On This Day
1822 – Jean-François Champollion announces that he has deciphered the Rosetta Stone.
Jean-François Champollion (Champollion le jeune; 23 December 1790 – 4 March 1832) was a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, known primarily as the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs and a founding figure in the field of Egyptology. A child prodigy in philology, he gave his first public paper on the decipherment of Demotic in 1806, and already as a young man held many posts of honor in scientific circles, and spoke Coptic and Arabic fluently. During the early 19th-century, French culture experienced a period of ‘Egyptomania’, brought on by Napoleon’s discoveries in Egypt during his campaign there (1798–1801) which also brought to light the trilingual Rosetta Stone. Scholars debated the age of Egyptian civilization and the function and nature of hieroglyphic script, which language if any it recorded, and the degree to which the signs were phonetic (representing speech sounds) or ideographic (recording semantic concepts directly). Many thought that the script was only used for sacred and ritual functions, and that as such it was unlikely to be decipherable since it was tied to esoteric and philosophical ideas, and did not record historical information. The significance of Champollion’s decipherment was that he showed these assumptions to be wrong, and made it possible to begin to retrieve many kinds of information recorded by the ancient Egyptians.
Champollion lived in a period of political turmoil in France which continuously threatened to disrupt his research in various ways. During the Napoleonic Wars, he was able to avoid conscription, but his Napoleonic allegiances meant that he was considered suspect by the subsequent Royalist regime. His own actions, sometimes brash and reckless, did not help his case. His relations with important political and scientific figures of the time, such as Joseph Fourier and Silvestre de Sacy helped him, although in some periods he lived exiled from the scientific community.
In 1820, Champollion embarked in earnest on the project of decipherment of hieroglyphic script, soon overshadowing the achievements of British polymath Thomas Young who had made the first advances in decipherment before 1819. In 1822, Champollion published his first breakthrough in the decipherment of the Rosetta hieroglyphs, showing that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs – the first such script discovered. In 1824, he published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs. In 1829, he traveled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions. Home again he was given a professorship in Egyptology, but only lectured a few times before his health, ruined by the hardships of the Egyptian journey, forced him to give up teaching. He died in Paris in 1832, 41 years old. His grammar of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously.
During his life as well as long after his death intense discussions over the merits of his decipherment were carried out among Egyptologists. Some faulted him for not having given sufficient credit to the early discoveries of Young, accusing him of plagiarism, and others long disputed the accuracy of his decipherments. But subsequent findings and confirmations of his readings by scholars building on his results gradually led to general acceptance of his work. Although some still argue that he should have acknowledged the contributions of Young, his decipherment is now universally accepted, and has been the basis for all further developments in the field. Consequently, he is regarded as the “Founder and Father of Egyptology”.
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Born On This Day
1871 – Grazia Deledda, Italian novelist and poet, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1936)
Grazia Maria Cosima Damiana Deledda (Italian pronunciation: [ˈɡrattsja deˈlɛdda]; Sardinian: [deˈlɛɖɖa]; 27 September 1871 – 15 August 1936) was an Italian writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926 “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island [i.e. Sardinia] and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general”. She was the first Italian woman to receive the prize.
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Today’s email was written by Nicolás Rivero, edited by Annaliese Griffin, and produced by Luiz Romero. Quartz: Hell: It’s just business