Arguably one of the most important discoveries made regarding the historical and cultural study of ancient Egypt is the translation of the writing form known as hieroglyphics. This language, lost for thousands of years, formed a tantalizing challenge to a young Jean François who committed his life to its translation. Scholars such as Sylvestre de Sacy had attempted to translate the Rosetta Stone before Champollion, but after painstaking and unfruitful work, they abandoned it (Giblin 32). Champollion’s breakthrough with hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone opened up new possibilities to study and understand ancient Egypt like never before, and modern Egyptology was born.
The Rosetta Stone was found in the town of Rosetta and sent to French scholars in Alexandria during the summer of 1799 (Giblin 23). This black, measuring 112 by 76 stone found while the soldiers in the town were destroying a citadel was unprecedented because it had three different languages on it, the only understood one being Greek (Silet 1). The three languages on the stone were, as stated, Greek, the common Egyptian demotic, and 14 lines of hieroglyphics (Giblin 27). Scholars familiar with the Greek language and writing system were able to translate that section, and the final sentence revealed a fact that set the groundwork for future translations of the other parts. The final line reads: “This decree shall be inscribed on a stela of hard stone in sacred and native and Greek characters” (Giblin 27). It came to be understood that the three sections all contained the same message, and scholars promptly set to work on the translations.
One of the first to work with the copies made from the stone (the British had taken the stone during their war with the French) was Sylvestre de Sacy (Giblin 27, 32). Believing the demotic and hieroglyphic systems to alphabetical in nature, he took some of the proper names from the Greek section and tried to isolate them in the demotic script. Although he was able to find them, he was not able to decipher an alphabetical system that applied to the rest of the text. It seemed that the other symbols represented things, not letters. Having reached a dead end in his work, he gave up, saying, “The problem is too complicated, scientifically insoluble” (Giblin 32). A few others continued after him with the same idea of a solely alphabetical system, but they all came to the same dead end and were not able to make any progress.
One of the first scholars to make any real headway on the translation was Thomas Young, a British polymath (Silet 1). Being a polymath and not understanding any of the language to begin with, Young meticulously inspected the stone, looking for recurring patterns and recording the number of times each symbol was repeated (Meyerson 123). Young knew that Ptolemys were Greek, so he assumed that the name “Ptolemaios,” spelled in the Greek style, would appear spelled the same way in the hieroglyphic section. Indeed he did find several...