By DAVID STUART
On Sept. 14, 1822, as legend tells the tale, Jean-François Champollion burst into his brother's Paris office at the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, flung a bundle of drawings upon the desk and cried, "Je tiens mon affaire!" ("I've done it!"). Champollion promptly fainted before he could utter news of the great intellectual feat for which he is still celebrated: the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The story of the young, frail, hotheaded scholar and his volatile time, full of upheavals political and scientific, is a remarkable tale, wonderfully told in Andrew Robinson's "Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion."
The founding father of Egyptology started young and lived a relatively short life. Born in 1790 in southwest France, Champollion became fascinated by Oriental history and languages not long after he was sent to school in Grenoble at age 10, having exhausted local teachers. France was still basking in the exotic glow of Napoleon's Egypt campaign (1798-1801), when scientists as well as soldiers helped introduce the wonders of ancient Egypt into Western consciousness. Images and accounts of pyramids, temples and mysterious hieroglyphs—including those on the recently discovered Rosetta Stone—enchanted the young Jean-François, who soon set his sights on learning the Coptic language of old Egypt.
|The Rosetta Stone, British Museum.|
The scale of his ambition and talent was soon apparent. At age 13, he had set out to compile a complete "chronology from Adam up to Champollion," and he later honed his Coptic by mentally narrating his daily life. But as Mr. Robinson stresses, Champollion's learned brother Jacques-Joseph, who hosted him in Grenoble, played an essential role as his sibling's constant supporter and facilitator. He provided a large personal library and connections to some of the leading philologists of the day.
By 1808, Champollion was at work on Egyptian writing. Like some others who have cracked ancient scripts (e.g., Michael Ventris, who revealed the early Greek script Linear B), he is today widely celebrated as a singular code-breaker. Mr. Robinson, however, shows that the early work on decipherment was more complicated, and even collaborative. Champollion's fledgling efforts at reading the hieroglyphs were frequently off-base. Like many of his predecessors, he wasn't even certain that the hieroglyphs represented a phonetic system. The prevailing theory had long been that hieroglyphs were complex symbolic writing, whose elements corresponded to concepts rather than parts of a single language.
Things began to change in the 1810s, thanks in large part to Thomas Young, the great English polymath who in 1819 published his key insight that many Egyptian signs were alphabetic in nature and were used to spell the names of noted pharaohs and queens (Cleopatra being one). From the Rosetta Stone and a handful of other texts, Young identified a number of such signs correctly—the first true code-breaking of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Mr. Robinson paints a fascinating picture of Young as a brilliant yet cautious and introverted mind, perhaps spread too thin in his diverse interests in medicine and physics to delve more deeply into his Egyptian studies. (Mr. Robinson's 2006 biography of Young is titled "The Last Man Who Knew Everything.")
The brash Frenchman was, by contrast, thoroughly obsessed with his hieroglyphs, not to mention with securing honor for France and glory for himself. Champollion was probably aware of Young's insights, although he might have come to similar conclusions independently; considerable debate still exists on the issue. Whatever the case, Champollion soon took the lead and ran with it, devoting all his time and effort to working out the basics of the writing system, until the moment he sprinted to his brother's office to announce his breakthrough. Between 1822 and 1824 he published his findings at a rapid pace, demonstrating a more complete understanding of the ancient writing system. No one else of the time could read whole strings of hieroglyphs as true texts and in their original language (an ancestral form of Coptic, he suspected).
Mr. Robinson takes us through many details of the decipherment, but his book is far more than an account of eccentric scholars and their code breaking. He ably situates Champollion within the fervor of early 19th-century France, revealing surprisingly political dimensions to the Egyptologist's academic work and outlook. He and his brother were liberal-minded and skeptical of the unbridled authority of Napoleon, the restored Bourbon kings and conservative Catholic dogma. Yet as Champollion's fame increased, so did his somewhat awkward dealings with European royalty and power brokers, including King Charles X of France and the pope, who offered to make Champollion a cardinal (the offer was refused).
In 1828, with the backing of Charles and Leopold II of Tuscany, Champollion finally had the opportunity to finance his own expedition to Egypt. The two-year journey along the Nile was the most powerful intellectual experience of Champollion's life. He, after all, was the one man alive who could read the ancient inscriptions carved on the walls of Abu Simbel and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. Thousands of years of lost history now opened up before his eyes, literally. Champollion worked tirelessly to record new texts and absorb what he was reading about Egyptian history and religion.
The overwhelming intensity of the experience seems to have ravaged his already fragile health, perhaps as much as the diseases rampant in the Nile Valley (and his proud insistence on drinking straight from the storied river). In 1832, the bedridden Champollion died at the age of 41, still working on his magnum opus, a dictionary and grammar of the ancient Egyptian language. Incredibly, his breakthroughs nearly died with him, for he had trained no line of students. Volumes of unpublished letters, notes and papers were left for his brother to edit and organize, many remaining unpublished for decades. In this milieu some rival scholars doubted the truth of the decipherment. It took years for others in the new field of Egyptology to fully absorb Champollion's technical insights and build on them, but they form the basis of what we today know of the hieroglyphs.
As a specialist in ancient scripts and decipherment (working with Maya glyphs), I have had a lifelong fascination with Champollion; I thought I knew the story of the indefatigable, obsessed scholar who held the keys to ancient Egypt and unlocked an entire civilization for study. But Mr. Robinson's highly enjoyable book tells so much more that I came away amazed at the intellectual adventures of a man whose accomplishments, as one contemporaneous admirer put it, "will last as long as the monuments he came to explain to us."
—Mr. Stuart is a professor of Mesoamerican art and archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this article appeared June 16, 2012, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What the Sphinx Said.