Jean-François Champollion

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Jean-François Champollion
Leon Cogniet - Jean-Francois Champollion.jpg
Jean-François Champollion, by Léon Cogniet
Born 23 December 1790
Figeac, Lot
Died 4 March 1832(1832-03-04) (aged 41)
Nationality French
Fields Egyptian hieroglyphs
Known for Rosetta Stone

Jean-François Champollion (23 December 1790 – 4 March 1832) was a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Champollion published the first translation of the Rosetta Stone hieroglyphs in 1822, showing that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.


Champollion was the last of seven children (two of whom died before he was born). He was raised in humble circumstances; because his parents could not afford to send him to school, he was taught to read by his brother Jacques. Jacques, although studious and largely self-educated, 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.[1]

Jean-François lived with his brother in Grenoble for several years, and even as a child showed an extraordinary linguistic talent. By the age of 16 he had mastered a dozen languages and had read a paper before the Grenoble Academy concerning the Coptic language. By 20, he could also speak Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Amharic, Sanskrit, Avestan, Pahlavi, Arabic, Syriac, Persian and Ge'ez in addition to his native French.[2] In 1809, he became assistant-professor of History at Grenoble University. His interest in oriental languages, especially Coptic, led to his being entrusted with the task of deciphering the writing on the then recently discovered Rosetta Stone, and he spent the years 1822–1824 on this task. His 1824 work Précis du système hiéroglyphique gave birth to the entire field of modern Egyptology. He also identified the importance of the Turin King List, and dated the Dendera zodiac to the Roman period. His interest in Egyptology was originally inspired by Napoleon's Egyptian Campaigns 1798–1801. Champollion was subsequently made Professor of Egyptology at the Collège de France.[3]

Champollion married Rose Blanc (1794–1871) in 1818. They had one daughter, Zoraide Champollion (1824–1889).

Egyptian hieroglyphics[edit]

Thomas Young was one of the first to attempt decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, basing his own work on the investigations of Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad. Although he failed to fully decipher the script, Young was able to translate some of the text on the stone, leading the way for Champollion to begin his own investigations.

In 1822, Champollion finally published the first correct translation of the hieroglyphs and the key to the Egyptian grammatical system. Young and all others praised this work.

Franco-Tuscan Expedition[edit]

Grave of Champollion in Père Lachaise Cemetery (Paris)

In 1827 Ippolito Rosellini, considered the founder of Egyptology in Italy, went to Paris for a year in order to improve his knowledge of the method of decipherment proposed by Champollion. The two philologists decided to organize an expedition to Egypt to confirm the validity of the discovery. Headed by Champollion and assisted by Rosellini, his first disciple and great friend, the mission was known as the Franco-Tuscan Expedition, and was made possible by the support of the grand-duke of Tuscany, Leopold II, and the King of France, Charles X.

On 21 July 1828, with four members, they boarded the ship Eglé at Toulon and set sail for Egypt. They travelled upstream along the Nile and studied an exhaustive number of monuments and inscriptions. The expedition led to a posthumously published extensive Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie (1845). Champollion's expedition was blemished by unchecked looting.[citation needed] Most notably, while studying the Valley of the Kings, he damaged KV17, the tomb of Seti I, by removing a wall panel of 2.26 x 1.05 m in a corridor while other elements were removed by his companion Rosellini or the German expedition of 1845. The scenes are now in the collections of the Louvre, the museums of Florence and Berlin. During his stay, the Khedive of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, offered the two obelisks standing at the entrance of Luxor Temple to France in 1829, but only one was transported to Paris, where it now stands on the Place de la Concorde.

Exhausted by his labours during and after his scientific expedition to Egypt, Champollion died of an apoplectic attack (stroke) in Paris in 1832 at the age of 41. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Certain portions of Champollion's works were edited by Jacques. Jacques's son, Aimé-Louis (1812–1894), wrote a biography of the two brothers.

Figeac honors him with La place des Écritures, a monumental reproduction of the Rosetta Stone.

La place des Écritures.
La place des Écritures.

In popular culture[edit]

Champollion was portrayed by Elliot Cowan in the 2005 BBC docudrama Egypt. In David Baldacci's thriller involving the CIA, Simple Genius, the character named "Champ Pollion" was derived from Champollion.

In Cairo, the capital of Egypt, a street carries his name, leading to the now famous Tahrir Square where the Egyptian Museum is located.


Grammaire égyptienne

Musées Champollion[edit]

  • A museum devoted to Jean-François Champollion was created in his birthplace at Figeac in Lot. It was inaugurated on 19 December 1986 in the presence of President François Mitterrand and Jean Leclant, secrétaire perpétuel of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres. After two years of building work and extension, the museum re-opened in 2007. Besides Champollion's life and discoveries, the museum also recounts the history of writing. The whole façade is covered in pictograms, from the original ideograms of the whole world.
  • The "*Maison Champollion" at Vif in Isère, formerly the property of Jean-François's brother.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Meyerson, Daniel (2004). The Linguist and the Emperor. Random House. p. 31. ISBN 0-345-44872-3. 
  2. ^ Singh, Simon (2000). The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography. Anchor. ISBN 0-385-49532-3. 
  3. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Jean-François Champollion" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia..

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen, Don Cameron (1960). "The Predecessors of Champollion". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 104 (5): 527–547. 
  • Adkins, Lesley; Adkins, Roy (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0-06-019439-1. 
  • Meyerson, Daniel (2005). The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion's Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone. Random House Trade. ISBN 0-345-44872-3. 

External links[edit]

New creation Chair of Egyptology at
the Collège de France

1st creation
Succeeded by
Jean Antoine Letronne