Jean Francois Campollion was born in France, on December 23, 1790.
In his early life he took a special interest in Hebrew, Arabic and Coptic. When he was nine years-old a discovery took place by some of Napoleon’s soldiers at the mouth of the western arm of the Nile; a large slab of black granite (3’9″ high, 2’4½” wide and 11″ thick), covered with strange writing.
Three different languages were recorded on this Rosetta Stone, as it was later called. There was the hieroglyphic picture script of ancient Egypt, a later form of Egyptian writing known as Demotic script, and the third was Greek. At an age when ancient Egyptian was still untranslatable, this was a major breakthrough. The Rosetta Stone dates from 196 BC.
At the time of the stone’s creation there were three languages in use. The inheritors of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt, the Ptolemies, still ruled Egypt, and they used the Greek language. The common citizens used a Demotic script, which was a development of earlier hieroglyphic script. Then there was the original hieroglyphics which were used by the priests and rulers. The stone spoke of the honours of the current Pharaoh, which scholars knew because they could read the Greek text. But they could not work out how to cross-reference the three languages to unlock the keys to hieroglyphics.
Learning of the Rosetta Stone as a schoolboy, Campollion determined that he would translate it. He became a linguistics scholar and received his Doctor of Letters at age 19; a very impressive achievement at that time.
Champollion, with his knowledge of Greek and Coptic and the fact that the same decree had been recorded in three languages, was able to crack the key in 1822. He had tremendous powers of concentration and an excellent memory, able to work for days without sleep. He was prompted to the key by a suggestion that foreign names in the hieroglyphs must have a phonetic component. Since the Ptolemies were mentioned in the stone this proved helpful.
Despite the enormous significance of his discovery it took several years for others to confirm and accept his breakthrough. He was, after all, an amateur Egyptologist, and those who considered themselves the experts were not quick to concede his achievement.
In his research he visited Egypt several times, along with a student named Ippolito Rosellini, who in turn became a noted Egyptologist.
Shortly after the accolades and acknowledgements began to come, including the First Chair of Egyptian Antiquities conferred on him and membership of the French Academy, he died, suffering a stroke.
Meanwhile a whole new world of Bible archaeology was opened up as Egyptian hieroglyphics now gave their story to the scholars. The first hieroglyph which Campollion translated gave the name Ramses II, confirming the name given to Pharaoh in the Bible.
Champollion is regarded as the father of modern Egyptology. He died in Paris about a decade after his great translation achievement, on 4 March, 1832.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com