol indicated a new symbol and other times it was a way to denote plurality.

The hardest issue to resolve was the first uncertainty mentioned above, the nature of hieroglyphics. Were the symbols ideograms or were they phonetic? The initial consensus was that the hieroglyphs were ideograms. There also was the notion that much of the hieroglyphic text was arcane knowledge intended only for the priests and not to be read by anyone else. It was Champollion who finally resolved the nature of hieroglyphic text. But before him others, including Thomas Young, recognized that foreign names such as the Greek rulers established by Alexander's conquest of Egypt were written phonetically. From the Greek text of the Rosetta Stone it was known that the names of Ptolomey and Cleopatra should appear in cartouches in the hieroglyphics text. Young found the proper cartouches and deduced the phonetic value of several hieroglyphics from them.

When linguists find scripts they can often quickly determine the type of writing by a count of the number of different symbols. If the number of different symbols is twenty to thirty the script is most likely phonetic. If the count is especially low there is the strong possibility that the writing gives only the consonants of the words as is the case in the Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew. If the number of different symbols is on the order of eighty then the script is probably a syllabary in which each symbol represents a syllable. The so-called alphabet created by Sequoia (George Guest) for the Cherokee language was a syllabary rather than an alphabet. If the number of different symbols is several thousand then the script is without doubt ideogramic like that of the Chinese characters.

Champollion rather late in his efforts did some counting for the Rosetta Stone texts. He found 486 words in the Greek text as opposed to 1419 hieroglyphic symbols. Since Greek and Egyptian were different languages some difference in the count could be expected but not a three to one ratio. Clearly it could not be that each hieroglyphic symbol corresponded to a word. Champollion identified groups of hieroglyphic signs and the tally was 180. This means that hieroglyphics could not be alphabetic because of the discrepancy between the Greek word count and the hieroglyphic group count. The conclusion was that the hieroglyphic text was a mixture of words made up of phonetic symbols and ideograms. The significant result is that a substantial part of the hieroglyphic text is phonetic.

By this time the nature of the third script on the Rosetta Stone was understood. It was a cursive script, now called demotic, representing the Egyptian language as it had evolved in Grecian times. There was another script not found on the Rosetta Stone but found elsewhere throughout Egypt. It is now called hieratic. It is a cursive version of the hieroglyphics. Although the Egyptian language evolved over time the language of the hieroglyphic texts was fixed due to the religious significance of the texts, much as Latin as the language of the Catholic Church was fixed. So hieroglyphics and hieratic script are two ways of writing the same language. Hieroglyphics is formal whereas hieratic script is a handwritten version of the same symbols.

Champollion honed his skills by translating demotic texts into hieratic text and then converting the hieratic version into hieroglyphics. About this time the role of symbols now called "determinatives" was recognized. The use of one of these determinatives with a hieroglyphic group determined the meaning of the group. This aspect of hieroglyphics considerably complicated its decipherment but once the nature of the problem was recognized the decipherment could proceed.

A critical breakthrough occurred for Champollion on September 14, 1822 when he was able to recognize the phonetic rendering of the name of the non-Greek pharaoh Ramses in a cartouche. He was so excited that he ran to tell his brother in another building and promptly fainted and only recovered after several days of rest.

This is a rough description but the Adkins' book gives the full story of the decipherment of hieroglyphics by Jean-Francois Champollion in the context of his life. It is a story of hardship due to poverty and illness brightened by the love and support shown him by his older brother Jacques-Joseph. Jacques-Joseph Champollion was a notable scholar in his own right but he recognized that Jean-Francois was destined for greater fame than he was. Jacques-Joseph added Figeac, the name of their home town, to his name; i.e., he became known as Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac. The French choose to believe that this was because Jacques-Joseph was so sure that his younger brother would someday be famous that he changed his name so as not to be confused with his younger brother.

Both brothers were caught up in the politics of revolutionary France and its return to monarchy. There was petty jealousies shown by academic figures to Champollion but he triumphed over all. But despite his fame he still had to endure financial hardship. The biggest problem was his health. A mysterious ailment led to his early death at age 41. The nature of the ailment is uncertain but it could have been diabetes or tuberculosis. He often was afflicted with gout, a malady usually associated with high living but that was not the case for Champollion. But despite his early death most would still consider his life a success, and a success against extraordinary odds at that.

Jean-Francois Champollion

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