cover image Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion

Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion

Andrew Robinson. Oxford Univ, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-19-991499-9

Guided by the Rosetta Stone—discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799 and showcasing three parallel inscriptions in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic, and ancient Greek—the penurious, arrogant, and brilliant Frenchman Jean-François Champollion revolutionized the world’s understanding of ancient Egyptian civilization by cracking the hieroglyphic code. Champollion’s polymath English rival, Thomas Young, had started deciphering hieroglyphs between 1814 and 1819 but failed to develop it. Champollion’s own work was disrupted for five years and his health adversely affected by a series of personal crises, including political oppression and exile because of his pro-Napoleonic republicanism and marital strains. Finally, in 1822, Champollion published in Paris his breakthrough decoding of the hieroglyphic spellings of the names of ancient Egyptian rulers like Ptolemy, and with crucial revisions through 1828 demonstrated that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs. As the Louvre’s first Egyptian curator, Champollion embarked on a rigorous year-and-a-half-long Egyptian expedition to buy antiquities, which accelerated the founding father of Egyptology’s premature death at 41 in 1832. Robinson (The Story of Writing) paints an engrossing portrait of a difficult genius’s punishing pursuit of knowledge, although his deft breakdown of the technicalities of deciphering hieroglyphs may only appeal to professional and highly motivated amateur Egyptologists. 20 color and 50 b&w illus. (June)