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The Rivals Who Cracked the Code of Ancient Egypt’s Hieroglyphs

Claire Cock-Starkey
Jaroslav Havlicek/EyeEm via Getty Images

In July 1799, French troops building fortifications for Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign unearthed a strange black basalt slab. It was almost 4 feet tall and nearly 2.5 feet wide; its edges were jagged. It was also covered in writing.

The troops’ commanding officer, an erudite engineer named Pierre-François Bouchard, recognized that the slab bore some sort of message written in three languages. One of the scripts was Ancient Greek; one was unknown; and one appeared to be hieroglyphs—the lost sacred language of ancient Egypt, which had not been understood for over a thousand years.

The stone, found near the Nile Delta town of Rosetta, would prove to be the key to unlocking a millennia-old mystery.

The Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab inscribed with a decree of the pharaoh Ptolemy V in three languages.
The Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab inscribed with a decree of the pharaoh Ptolemy V in three languages. / Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Deciphering the ancient Egyptian script was a longtime goal of European scholars. Centuries earlier, Greek and Roman writers had ascribed mystical qualities to Egyptian culture, and early modern European travelers to Egypt had brought back sculptures carved with the inscrutable pictographs, which seemed to support Egypt’s association with occult knowledge. Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt stoked more scholarly interest in the origins of the great pyramids, temples, and writing system.

Bouchard ordered the slab to be preserved for Napoleon’s growing collection of Egyptian treasures. Unfortunately for the French, they were defeated by English forces in 1801. Soon after, the British army seized their collection of Egyptian booty, including the Rosetta Stone, which it gave as a gift to King George III.

But before it lost the priceless artifact, French scholars had created copies of the inscriptions that made their way around Europe. Over the next decade, linguists confirmed that the inscription at the top of the stone was written in hieroglyphs, a writing system that had died out by the end of the 4th century CE along with scholars’ ability to interpret it. The middle inscription was in “demotic” script, the form of Egyptian used by everyday people. Translation of the Ancient Greek text at the bottom of the stone indicated that it was a decree issued by Ptolemy V in 196 BCE. Crucially, the last line revealed that all three inscriptions were equivalent in meaning.

When the brilliant British polymath Thomas Young took up the challenge of deciphering it in 1814, he was unaware that an equally brilliant French linguist named Jean-François Champollion had already been studying the mysterious hieroglyphs for several years. The race to crack the code began in earnest.

The Mystery of Hieroglyphs

Thomas Young knew 12 languages before he turned 18 and trained as a physician at Cambridge University. As befits someone nicknamed “Phenomenon” by his classmates, Young later turned his attention to an array of scientific pursuits, becoming a key member of the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. He began studying the Rosetta Stone after reading a book on the history of languages.

Thomas Young, English physicist and Egyptologist
Thomas Young, English physicist and Egyptologist / Print Collector/GettyImages

Young took a copy of the stone’s text with him on holiday to the seaside resort of Worthing, where he approached the task of decipherment as if it were a mathematical puzzle, cutting up the inscriptions into individual lines and attempting to match them with one another. But this technique got him only so far. He still couldn’t figure out if hieroglyphs represented an actual spoken language, and whether the written symbols related to sounds, letters, whole words, or even simple concepts.

Undeterred by his lack of immediate progress, Young continued his research, focusing on the demotic script to decode the hieroglyphs. He published well-respected articles on Egypt for the Encyclopedia Britannica between 1816 and 1818, including his insights into hieroglyphic and demotic scripts. Young, raised in the Quaker tradition, was fittingly modest and initially published his findings anonymously—though many in London’s intellectual community knew he was the author.

After years of dogged work, Young finally made a breakthrough—he realized the hieroglyphic cartouches (pictures surrounded by an oval) contained the name of the ruler Ptolemy. This allowed him to begin to match up the ancient Greek letters in Ptolemy’s name with their hieroglyphic equivalents. In 1819, he published a paper in which he tentatively suggested the possible phonetic sounds made by 13 hieroglyphs—the first major step in cracking the code. Using these keys, Young began to translate both hieroglyphs and demotic, reviving two writing systems that hadn’t been understood for millennia.

A Rivalry Emerges

Young’s scholarly interests ran the gamut, but the same could not be said for Jean-François Champollion. The dashing Frenchman, 17 years younger than his rival, was a true Egyptologist, sharply focused on the culture and language of the ancient civilization. By the time Young published his decipherment in 1819, Champollion had been fixated on the challenge of deciphering hieroglyphs for about a decade. He believed his knowledge of Egyptian Coptic—the obscure, surviving liturgical language of Egypt’s Christians—gave him the upper hand over other scholars.

Portrait of Jean-Francois Champollion by Leon Cogniet
Jean-Francois Champollion by Leon Cogniet / Leemage/GettyImages

“Thomas Young approached the decipherment like a crossword puzzle, because he didn't really care about ancient Egypt,” Diane Josefowicz writes in Riddle of the Rosetta. “Champollion was much more interested in Egyptian history and culture, and because of this, he was one of the first to make extensive use of Coptic … knowledge of Coptic turned out to be key to the decipherment.”

Like Young, Champollion concentrated on cartouches as the most promising means for decipherment. Using a theory that hieroglyphs represented a mixture of ideograms and alphabetic signs, Champollion put his Coptic fluency into practice to decipher the cartouches of the pharaohs Ramses and Thutmose. After working day and night to translate the imagery, Champollion realized he’d cracked the elusive code and ran breathlessly into his brother’s office, yelling, “I’ve got it!” Then he fainted. For the next five days, Toby Wilkinson in A World Beneath the Sands, Champollion was confined to bed with severe exhaustion.

After translating several more cartouches, Champollion was able to create a sizeable alphabet of hieroglyphs and their Greek equivalents, and presented his findings at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris on July 27, 1822. Young attended the meeting as well, and met his brilliant French counterpart for the first time. Perhaps Young expected Champollion to cite his groundbreaking 1819 paper on hieroglyphs. But Champollion conceded no debt to his discoveries. The hint of a grudge began to form in Young’s mind.

“He devotes his whole time to the pursuit, and he has been wonderfully successful in some of the documents which he has obtained,” Young wrote to his friend Hudson Gurney. “How far he will acknowledge everything which he has either borrowed or might have borrowed, I am not quite confident, but the world will be sure to remark que c’est le premier pas qui coûte [it is only the first step that is difficult], though the proverb is less true in this case than in most others, for here every step is laborious.”

The Gloves Come Off

Taken aback by the celebration of Champollion’s achievement, and fearful that the influence of his own work was being overlooked, Young threw his modesty aside.

In 1823, Young published his rebuttal, An Account of Some Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature, and Egyptian Antiquities. To underline what he saw as his foundational contribution to the decipherment, Young added a rather snippy subtitle: Including the author’s original alphabet, as extended by Mr. Champollion. Summing up his overview of Champollion’s investigations, Young wrote, “However Mr. Champollion may have arrived at his conclusions, I admit them, with the greatest pleasure and gratitude, not by any means as superseding my system, but as fully confirming and extending it.”

Hieroglyphs in the notebook of Jean-Francois Champollion, c.1806-1832.
Hieroglyphs in the notebook of Jean-Francois Champollion, c.1806-1832. / Art Media/Print Collector/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

The Frenchman was not to be riled by Young’s pointed offense and made his position quite clear: “I shall never consent to recognize any other original alphabet than my own … and the unanimous opinion of scholars on this point will be more and more confirmed by the public examination of any other claim.”

Young backed down from the public squabble while his British colleagues called out Champollion’s “effrontery” in the press. The polymath spent the last few years of his life compiling a dictionary of demotic script. Following his death in 1829, his friend Hudson Gurney paid for a plaque in London’s Westminster Abbey listing Young’s numerous achievements as the man who “first penetrated the obscurity which had veiled for ages the hieroglyphicks of Egypt.” Young’s friends ensured that, in death, at least, he found some credit for his foundational work in unlocking ancient Egypt's language.

Champollion, meanwhile, continued to work on deciphering hieroglyphs, and with rich patrons to support and promote his work, he refined and rethought his original research. In 1824, he published his definitive treatise on his decipherment, Précis du Système Hiéroglyphique des Anciens Égyptiens, in which he explained that hieroglyphs were in fact phonetic, symbolic, and figurative all at once—at last providing the key to making ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs a readable language.

In his lifetime Champollion was lauded as the “father of Egyptology,” and he cemented his reputation by traveling to Egypt, where he deciphered numerous inscriptions. But the rigors of overseas travel ruined his health. Champollion died in 1832 at the age of just 41.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is synonymous with the unlocking of any great secret. Exactly 100 years after Champollion presented his first breakthrough in his hieroglyphic studies, British archaeologist Howard Carter moved aside a door in a long-forgotten Egyptian tomb and unveiled the riches of King Tut, showing the world that many more mysteries of ancient Egypt awaited decipherment.

Additional source: A World Beneath the Sands: Adventurers and Archaeologists in the Golden Age of Egyptology