Jean François Champollion: Deciphering Ancient Egypt with the Rosetta Stone

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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
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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 times the cartouche containing what he believed to spell “Ptolemaios” (Giblet 40). He misunderstood a few of the symbols’ meanings, and it was later discovered that the Egyptian spelling was “Ptolmis,” but Young had taken the first major steps into translating the hieroglyphics (Giblet 41).
The next step, and arguably the whole rest of the project, was…

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