Who’s Who in Archaeology? -- By: Milton C. Fisher
BSP 1:1 (Winter 1988) p. 4
Who’s Who in Archaeology?
Jean Francois Champollion
What does it take to crack the code, the strange script of a long dead language? A keen, mathematically logical mind. A good imagination and strong curiosity should also aid decipherment.
Just such qualities enabled an English physicist and physician named Thomas Young to propose, in 1814, identification of nine hieroglyphic symbols on the famous Rosetta Stone. It was later confirmed that he was about halfway correct - five out of the nine. Young had followed a conjecture made by French scholars after the trilingual monument was discovered by a soldier on the 1798 campaign. Several scholars had accompanied Napoleon on this expedition to Egypt.
The key to this first step in reading ancient Egyptian was the correct guess that the cartouches (oval bands framing a group of symbols) found on their monuments and wall paintings contained proper names.
Advancement of hieroglyphic decipherment and understanding of the language itself, however, called for the capabilities of an accomplished linguist and the determination of one passionately interested in the culture and history of ancient Egypt. Such a man was Jean Francois Champollion, who himself wrote of his “ten years of dedicated study,” in his September, 1822 letter to M. Dacier Relative to the Alphabet of the Phonetic Hieroglyphs.
Younger brother, by twelve years, of archaeologist Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac, he got off to an early start. Learning Latin and Greek in childhood (Homer at nine!), he took up eastern languages. By age sixteen, he was able to deliver a paper on Coptic
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to a French learned society, in which he identified Coptic as Late Egyptian written in a Greek-inspired alphabet. At nineteen he became assistant professor of Egyptian history at Grenoble.
He reasoned that the ancient Egyptians, like the Chinese, would have to adapt their ideograms (word symbols) to alphabetic (phonetic) use for foreign names and borrowed words in particular. Thus he could read names like PTOLEMY (on the Rosetta Stone) and CLEOPATRA (on an obelisk brought to London from the Nile island of Philae). The names were identifiable from Greek translations on these objects. Knowledge of Coptic led him to make informed guesses about other “letters” or phonetic symbols. Since hi...
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