December 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jean-Francois Champollion

Born on this day in 1790 in France, Champollion became a scholar who specialized in languages. He is remembered because he deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics, thus helping to illuminate much of the history of the Ancient Egyptian civilization.

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 by a French soldier in Egypt. (The discovery was made near the town of Rashid, which is translated in French as Rosette, hence the name of the stone.) Carved into the stone is a decree (or royal order) from the year 196 BC, on behalf of King Ptolemy V—but the important thing about this stone is that the decree was stated in three different scripts: in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Egyptian “demotic” script (related to hieroglyphs and to modern Coptic), and in Ancient Greek. Because the latter script was known to scholars, this relatively small stone was gigantic in importance—the key to a language and centuries of recorded history!

Still, there was a lot of work to be done to figure out exactly what each hieroglyph meant. It was especially a problem because much of the top of the original stone stele was broken off—and that was the part with the hieroglyphs!

Jean-Francois Champollion

Obviously, since the Rosetta Stone was discovered when Champollion was only nine years old, it took years to decipher it. Scholars didn't just sit around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for Champollion to grow up! Lithographic copies and plaster casts circulated among European scholars, and in 1803 the Ancient Greek was fully translated. A Swedish man named Johan David Akerblad worked on translating the Demotic text (pictured here below right), which was related to the modern form of Ancient Egyptian, the Coptic language. He was only partially successful because he assumed that each character (symbol) stood for a sound, as our letters do.

A student of Chinese suggested that some of the symbols were ideographic, standing for an object or idea rather than for a sound, and Thomas Young ran with the suggestion and was able to figure out that the Demotic script had similarities to the hieroglyphic script and that both used phonetic symbols (“letters”) to spell out names but had some ideographic symbols as well. Young published his findings around 1814.

Champollion first got into the project when Young sent him a letter in 1814. He was able to create a phonetic alphabet of hieroglyphs by 1822, and he figured out that, not just names were spelled out phonetically, but some words were as well. Champollion drew on many other ancient texts as he continued to create a hieroglyph dictionary and grammar.

Champollion suddenly died in 1832. However, thanks in part to his work, we can now figure out what all those hieroglyphs on all those scrolls and statues and monuments and tombs and sarcophagi say!

Ahhh....the Rosetta Stone...

At the British Museum, there are an amazing assortment of incredible displays, including huge statues and facades of ancient buildings and even entire temples! Yet my blood was stirred most when staring at the 45-inch-by-28-inch broken chunk of rock called the Rosetta Stone. I remember standing there, thinking, “Wait—this is THE Rosetta Stone? The original? The real deal?” It was a bit like looking at the Mona Lisa and realizing that it was THE Mona Lisa.

I am not alone in my interest in this "rock of ages"—according to Wikipedia, the Rosetta Stone is the most-visited object in the British Museum.  (And did I mention that that museum is FULL of crazy-cool stuff?)

The term “Rosetta Stone” is sometimes used to mean the key to unlocking knowledge. For example, people have said that a particular discovery turned out to be the Rosetta Stone of modern physics. A brand of software that teaches foreign languages is called Rosetta Stone, and some translation services and software use the name Rosetta as well.

Find out more...

Here is a short bio of Champollion. 

Ever wonder what your name would look like in Egyptian hieroglyphs? Here and here are text-to-hieroglyph converters. 

Learn ALL about hieroglyphs here

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