Decipherment of ancient Egyptian scripts

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Demotic script on a replica of the Rosetta Stone.

The scripts used to write the Egyptian language, including hieroglyphic and demotic, were gradually deciphered during the early 19th century. The most helpful clue was supplied by the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone, an inscription in three scripts. Building on work by several other scholars, notably Thomas Young, the breakthrough to decipherment was made by Jean-François Champollion.

The successful decipherment was preceded by a long period during which hieroglyphs were wrongly believed in Europe to be a purely ideographic script. In the 5th century the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo, a spurious explanation of almost 200 glyphs, appeared. Seemingly authoritative yet largely false, the work was a lasting impediment to the decipherment of Egyptian writing. The Hieroglyphica was a major influence on Renaissance symbolism, particularly the emblem book of Andrea Alciato, and including the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of Francesco Colonna.

The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum

Medieval Egyptian attempts[edit]

Ibn Wahshiyya's 985 CE translation of the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph alphabet

Later attempts at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs were made by Arab historians in medieval Egypt during the 9th and 10th centuries. By then, hieroglyphs had long been forgotten in Egypt, and were replaced by the Coptic and Arabic alphabets. Dhul-Nun al-Misri and Ibn Wahshiyya were among those who attempted to decipher hieroglyphs, and Ibn Wahshiyya recognized that some hieroglyphic signs had phonetic values.[1]

Early European attempts[edit]

The Philae obelisk with Kingston Lacy in the background

The study of hieroglyphs continued centuries later, when various modern scholars attempted to decipher the glyphs, notably Johannes Goropius Becanus in the 16th century, Athanasius Kircher in the 17th, and Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young in the early 19th century, each making one important step toward the solution but failing to find it.

Kircher, a student of Coptic and Arabic, had read Ibn Wahshiyya's work in the 17th century and continued the study of hieroglyphs from where Ibn Wahshiyya had left off.[2] Kircher further developed the notion that the last stage of Egyptian could be related to the earlier Egyptian stages. Because he was not able to transliterate or translate hieroglyphs, however, he could not prove this notion.

French discoveries[edit]

The discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's troops (during Napoleon's Egyptian invasion) provided the critical information which allowed Jean-François Champollion, taking into account the work of other scholars, to discover the nature of the script by the 1820s. He had been introduced to hieroglyphics at the age of 10 and so began a lifelong fascination.[3]

Young made the crucial breakthrough in 1814 when studying the Rosetta Stone. Guessing that hieroglyphs surrounded by a loop were of greater importance, such as representing a pharaoh's name, he was able to discover the phonetics of the corresponding hieroglyphs by comparing the three different scripts. After identifying many of the hieroglyphs' sound values, he set aside his work for reasons not fully understood.[3]

A significant breakthrough was made by Champollion in 1822, as reflected in his well-known Lettre à M. Dacier:

"It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic, and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would almost say in the same word." [4][5]

He had applied Young's approach to an obelisk inscribed in Greek and hieroglyphics and correlated sound values to individual glyphs by applying comparisons to the names Ptolemy and Cleopatra. An important assumption made by Champollion was that certain sounds (such as 't') could be represented by two glyphs, just as they are in English with different letters (such as the hard 'c' and 'k'). He then began to study other inscriptions, flush with this discovery.

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Dr. Okasha El Daly (2005), Egyptology: The Missing Millennium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings, UCL Press, ISBN 1-84472-063-2. (cf. Arabic Study of Ancient Egypt Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine, Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation.)
  2. ^ Dr. Okasha El Daly, Deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphs in Muslim Heritage, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.
  3. ^ a b Singh, Simon (2000). The Code Book. London: Fourth Estate. p. 402. ISBN 1-85702-889-9.
  4. ^ Jean-François Champollion, Letter to M. Dacier, September 27, 1822
  5. ^ French text of the Letter: Jean-François Champollion, Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l'alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques (Paris, 1822) -- at French Wikisource