Books Reviews

The Riddle of the Rosetta

How an English polymath and a French polyglot discovered the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

A review of The Riddle of the Rosetta : how an English polymath and a French polyglot discovered the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz.

One of the most important developments in modern intellectual history, was founded, in part, on a falsity.

The date is 27 September 1822. The place: Paris. 

At the side of the stage, a youngish man who looks like one of the new breed of Bohemians from the city’s left bank, arranges his untidy locks of black hair and rearranges his raffish tie. He steps to a podium and places on it eight handwritten pages outlining a discovery he made less than two weeks before.

The young man’s throat is dry. He is nervous.

This talk is the culmination of several years of focused work. 

The young man, Jean-François Champollion, has been working on the Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is a closely contested field and many of his competitors sit in the audience.

At the back of the audience sits a smart looking man, austerely dressed in blue velveteen and with a silk white cravate. He is the Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society. His sensitive eyes look at Champollion with a mixture of tenderness and pride. The look with which a father may behold his son.

Champollion had been drawn to Egypt as a child, at a time when the nation’s excitement hovered around another brilliant young man’s expedition to his country. General Napoleon’s military intervention took place when Champollion was seven or eight. He may also have learnt about the ancient civilisation in his father’s bookshop.

At an early age, Champollion inferred that Coptic was likely a later form of the same language of the hieroglyphs.

He methodically learnt Coptic (and later Arabic). This was of course the argument of Athansius Kircher, but Champollion also thought that the hieroglyphs would link back to this language unlike Kircher who argued they had a symbolic meaning only. Kircher had worked largely from Egyptian objects in Rome from the ancient period and some objects from Egypt. Because of the European engagements in the region, Champollion had access to more archaeological items from Egypt.

Of these, the Rosetta Stone with its three languages, was the most important resource. Although ‘discovered’ by French savants, it was taken as war booty by the British and held in their Imperial Treasury at the British Museum. Champollion worked from an engraving.

Other resources included copies of the hieroglyphs found on Egyoptian buildings, including an obelisk from Philae with a tripartite translation 

It was while reading a cartouche from Abu Simbel, that Champollion was able to translate the name of a pharaoh Ramses.

He is said to have ran in the street shouting “I’ve got it” (“Je tiens mon affaire”), although this is probably a later romantic retelling. 

Translating hieroglyphs in the early modern period

One of the most important Egyptian items that was being studied in Europe at this time was the Dendera Zodiac, taken from the ceiling of the temple of Dendera. Some scholars argued that it was 17,000 years old, meaning that it would predate the Old Testament. The artefact found itself at the centre of the religious and political debates. Everyone was interested in the Zodiac. One Vaudeville theatre even produced a play in which mummies wailed at the signs of the Zodiac. 

It was with some relief, for the Church at any rate, that Champollion, the former supporter of Napoleon, identified an ancient Greek word for Emperor ‘Autokrator’ in the engraving made of a cartouche which was originally next to the zodiac but not taken to France. 

It was this –  maybe even more than the translation – that made his name. It also opened up patronage and doors. On a tour of Italy,  Pope Leo XII called him a Defender of the Faith and even offered him a cardinalship. Whilst Charles X, the brother of Louis XVI and made king in 1824 following the Bourbon Restoration, became an important supporter. 

This support also brought financial sponsorship to finally travel to Egypt six years later. Champollion organised a scholarly expedition to Egypt with the Italian scholar Ippolito Rosellini. 

When the party arrived at Dendera on 16 November, they immediately sought out the temple of the zodiac. Singing opera songs, they accosted an old man who, failing to escape the party, was “persuaded” to lead them to the ruined building.

The group marvelled in silence at the mighty remains of the Denera temple as the late afternoon turned into early evening, and Ra sank beneath the Western horizon. 

The next day, with the light in his favour, Champollion sought for the cartouches which had helped him crack the code and make his name. When he found the room in which the zodiac had been taken, his blood froze. The cartouche was there but it was empty. 

The image on which Champollion had proved his theory was wrong.

Cast of the Dendera Zodaic in Fitzwilliam Museum

Champollion, family man 

Jean-François Champollion is often presented as the classic lone genius. A person so consumed with one singular passion, that he spent his life’s energies on it and died young. With his rock star good looks, the scholar has turned into an icon.

Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz in their new study of the decipherment of hieroglyphs, in fact a group biography centering on Thomas Young and Champollion, seek to redress the overly romantic image of the sexy French savant.

The Champollion who emerges here is less a monomaniac than a well connected and politically interested intellectual who grew from a revolutionary, a supporter of Napoleon, to a protege (although not a supporter) of the reactionary right. 

Champollion avoided the Napoleonic draft by arguing that his work deciphering the hieroglyphs was too important. Years later, when he visited Grenoble on his way (ultimately) to Waterloo, Napoleon met Champollion and remembering the young man’s draft exemption request he asked how the research was going. 

Yet for all that he is a romantic character, like a character from a Stendhal novel. Stendhal who grew up a few years before in the same region of France, perhaps understood best the combination of frustration and ambition which marked Champollion’s life and the France of the early nineteenth century.

Champollion was born in 1790 in Figeac and grew up during the tumultuous period following the French Revolution. He had just turned two years old when the former king, Louis XVI was executed in the Place de la Concorde and twenty four when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.

Champollion’s father was an alcoholic bookseller, his brother Jacques Joseph Campollion-Figeac, took over the role of father figure to his younger brother. He was twelve years older. He directed the education and studies of his brother. More politically astute and well connected to leading Bonapartists, his patronage was an important part of the younger Champollion’s ability to focus on deciphering the hieroglyphs. He was also a sounding board for the younger man’s ideas. It was only to his brother that Champollion confided about the missing cartouche. (After Champollion’s death, his brother removed reference to this from the published letter).

Both brothers were passionately interested in antiquity. Following the fall of Napoleon, when they were exiled from Paris and forced to return to their hometown of Grenoble they spent the time researching for the area’s antiquities. Figeac was asked whether the excavations in neighbouring Capdenac could be the location of Uxellodunum, the last fort to hold out to Julius Caesar. He closely read the report by Aulus Hirtius, one of Caesar’s officers, and examined maps and explored the region to argue that the site could be the location of the fort. He also identified an inscription which he took as further proof.  

When we remember that the defining feature of Champollion’s life was his passionate interest in Egypt, we might see his brother’s influence as an important source. In many works, his brother plays a supporting role – the Theo to Jean-François’ Vincent – but here he is an important thinker in his own role.

Jean-François Champollion, by Léon Cogniet

Intellectual connections

The book is a group biography, with a vast supporting cast of savants and scholars. The other main character is Thomas Young, a British doctor and scientist with an interest in varied fieldings which justifies the ‘polymath’ of the subtitle. His first breakthrough was the dissection of an ox’s eye (brought from a butcher in London’s Smithfield Market). 

He was also interested in ancient languages.

As a scholar based in London, Young benefited from the location of the Rosetta Stone in that Imperial capital. He built on the work of earlier scholars, most notably Johan David Åkerblad to argue that the Demotic text was a mixture of symbolic and phonetic elements. He also realised the cartouches contained the name Ptolemy and was able to break down the word into signs. He created a list of translations for several words. Young also identified the sounds of six hieroglyphs.  His findings were published in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1819, but then he got distracted. 

This book makes clear that the two scholars were working in a competitive field with many other intelligent people. ‘Breakthroughs’ were a result of personal intuition and painstaking labour. This was not a vacuum.

As well as the intellectual connections, both men benefited from the emerging global connections which converged on the major cities of Western Europe. Napoleon’s engagement with Egypt, although romanticised, was primarily a military intervention aimed against the British Empire. The British counter invasion brought Egypt within their sphere of influence which culminated in the veiled protectorate and strengthened their position in the Meditterenean. Much harder to trace, but just as important in terms of the economic power it gave to these countries, was the Empire and slave trades.

We can see the intellectual challenge of deciphering the hieroglyphs as a quasi-geopolitical competition between European powers, similar to the Space Race of the Cold War period. Even if the researchers themselves were drawn to the topic because of its mystical allure and the intellectual challenge, the knowledge created by them was valuable to European powers interested in the country and broader region.

Countries collected objects as symbols of their prestige. Following their defeat of French forces in Egypt the British took Egyptian objects, arguing it was loot from war against the French. One of these objects was the Rosetta Stone. Other objects and collections were later bought on the antiquities market, in conditions that were less than equitable.

That is not to say that Champollion and Young were imperialists, or to diminish their work, but it is absolutely vital to foreground the political and economic backgrounds in which they worked. 


This book does a great job at that, contextualising it in the connected, competitive, collegiate, and claustrophobic intellectual scene of the nineteenth century. The work of Champollion, Young and their colleagues is important and is still worth celebrating as we had into the bicentenary of the translation.

The riddle of the Rosetta : how an English polymath and a French polyglot discovered the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs / Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz.

Photo References

Rosetta Stone, CC BY-SA 4.0 by Hans Hillewaert

Cast of the Dendera Zodaic in Fitzwilliam Museum, taken by author

Jean-François Champollion, by Léon Cogniet Public Domain

Book cover, used under fairuse as part of a review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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