Learning to Read Egypt: Hieroglyphics and the Rosetta Stone

As I believe I mentioned recently, European scholars at the time of the Renaissance rediscovered ancient Egypt in the writings of classical Greece.* Like the ancient Greeks before them, they believed Egypt was the source of art, religion, and science: a land of mystery and arcane knowledge.

The belief in Egypt as a land of “lost knowledge” was reinforced by the fact that no one could read the script the Greeks had dubbed “hieroglyphs”, or “sacred carving”.** Attempts to decode hieroglyphics started with the ancient Greeks, and were continued by their intellectual heirs in the Islamic golden age. When a manuscript about hierglyphs by the Greek scholar Horapollon arrived in Florence in 1422, European scholars joined in the fun.

Most European scholars*** assumed that hieroglyphics were a magical symbology rather than an alphabet—a false hypothesis that made decipherment virtually impossible. Even Athanasius Kircher,**** who correctly assumed that hieroglyphics were linked to an earlier form of the Coptic language, was led astray by his belief that they also held a hidden layer of symbolic meaning.

Scholars interested in hieroglyphics received their first break in 1799, when French soldiers stationed near the city of Rosetta in the Nile delta discovered a black basalt slab with inscriptions in hieroglyphics, demotic and classical Greek. *****

The arrangement of the inscriptions suggested that all three contained the same text—the classical equivalent of a magic decoder ring. Plaster casts and copies of the Rosetta Stone spread across Europe. Scholars in England, Germany, France and Italy attempted to use the Greek inscription to translate its hieroglyphic counterpart.

One scholar in particular threw himself into the attempt.  Young French linguist Jean-François Champollion had been obsessed with hieroglyphics since he was ten and had spent his life preparing to study them. Already competent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, at thirteen he began learning Arabic, Syrian, Chaldean, Coptic and Chinese. He studied the few excerpts he could find in Zend, Pahlavi and Farsi. At seventeen, he took on Sanskrit and Persian. At eighteen, he made his first attempt to decode the Rosetta Stone inscriptions.

In 1821, the 31-year-old Champollion published a methodology for decoding the inscriptions. In a combination of intuition and reason, he began with the names of kings. The Greek inscription was a decree issued in 196 BCE, praising King Ptolemy Epiphanes. The hieroglyphic inscription included a group of signs enclosed in an oval ring, now known as a cartouche. Champollion deduced, correctly, that these signs spelled out the king’s name, providing a key for decoding the remaining inscription.

Hieroglyphics were a mystery no longer. Pyramids, though, were still up for grabs.

*Not to mention the Old Testament, where the picture of Egypt was less positive but just as powerful.

** The Greeks also identified two other types of ancient Egyptian writing: hieratic (priestly), a cursive form of hieroglyphics that was still used for sacred documents at the time of ancient Greece, and demotic (common), a script used for secular documents.

***Including Sir Isaac Newton. We tend to remember his work on physics and mathematics and forget his studies in alchemy and interpretation of Biblical prophecies.

**** Seventeenth century Jesuit priest and polymath, variously described as the last Renaissance man and the last man who knew everything.

****Modeling himself on Alexander the Greek, Napoleon had invaded Egypt the year before with twin armies of soldiers and scholars.


  1. Suzanne R. Skuja on March 17, 2014 at 2:49 am

    Born in Springfield and I remember visiting the Library on Saturdays to see what I think were small tablets in heiroglyphics that were in small velvet pouches. Couldthis be true….early 50’s?

    • pamela on March 17, 2014 at 4:43 pm

      I don’t remember seeing heiroglyphic tablets at the Springfield library, though I first went there in the early ’60s. It would certainly be cool if it were true.

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