Champollion champion in the race to decipher history

Jean Francois Champollion was to Egyptology what Einstein was to physics

Jean Francois Champollion was to Egyptology what Einstein was to physics. When he died at 42 in 1832, it could not be said of him that he had had an eventful life. Monogamous and uninterested in anything very much beyond his work, he went on an expedition to Egypt as far south as Aswan in 1828, was awarded a second chair at the College de France (his first, at the university of Grenoble, he took up when he was 19), and visited England a few times. He was politically volatile; he began life as a convinced opponent of Bonapartism, became an ardent admirer of Napoleon in 1814-15, when most other people were deserting him, and ended as a protege of the restored Bourbon, Louis XVIII. But for his linguistic genius, Champollion would have joined the billions who made no mark on history.

Yet what a genius it was. The authors speak of a race to read the hieroglyphs, but in fact Champollion's disgruntled and envious rivals, especially the English scholar, Thomas Young, were always toiling miles in his rear. The chance discovery of the (intrinsically insignificant) Rosetta Stone during Napoleon's 1798-99 military adventure in Egypt set Champollion on his life's work. The Stone - actually a decree by the priests of Memphis dating from 196 B.C. - contained the same material in three different scripts: Greek, hieroglyphs and a demotic form of Egyptian.

From his knowledge of ancient Coptic, Champollion soon worked out that ancient Egyptian had two forms, sacred and secular, or, as they came to be known, hieratic and demotic. He also hypothesised that hieroglyphs were primary, that hieratic was a derivative and that demotic in turn was a derivative of hieratic. Starting with the (again correct) "educated guess", that the hieroglyphs enclosed in an oblong casing or "cartouche" were proper names, Champollion soon worked out a system for "translating" hieroglyphs, hieratic and demotic in terms of each other. So far this was a "coherence" version of truth, for he had as yet no idea what the hieroglyphs corresponded to or what they meant.

Initially, decipherment of hieroglyphs was always posed in stark either/or terms: either they formed a phonetic system or they were pictograms, like Chinese. The problem was that 486 words of Greek on the Rosetta Stone were paralleled by 1,419 hieroglyphic signs. Even if one took significant groups of hieroglyphs together, this produced 180 significant sign clusters. On the face of it, therefore, the hieroglyphs were neither pictograms nor a phonetic system. Champollion guessed they might be some complex combination of both and laboured away for years for the breakthrough that would enable him to crack this awesome code.


Eventually, he succeeded. The hieroglyphs, it turned out, had a fourfold function. Some signs were pictograms (denoting concrete objects), others ideograms (denoting abstracts), others again were used phonetically, while a final group acted as "derivatives" - signs which alter the otherwise fixed meaning of a cluster of hieroglyphs. In a word, the baffling hieroglyphs were a script that was simultaneously figurative, symbolic and phonetic.

There is no biography of Champollion in English, though there is a particularly fine one in French by Jean Lacouture. Lesley and Roy Adkins make no claims to have produced a definite life of this fascinating linguistic genius, though their commitment and passionate advocacy is never in doubt. What they have done is to produce an admirably lucid introduction to the decipherment of hieroglyphs.

Writing up intellectual rather than physical adventure in an exciting way is always a stern test for a writer and the co-authors have done particularly well. There are some inaccuracies in their account of Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, but this scarcely matters alongside their reader-friendly model of clarity.

Frank McLynn is an author and critic