Champollion, the Father of Egyptology, Remembered for His Legacy and ๐˜‹๐˜ฆ๐˜ฎ๐˜ช๐˜ด๐˜ฆ๐˜ฎ

Champollion’s groundbreaking achievement came in 1822 when he successfully deciphered the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799, contained inscriptions in three scripts: ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script, and ancient Greek. By comparing the known Greek text to the unknown hieroglyphs, Champollion managed to crack the code and unlock the long-lost language of ancient Egypt. This breakthrough opened up a new era of understanding and studying ancient Egyptian history, culture, and literature.

Champollion’s work laid the foundation for Egyptology as a scientific discipline and inspired subsequent generations of scholars and archaeologists to delve deeper into the mysteries of ancient Egypt. His comprehensive studies and meticulous analyses of numerous ancient Egyptian texts and monuments greatly expanded our knowledge of this ancient civilization.

Despite his untimely ๐’น๐‘’๐’ถ๐“‰๐’ฝ, Champollion’s legacy continues to reverberate in the field of Egyptology. His decipherment of hieroglyphs revolutionized the study of ancient Egypt, paving the way for further discoveries and advancements. Today, his contributions are widely recognized and celebrated, and his name remains synonymous with the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the birth of Egyptology as a scientific discipline.

In 2022, on the bicentennial of his remarkable achievement, France commemorated Champollion’s legacy through a series of events and celebrations.


Leon Cognietโ€™s portrait of Jean-Franรงois Champollion. ( Public domain )

Born in 1790, in a French town known as Figeac which is now home to the Musรฉe Champollion – Les ร‰critures du Monde (Champollion Museum – Writings of the World), Jean-Franรงois Champollion displayed an early passion for languages and ancient history. From a young age he demonstrated exceptional linguistic skills and a deep curiosity for deciphering ancient scripts.

Champollionโ€™s groundbreaking achievements came to fruition in 1822 when he successfully deciphered the Rosetta Stone, unraveling the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics . This work was made possible by his research and knowledge of languages, including Coptic and Demotic. Cracking the hieroglyphic code carved onto the Rosetta Stone opened up a new world of understanding, shedding light on the rich history, culture and civilization of ancient Egypt .

While the Rosetta Stone itself was discovered in Egypt in 1799 by French soldiers during Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign, and the stone was transported to the British Museum in London in 1802 under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria, it was Champollion who made the breakthrough in Paris, France, based on drawings and copies of its inscriptions. He did so after years of linguistic study, historical analysis and comparison of the Rosetta Stone’s inscriptions with other known ancient texts

After a lifetime dedicated this research of hieroglyphics, Jean-Franรงois Champollion embarked on his final trip to Egypt in 1828. The purpose of his visit was to further explore the ancient sites and gather additional knowledge about Egyptian civilization, while immersing himself in the rich cultural and historical tapestry that had captivated him for years. However, his health began to deteriorate during the expedition and upon returning to France his condition worsened. Tragically, he passed away in 1832, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy.


Detail from one of Jean-Franรงois Champollionโ€™s notebooks.ย  ( Public domain )

Jean-Franรงois Champollion’s premature ๐’น๐‘’๐’ถ๐“‰๐’ฝ at the age of 41 has often been attributed to exhaustion caused by his year-long visit to Egypt. It was believed that the strain of deciphering the Rosetta Stone and the demands of exploration took a toll on his health and that he ultimately succumbed to a stroke. โ€œI sleep two or three times a week with the Rosetta inscription,โ€ he wrote in 1814, in a passage quoted by The Washington Post . โ€œSo far Iโ€™ve only gained headaches and two or three words.โ€

New medical research, however, has challenged this conventional explanation and suggests that other factors may have contributed to his decline. While the exact cause of his ๐’น๐‘’๐’ถ๐“‰๐’ฝ remains uncertain, experts question whether a stroke alone was solely responsible.

Published in 2015, a letter to the editor of the journal Clinical Neurophysiology by Dr. Hutan Ashrafian of the Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College-London, claimed that the term โ€œstrokeโ€ was used in a generic sense rather than as a formal medical diagnosis. Lacking access to an autopsy, Ashrafian studied reports of Champollionโ€™s condition over the years in order to reach certain conclusions about the ๐’น๐‘’๐’ถ๐“‰๐’ฝ of the great scholar.

During his trip to Egypt, Champollion did not suffer from lymph disease or fevers. However, accounts of his final years shed light on a different set of afflictions. Although he did not show symptoms of heart disease or impaired ๐˜ฃ๐˜ญ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฐ๐˜ฅ flow, Champollion faced the daunting challenges of muscle weakness, limb paralysis, and ultimately, the inability to breathe.

โ€œFurthermore, at the moment of decipherment of hieroglyphs (1828), he is noted to have collapsed, though this may be viewed as a vasovagal [fainting] episode as a result of extreme emotional outpouring,โ€ wrote Ashrafian. โ€œIn his final weeks he became emotionally labile consistent with progression of pseudobulbar dysfunction, and eventually demonstrated a โ€˜locked-inโ€™ syndrome before his death.โ€

Thus, according to this diagnosis, Jean-Franรงois Champollion, who gave voice to the ancient Egyptians through his decipherment of hieroglyphics , faced pseudobulbar dysfunction, an affliction which rendered him unable to speak. It may be considered ironic that a man who opened the ancient Egyptian world to modern scholarship was incapable of articulating his own thoughts just before he ๐˜ฅ๐˜ช๐˜ฆ๐˜ฅ.

After careful examination of Champollion’s symptoms, Dr. Ashrafian reached a compelling conclusion: the esteemed scholar had been grappling with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a debilitating condition causing progressive muscle paralysis. Notably, Champollion did not exhibit mental impairment or seizures, but rather experienced initial weakness in his legs, which later extended to a loss of speech. This diagnosis sheds new light on the challenges Champollion faced and further deepens our appreciation for his unwavering determination in deciphering the mysteries of ancient Egypt amidst his own physical decline.


The Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum. (ย British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

The term โ€œhieroglyphโ€ derives from the Greek words meaning โ€œsacred wordsโ€ or โ€œsacred signs,โ€ as first utilized by Clement of Alexandria. In ancient Egypt, their own script was referred to as mdju netjer or โ€œwords of the gods.โ€ The earliest known hieroglyphs can be traced back to the pre-dynastic era, approximately from 3400 to 3200 BC. However, the last evidence of hieroglyphs in use can be found around 394 AD, marking the culmination of their historical prominence and significance in ancient Egypt.

Hieroglyphs abound on ancient Egyptian artifacts, carved into clay seals, rock, pottery vessels, bone, ivory and, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone stela, into basalt. โ€œWhen Pharaonic Egypt became Christianized in the 4th century, the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics was lost for about 1,500 years,โ€ explained The Washington Post . Rather than a kind of script, the symbols came to be understood as pagan pictograms instead. For Champollion, the Rosetta Stone was a pivotal artifact in unraveling the hieroglyphic code because of its inclusion of the same inscription in three scripts; hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic and ancient Greek.

While Jean-Franรงois Champollion’s translation was a milestone for Egyptology, the field has continued to advance, leading to evolving linguistic understanding, new insights and revisions in translations over time. The inscription itself was crafted by Egyptian clergy to commemorate the first anniversary of Ptolemy V โ€™s coronation in 196 BC. The so-called Rosetta Stone served as a powerful affirmation of the royal cult dedicated to the young Pharaoh, and the inscription explicitly dictated that the stone was to be reproduced and distributed across the temples throughout Egypt.


Statue of Jean-Franรงois Champollion by Frรฉdรฉric-Auguste Bartholdi. (Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0 FR )

To celebrate the bicentennial of Champollionโ€™s discovery, France presented a series of spectacular events in 2022. After three-year-long preparations, the Bibliothรจque Nationale de France (BNF), or the โ€œFrench National Library,โ€ put together an exhibition of about 350 artifacts. These were displayed alongside a curated selection of Champollionโ€™s unpublished documents, based on 88 volumes of notes and illustrations he left behind which are currently stored at the BNF.

Titled L’Aventure Champollion: Dans le secret des hieroglyphs , or โ€œThe Champollion Adventure: Within the Secret of Hieroglyphs,โ€ the exhibition aimed to vividly portray Champollion’s renowned work by showcasing the meticulous research methods he employed. The goal was to bring his extraordinary journey to life, offering visitors an immersive experience into the world of hieroglyphs.

Jean-Franรงois Champollion’s birthplace in Figeac also hosted a six-month series of events to celebrate his legacy. Dubbed Eurรชka! Champollion 2022 , activities included concerts, movie screenings, theatrical performances, museum exhibitions and seminars led by prominent Egyptologists. Since 1995, the town square of Figeac has been home to a magnificent black granite replica of the Rosetta Stone crafted by the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth.


The monumental reproduction of the Rosetta stone by the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth in Figeac, Jean-Franรงois Champollion’s birthplace, known as the Place des ร‰critures. (Bmclaughlin9 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Meanwhile, the Louvre-Lens Museum hosted the captivating exhibition Champollion: The Path of Hieroglyphs up until January 2023, offering a profound exploration of Champollion’s groundbreaking discovery and unveiling his personal journey.

One aspect revealed by the exhibit is that despite his humble origins in southwestern France, Champollion’s association with Joseph Fourier, a scholar who accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition , provided him an opportunity to pursue studies in Paris. The city’s deep fascination with ancient Egypt was evident through its abundance of Egyptian artifacts, which aided Champollion in his work, and the exhibition meticulously presented the resources available during his time in Paris.

The exhibit featured the renowned statue of Champollion sculpted by Frรฉdรฉric-Auguste Bartholdi, the mastermind behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City. Since 1878, this statue has graced the main courtyard of the Collรจge de France in Paris. For this was the city where Champollion was appointed by King Charles X to oversee the newly acquired Egyptian collections at the Louvre, in recognition of his remarkable achievements deciphering the hieroglyphs of the Rosetta Stone .


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