September 27, 1822 — Jean-François Champollion (23 December 1790 – 4 March 1832) announced today that he has deciphered the Rosetta stone, a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V.
The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion Demotic script, and the lowest Ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (with some minor differences among them), it provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The French scholar, philologist and orientalist, Champollion was a child prodigy in philology who gave his first public paper on the decipherment of demotic in 1806. As a young man, he held many posts of honor in scientific circles, and spoke Coptic and Arabic fluently.
During the early 19th century French culture experienced a period of ‘Egyptomania’, brought on by Napoleon’s discoveries in Egypt during his campaign there (1797–1801) which also brought to light the trilingual Rosetta Stone.
Scholars debated the age of the Egyptian civilization and the function and nature of the hieroglyphic script. Many thought the script was only used for sacred and ritual functions, and that as such it was unlikely to be decipherable since it was tied to esoteric and philosophical ideas, and did not record historical information.
The significance of Champollion’s decipherment was that he showed these assumptions to be wrong, and made it possible to begin to retrieve the many kinds of information recorded by the ancient Egyptians.
Words of Wisdom
I am proud to be able to announce, now that I have followed the course of the Nile from it mouth to the second cataract, that we need change nothing in our Letter on the hierogyphical alphabet. Our alphabet is good: it can be successfully applied to the Egyptian monuments dating from Roman and Ptolemaic times, and then which is of far greater importance, to the inscriptions on all the temples, places and tombs of the pharaonic era. All of this vindicates the encouragement you were so kind as to give my work on the hieroglyphs at a time when they were far from being favourably received.