Champollion - the champion code breaker.


It was not a solo effort from Champollion that made sense of the ancient writing of Egypt.

Ever since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and his removal of the Rosetta stone back to France, attempts were made to decipher the mysterious language of the ancient Egyptians.

French linguist, Silvestre de Sacy, made some ground in deciphering the Rosetta stone. He managed to distinguish some proper names and some of the Demotic (non hieroglyphic) script.

Englishman, Thomas Young, was another who tried to unravel Egyptian writing. He made a list of eighty six demotic words used for translation.

Putting the pieces together.

Jean Francois Champollion knew his languages. At the age of sixteen he knew over twelve of them. On top of that he had written a thesis on Coptic.

Coptic language was formed in the first century CE in Egypt and was based from Greek influence.

This knowledge of the Coptic language led him to being in charge of deciphering the Rosetta Stone. It was during a two year period, 1822 to 1824, that his prime objective was to know what the ancient stone was saying.

How did he crack the code?

Armed with the foresight of his predecessors work he was able to make one very important distinction. The similarity to the more modern Coptic language meant that Thomas Young was looking for a simple translation of the text. When in fact, as Jean Francois discovered, the demotic writing had to be read as paraphrases.

Egyptian hieroglyphics is a complex language, but knowing that it had to be looked at in phrases, and other determining factors, gave the world a better chance of understanding what the ancient Egyptians were saying on temple walls, papyrus and the many other examples discovered by explorers.


The dogged Frenchman was celebrated for his work and took sole credit for it. Thomas Young gave him praise for his work but asked to be recognized for his own efforts. Jean Francois ignored his requests and when the French nation got behind their man, so to did the British behind theirs.

Champollion made his thorough understanding of hieroglyphics clear and highlighted Young's shortcomings. Although he snubbed Young with his superior knowledge, he eventually offered Young access to manuscripts that were in his care.

More work to do.

Champollion did not stop at the Rosetta Stone in his work on uncovering mysteries of the ancient world. When he discovered a fragmented list of ancient kings he began to reassemble it into some kind of order. He managed to restore most of the list in its correct time line and made sense of the jumble.

Now known as the King Turin List, it gives the names of pharaohs and the length of their rule. The list however is in a deteriorated condition with many pieces of the puzzle still missing.

The front of the papyrus lists gods, demi-gods as well as fictional and real kings who ruled Egypt from the beginning of Egyptian time to the documents completion.

It remains an important and valuable find.

return from Champollion to Egyptian writing page