The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs

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Portrait of Jean-François Champollion holding his alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic signs, 1823 - cropped
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The captivating story of cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs

Ancient Egypt fascinated the ancient Greeks and Romans, including Alexander the Great. But no Greek or Roman could read the elaborate Egyptian hieroglyphs. For almost two millennia, the hieroglyphic script became a ‘lost language’, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon Bonaparte’s soldiers in Egypt in 1799.

Some highly intelligent scholars, including the British polymath Thomas Young, then tried to crack the code of the hieroglyphs with significant success, but without making the vital breakthrough—as demonstrated by Young’s Egyptian papers held in the British Library. The prize eventually went to an impoverished, arrogant and brilliant child of the French Revolution, who was obsessed with ancient Egypt. In 1822, Jean-François Champollion began to read the Egyptian obelisks in Rome and the Egyptian papyri in European collections. Then, with the backing of the French king, Champollion travelled to Egypt, sailed the Nile for a year, lived in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and made the voices of the pharaohs and their subjects speak. Without his revolutionary breakthrough, no one would have known the name of the gold-encased body found in the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

Influential scholars often lead uneventful lives. Champollion’s life, by contrast, was dramatic and worthy of his Romantic contemporaries such as Byron. Like them, he lived to the full—forming undying friendships and rivalries, most notoriously with Young—and drove himself into an early grave.

Today, Champollion is regarded as the founder of Egyptology, a national hero in France and one of the world’s greatest code-breakers.


Andrew Robinson is the author of Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion (2012) and The Last Man Who Knew Everything, a biography of Thomas Young (2006). He has also written The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms (1995), The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris (2002) and Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (2002).]

Details

Name: The Man Who Deciphered Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
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When: -
Price: Full Price: £12.00
Member: £12.00
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Under 18: £8.00
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