Who really deciphered the Egyptian Hieroglyphs?
By Andrew Robinson
The polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829) — physicist, physiologist, physician and polyglot, among several other things — became hooked on the scripts and languages of ancient Egypt in 1814, the year he began to decipher the Rosetta Stone. He continued to study the hieroglyphic and demotic scripts with variable intensity for the rest of his life, literally until his dying day. The challenge of being the first modern to read the writing of what appeared then to be the oldest civilization in the world — far older than the classical civilization of Young’s beloved Greeks — was irresistible to a man who was as equally gifted in languages, ancient and contemporary, as he was in science. He himself described his Egyptian obsession as being driven by “an attempt to unveil the mystery, in which Egyptian literature has been involved for nearly twenty centuries.” His epitaph in London’s Westminster Abbey states, accurately enough, that Young was the man who “first penetrated the obscurity which had veiled for ages the hieroglyphics of Egypt” — even if it was the linguist and archaeologist Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) who in the end would enjoy the glory of being the first actually to read the hieroglyphs in 1822-23.
From 1814 until the publication of his important Encyclopaedia Britannica article (‘Egypt’ in 1819), Young had had the field of hieroglyphic decipherment largely to himself. Champollion, though actively interested in the Rosetta Stone from 1808, did not tackle its decipherment in earnest until 1821. He quickly overtook Young and became the founder of Egyptology as a science.
During the 1820s, the two men sometimes cooperated with each other, but mostly they competed as rivals. Their relationship could never have been a harmonious one. Young claimed that Champollion had built his system of reading hieroglyphics on Young’s own discoveries and his tentative hieroglyphic ‘alphabet’, published in 1819. While paying generous and frequent tribute to Champollion’s unrivalled progress since then, Young wanted his early steps recognized. This Champollion was adamantly unwilling to concede, claiming that he had worked independently; and in his vehemence he determined to give all of Young’s work the minimum possible public recognition. Just weeks before Young’s death in May 1829, Champollion, writing in the midst of his 1828-29 expedition to ancient Egypt — he was then at Thebes in the Valley of the Kings — exulted privately to his brother in Paris: “So the poor Dr Young is incorrigible? Why stir up old matter that is already mummified? Thank M. Arago for the cudgels he has so valiantly taken up for the honour of the Franco-Pharaonic alphabet. The Briton can do as he pleases — it shall be ours: and all of old England will learn from young France to spell hieroglyphs by a totally different method.”
Such defiantly nationalistic overtones — at times evident in Young’s writings, too — have to some extent bedevilled honest discussion of Young and Champollion ever since those Napoleonic days of intense Franco-British political rivalry. Even Young’s loyal friend and admirer, the physicist Dominique Arago, turned against his work on hieroglyphics, at least partly because Champollion was an honoured fellow Frenchman.
Alongside this, Egyptologists, who are the people best placed to understand the intellectual nitty-gritty of the dispute, are naturally drawn to Champollion more than Young because he founded their subject. No scholar of ancient Egypt would wish to think ill of such a pioneer. Even John Ray, the Cambridge University Egyptologist who has done most in recent years to give Young his proper due, admits: “the suspicion may easily arise, and often has done, that any eulogy of Thomas Young must be intended as a denigration of Champollion. This would be shameful coming from an Egyptologist.”
Then there is the cult of genius to consider; many of us prefer to believe in the primacy of unaccountable moments of inspiration over the less glamorous virtues of step-by-step, rational teamwork. Champollion maintained that his breakthroughs in 1822-23 came almost exclusively out of his own mind, arising from his indubitably passionate devotion to ancient Egypt and his unrivalled knowledge of the Coptic language descended from ancient Egyptian. He pictured himself for the public in his writings as a ‘lone genius’ who solved the riddle of ancient Egypt’s writing single-handedly. The fact that Young was known primarily for his work in fields other than Egyptian studies, and that he published his studies on Egypt anonymously up to 1823, made Champollion’s solitary self-image easily believable for most people.
Lastly, in trying to assess the differing styles of Young and Champollion, there is no avoiding the fact that they were highly contrasting personalities and that this contrast sometimes influenced their research on the hieroglyphs. Champollion had tunnel vision (“fortunately for our subject,” says Ray); was prone to fits of euphoria and despair; and had personally led an uprising against the French king in Grenoble in 1821, for which he was put on trial. Young, apart from his polymathy and a total lack of engagement with party politics, was a man who “could not bear, in the most common conversation, the slightest degree of exaggeration, or even of colouring” (wrote his closest friend after Young’s death). Young and Champollion were poles apart intellectually, emotionally and politically.
Consider their respective attitudes to ancient Egypt. Young never went to Egypt and never wanted to go. In founding an Egyptian Society in London in 1817, to publish as many ancient inscriptions and manuscripts as possible so as to aid the decipherment, Young remarked that funds were needed “for employing some poor Italian or Maltese to scramble over Egypt in search of more.” Champollion, by contrast, had long dreamt of visiting Egypt and doing exactly what Young had depreciated, ever since he saw the hieroglyphs as a boy, and when he finally got there, he was able to pass for a native, given his swarthy complexion and his excellent command of Arabic. “I am Egypt’s captive — she is my be-all,” he thrilled from beside the Nile in 1828. Later he described entering the temple of Ramses the Great at Abu Simbel, which was blocked by millennia of sand: “I undressed almost completely, down to my Arab shirt and long linen underpants, and pushed myself flat on my stomach through the small opening in the doorway that, if cleared of sand, would be at least 25 feet in height. I thought I was entering the mouth of a furnace, and, when I had slid entirely into the temple, I found myself in an atmosphere heated to 52 degrees: we went through this astonishing excavation, Rosellini, Ricci, I and one of the Arabs holding a candle in his hand.”
Such a perilous adventure would probably not have appealed to Young, even in his careless youth as an accomplished horseman roughing it in the Highlands of Scotland. Unlike Champollion, Young’s motive for ‘cracking’ the Egyptian scripts was fundamentally philological and scientific, not aesthetic and cultural — in contrast with his attitude to the classical literature of Greece and Rome. Many Egyptologists, and humanities scholars in general, tend not to sympathize with this motive. They also know little about Young’s work in science and his renown as someone who initiated many new areas of enquiry (such as a theory of colour vision) and left others to develop them. As a result, some of them seriously misjudge Young. Not knowing of his fairness in recognizing other scientists’ contributions and his fanatical truthfulness in his own scientific work, they jump to the obvious conclusion that Young’s attitude to Champollion was chiefly one of envy. But not only would such an emotion have been out of character for Young, it would also not have made much sense, given his major scientific achievements and the fact that these were increasingly recognized from 1816 onwards — starting with French scientists, who awarded Young their highest honours.
For Champollion, the success of his decipherment was a matter of make or break as a scholar and as a man. For Young, his Egyptian research was essentially yet one more fascinating avenue of knowledge to explore for his own amusement. Both men were geniuses, though of exceptionally different kinds, and both deserve to be remembered in the story of the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphs: Young for taking some difficult but crucial initial steps in 1814-19; and Champollion for discovering a coherent system in 1822-23, and thereafter demonstrating its validity with a vast array of virgin inscriptions.
Andrew Robinson is the author of the biographies Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion, and The Last Man Who Knew Everything: Thomas Young. . He has also written two Very Short Introductions for OUP: Writing and Script, published in 2009, and Genius, published in 2011.