Jean-François Champollion

Portrait: Jean- François Champollion
Jean- François Champollion, painting by Léon Cogniet, oil on canvas, 1831
© Photo RMN-Grand Palais – R. G. Ojeda / Wikimedia Commons

Jean-François Champollion

A linguistic genius deciphers the code of the Pharoahs

Je tiens l’affaire! – I’ve got it!

Jean-François Champollion to his brother, as he first deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs

Jean-François Champollion, the linguistic child prodigy from southwestern France, had a profound ability to learn ancient languages with incredible ease, going on to master at least ten in his lifetime. When he was twelve, a member of Napoleon’s Egyptian expeditions showed him the first hieroglyphics. Nobody had been able to decode the works up that point but Champollion reveled in the challenge and henceforth developed an obsession: the deciphering of the symbols of the pharaohs. On the basis of both his rediscovery of the ancient Egyptian Hieratic and Demotic scripts and his knowledge of the Coptic language, he succeeded in deciphering hieroglyphics for the first time in 1822. He recognised that the writing system, alongside its visual symbols, also encompassed both determiners and phonetic symbols.

The Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in 1799 and proved to be the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, was never seen by Champollion in its original form. It has been on display in the British Museum in London since 1802.