The first representations of Egyptian writing appeared around 3000 B.C. Jean-Francois Champollion, a Frenchman, was the first to effectively decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1812. With his new discoveries, scholars from around the world were able to read and understand Egyptian literature for the first time. It was revolutionary!
What Champollion Found
In "The Keys of Egypt," Lesley and Roy Adkins explore the amazing story of Champollion and his discovery of a system to understand hieroglyphs. As the authors write, "Champollion's success was based on twenty years of obsessive hard work, all too often in difficult circumstances, and he would soon be able to read the literature from 3,000 years of human history that had been unintelligible for centuries." Through his many years of work, the wonders of Egypt was finally opened to the world.
As he reassembled pieces of papyrus, Champollion said, "I have gathered, while scarcely breathing for fear of reducing them to powder, such little pieces of papyrus, the last and only refuge of the memory of a king who in his lifetime perhaps found himself cramped in the immense palace of Karnak."
With Champollion's important breakthrough, we were able to read and understand the narrative works of Egyptian literature, along with an assorted array of letters, treatises, lists, archives, and accounts from ancient Egypt. In fact, dramatics works are the only form of writing not found in the ancient texts.
How He Discovered Hieroglyphs
Champollion was something of a child genius. Adept at learning languages, he studied Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Arabic; then, later, he studied Persian, Sanskrit, and Coptic. His study of Coptic, along with his passionate research of all things related to Egyptian culture, gave him an edge when he began his examination of ancient hieroglyphs in 1808.
As Champollion struggled to make a living, and continue his research, he continually worked to influence the procurement of ancient Egyptian artifacts, many of which were being sold to the highest bidder. Napoleon had already started the Egyptian collection, when he invaded Egypt in 1798. With the remnants he brought back, a mania for all things Egypt had begun. A young boy at the time of Napoleon's Egyptian expedition, Champollion had caught "Egyptomania."
Obsessed with breaking the code, Champollion wanted the artifacts to be available for study and analysis, and he didn't want them to disappear into private collections, never to be seen again.
Of course, Champollion had partly selfish motives for encouraging the procurement of the ancient scrolls and statues. As he began to develop his system of deciphering hieroglyphs, he needed more examples of hieroglyphs for testing his theories. He published his discoveries in a series of works: "Lettre a M. Dacier" (1822); "Deux lettres a M. Ie duc de Blacas d'Aulps, relatives au musée royal égyptien de Turin" (Paris, 1824-1826); "Catalogue des monuments égyptiens du musée du Vatican" (Rome, 1826), and "Panthéon égyptien" (1823-1831).
When he wrote a pamphlet about the gods and goddesses of Egypt, Champollion wrote to a colleague: "My aim in publishing this collection is to make clear the various mythical people represented on the monuments of Egypt, to distinguish them one from another; without claiming to enter into the very foundation of their emblematic or symbolical significance."
In a time of political and social upheaval in France, Louis-Philippe acknowledged Champollion's success in a speech: "It must make one proud that a Frenchman has begun to penetrate the mysteries that the Ancients only revealed to some rather experienced followers and to decipher these emblems."
Never in good health, the long hours and poor living conditions he often was forced to endure ultimately led to his untimely death at the age of 41. The authors write: "The bereavement of a single family becomes a general bereavement for all those who appreciate literature and who are interested in it progress."