Jean-François Champollion

Jean-François Champollion
Jean-François Champollion, by Léon Cogniet.jpg
Jean-François Champollion, by Léon Cogniet
Born23 December 1790
Died4 March 1832(1832-03-04) (aged 41)
Paris, France
Alma materCollège de France
Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales
Known forDecipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs
Scientific career
FieldsEgyptian hieroglyphs

Jean-François Champollion (Champollion le jeune; 23 December 1790 – 4 March 1832) was a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, known primarily as the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs and a founding figure in the field of Egyptology. A child prodigy in philology, he gave his first public paper on the decipherment of Demotic in 1806, and already as a young man held many posts of honor in scientific circles, and spoke Coptic and Arabic fluently. During the early 19th-century, French culture experienced a period of 'Egyptomania', brought on by Napoleon's discoveries in Egypt during his campaign there (1798–1801) which also brought to light the trilingual Rosetta Stone. Scholars debated the age of Egyptian civilization and the function and nature of hieroglyphic script, which language if any it recorded, and the degree to which the signs were phonetic (representing speech sounds) or ideographic (recording semantic concepts directly). Many thought that the script was only used for sacred and ritual functions, and that as such it was unlikely to be decipherable since it was tied to esoteric and philosophical ideas, and did not record historical information. The significance of Champollion's decipherment was that he showed these assumptions to be wrong, and made it possible to begin to retrieve many kinds of information recorded by the ancient Egyptians.

Champollion lived in a period of political turmoil in France which continuously threatened to disrupt his research in various ways. During the Napoleonic Wars, he was able to avoid conscription, but his Napoleonic allegiances meant that he was considered suspect by the subsequent Royalist regime. His own actions, sometimes brash and reckless, did not help his case. His relations with important political and scientific figures of the time, such as Joseph Fourier and Silvestre de Sacy helped him, although in some periods he lived exiled from the scientific community.

In 1820, Champollion embarked in earnest on the project of decipherment of hieroglyphic script, soon overshadowing the achievements of British polymath Thomas Young who had made the first advances in decipherment before 1819. In 1822, Champollion published his first breakthrough in the decipherment of the Rosetta hieroglyphs, showing that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs – the first such script discovered. In 1824, he published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs. In 1829, he traveled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions. Home again he was given a professorship in Egyptology, but only lectured a few times before his health, ruined by the hardships of the Egyptian journey, forced him to give up teaching. He died in Paris in 1832, 41 years old. His grammar of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously.

During his life as well as long after his death intense discussions over the merits of his decipherment were carried out among Egyptologists. Some faulted him for not having given sufficient credit to the early discoveries of Young, accusing him of plagiarism, and others long disputed the accuracy of his decipherments. But subsequent findings and confirmations of his readings by scholars building on his results gradually led to general acceptance of his work. Although some still argue that he should have acknowledged the contributions of Young, his decipherment is now universally accepted, and has been the basis for all further developments in the field. Consequently, he is regarded as the "Founder and Father of Egyptology".[1]


Early life and education

Painting of a man with grey hair, holding a book.
Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac, brother and faithful supporter of the scientific endeavors of Jean-François Champollion
A large stone slab of dark rock covered in inscriptions.
The Rosetta stone was discovered in 1799 and is displayed in the British Museum since 1802. This trilingual stela presents the same text in hieroglyphics, demotic and Greek, thus providing the first clues based on which Young and Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphic script.

Jean-François Champollion was born 23 December 1790, the last of seven children (two of whom had died prior). He was raised in humble circumstances; his father Jacques Champollion was a book trader from Valjouffrey near Grenoble who had settled in the small town of Figeac in the Department of Lot.[2] His father was a notorious drunk,[3] and his mother, Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu, seems to have been largely an absent figure in the life of young Champollion, who was mostly raised by his older brother Jacques-Joseph. One biographer, Andrew Robinson, even speculated that Champollion was not in fact the son of Jacques Champollion's wife but the result of an extramarital affair.[4]

Towards the end of March 1801, Jean-François left Figeac for Grenoble, which he reached on 27 March, and where Jacques-Joseph lived in a two-room flat on the rue Neuve. Jacques-Joseph was then working as an assistant in the import-export company Chatel, Champollion and Rif,[5] yet taught his brother to read, and supported his education.[5] His brother also may have been part of the source of Champollion's interest in Egypt, since as a young man he wanted to join Napoleon's Egyptian expedition, and often regretted not being able to go.

Often known as the younger brother of better known Jacques-Joseph, Jean-François was often called Champollion le Jeune (the young). Later when his brother became the more famous of the two, Jacques added the town of his birth as a second surname and hence is often referred to as Champollion-Figeac, in contrast to his brother Champollion. Although studious and largely self-educated, Jacques did not have Jean-François' genius for language; however, he was talented at earning a living, and supported Jean-François for most of his life.[6]

Given the difficulty of the task of educating his brother while earning a living, Jacques-Joseph decided to send his younger brother to the well-regarded school of the Abbé Dussert in November 1802,[7] where Champollion would stay until the summer of 1804. During this period, his gift for languages first became evident: he started out learning Latin and Greek, but quickly progressed to Hebrew and other Semitic languages such as Ethiopic,[8] Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean.[9] It was while a student here that he took up interest in Ancient Egypt, likely encouraged in this direction by Dussert and his brother, both orientalists.[7]

At age 11, he came to the attention of the prefect of Grenoble, Joseph Fourier, who had accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte on the Egyptian expedition which had discovered the Rosetta Stone. An accomplished scholar in addition to a well known mathematical physicist, Fourier had been entrusted by Napoleon with the publication of the results of the expedition in the monumental series of publications titled Description de l'Égypte. One biographer has stated that Fourier invited the 11-year-old Champollion to his home and showed him his collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts and documents. Champollion was enthralled, and upon seeing the hieroglyphs and hearing that they were unintelligible, he declared that he would be the one to succeed in reading them.[10] Whether or not the report of this visit is true, Fourier did go on to become one of Champollion's most important allies and supporters, and surely had an important role in instilling his interest in Ancient Egypt.[10]

From 1804, Champollion studied at a lycée in Grenoble, but hated its strict curriculum which only allowed him to study oriental languages one day per week, and he begged his brother to move him to a different school. Nonetheless, at the lycée he took up the study of Coptic, which would become his main linguistic interest for years to come and prove crucial in his approach to decipherment of the hieroglyphs.[11] He had a chance to practice his Coptic when he met Dom Raphaël de Monachis, a former Coptic Christian monk and Arabic translator to Napoleon, who visited Grenoble in 1805.[12] By 1806, Jacques-Joseph was making preparations to bring his younger brother to Paris to study at the University. Jean-François had by then already developed a strong interest for Ancient Egypt, as he wrote in a letter to his parents dated to January 1806:[13] "I want to make a profound and continuous study of this ancient nation. The enthusiasm brought me by the study of their monuments, their power and knowledge filling me with admiration, all of this will grow further as I acquire new notions. Of all the people that I prefer, I shall say that none is as important to my heart as the Egyptians." To continue his studies, Champollion wanted to go to Paris, Grenoble offering few possibilities for such specialized subjects as ancient languages. His brother thus stayed in Paris from August to September that same year, so as to seek his admission in a specialized school.[14] Before leaving however Champollion presented, on 1 September 1807, his Essay on the Geographical Description of Egypt before the Conquest of Cambyses before the Academy of Grenoble whose members were so impressed that they admitted him to the Academy six months later.[15]

From 1807 to 1809, Champollion studied in Paris, under Silvestre de Sacy, the first Frenchman to attempt to read the Rosetta stone, and with orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès, and with Raphaël de Monachis who was now in Paris. Here he perfected his Arabic and Persian, in addition to the languages that he had already acquired. He was so immersed in his studies that he took up the habit of dressing in Arab clothing and calling himself Al Seghir, the Arab translation of le jeune.[16] He divided his time between the College of France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library where his brother was a librarian and the Commission of Egypt, the institution in charge of publishing the findings of the Egyptian expedition.[17] In 1808, he first began studying the Rosetta stone, working from a copy made by the Abbé de Tersan. Working independently he was able to confirm some of the readings of the demotic previously made by Johan David Åkerblad in 1802,[18][19] finally identifying the Coptic equivalents of fifteen demotic signs present on the Rosetta stone.[1]

In 1810, he returned to Grenoble to take up a seat as joint professor of Ancient History at the newly reopened Grenoble University. His salary as an assistant professor at Grenoble was fixed at 750 francs, a quarter of the salary received by full professors.[20]

Never well off and struggling to make ends meet, he also suffered since youth from chronically bad health, including gout and tinnitus. His health first began to deteriorate during his time in Paris, where the dank climate and unsanitary environment did not agree with him.[21]

Political trouble during the Napoleonic Wars

Painting of a man alone on a horse in front of the Great Sphinx in the midst of the desert.
Bonaparte devant le Sphinx (Bonaparte Before the Sphinx) by Jean-Léon Gérôme. Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt (1798–1801) raised the profile of Egypt and its civilization in France, and started a period of Egyptomania

During the Napoleonic Wars, Champollion was a young bachelor and thus liable to compulsory military service, which would have put him in great danger due to the extremely high mortality of soldiers in Napoleon's armies. Through the assistance of his brother and the prefect of Grenoble Joseph Fourier, who was also an egyptologist, he successfully avoided the draft by arguing that his work on deciphering the Egyptian script was too important to interrupt.[22] First skeptical of the Napoleonic regime, after the fall of Napoleon in 1813 and the institution of the royalist regime under Louis XVIII, Champollion came to consider the Napoleonic state the lesser of two evils. Anonymously he composed and circulated songs ridiculing and criticizing the royal regime – songs that became highly popular among the people of Grenoble.[23] In 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from his exile on Elba and landed with an army at the Côte d'Azur and marched directly on Grenoble where he was received as a liberator. Here he met with Champollion, whose many requests for exemption from the draft he remembered, and he asked him how his important work was progressing. Champollion replied, that he had just finished his Coptic grammar and dictionary. Napoleon requested that he send the manuscripts to Paris for publication. His brother Jacques joined the Napoleonic cause, putting both of the brothers in danger at the end of the Hundred Days when Napoleon was finally defeated, Grenoble being the last city to resist the royalist advances. In spite of the risk to themselves, having been put under Royalist surveillance, the Champollion brothers nonetheless aided the Napoleonic general Drouet d'Erlon who had been sentenced to death for his participation in the Battle of Waterloo, giving him shelter and helping him escape to Munich. The brothers were condemned to internal exile in Figeac, and Champollion was removed from his university post in Grenoble and the faculty closed.[24]

Under the new Royalist regime, the Champollion brothers invested much of their time and efforts in establishing Lancaster schools, in an effort to provide the general population with education. This was considered a revolutionary undertaking by the Ultra-royalists, who did not believe that education should be made accessible for the lower classes.[25] In 1821 Champollion even led an uprising, in which he and a band of Grenobleans stormed the citadel and hoisted the tricolore instead of the Bourbon Royalist flag. He was charged with treason and went into hiding, but was eventually pardoned.[26]

Family life

Painting of a woman with a girl on her lap, both wear robes.
Portrait of Rosine and Zoraïde Champollion

Champollion first declared his love for Pauline Berriat in 1807. Pauline was Zoé's sister, and thus his sister-in-law. His love was not reciprocated, so Champollion instead had an affair with a married woman named Louise Deschamps that lasted until around 1809. In 1811, Louise remarried and Pauline died in 1813.[27]

It was around this time that Champollion met Rosine Blanc (1794–1871), whom he married in 1818, after four years of engagement. They had one daughter, Zoraïde Chéronnet-Champollion (1824–89). Rosine was the daughter of a well-to-do family of Grenoblean glovemakers.[28] At first, her father did not approve of the match, since Champollion was a mere assistant professor when they first met, but with his increasing reputation, he eventually agreed. Originally, Jacques-Joseph was opposed to his brother's marriage, too, finding Rosine too dull-witted, and he did not attend the wedding, but later he grew fond of his sister in-law. Although a happy family man, especially adoring his daughter, Champollion was frequently away for months or even years at a time, as he was traveling to Paris, to Italy, and to Egypt, while his family remained in Zoé and Jacques-Joseph's property in Vif, near Grenoble.[29] While in Livorno, Champollion developed an infatuation with an Italian poet, Angelica Palli. She presented an ode to Champollion's work at a celebration in his honor, and the two exchanged letters over the period 1826–1829 revealing the poor state of Champollion's marriage, yet an affair never developed.[30]

Other Languages
azərbaycanca: Jan-Fransua Şampolyon
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Жан-Франсуа Шампальён
Bahasa Indonesia: Jean-François Champollion
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Jean-François Champollion
文言: 商博良
粵語: 商博良