Listen to part of a lecture in a history class. The professor has been discussing Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Egyptian hieroglyphs are the ancient Egyptian writings found in ancient Egypt on walls, monuments, and on the inside and outside of temples.
Hieroglyphic writing ended abruptly about sixteen hundred years ago, and it mystified the most brilliant minds in the study of Egyptian artifacts and archaeology for many, many centuries.
Finally, the possibility of deciphering hieroglyphs came about with the discovery, in 1799, of the Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone is arguably the most famous archaeological artifact ever discovered.
It contains the same exact text written in three different alphabets—Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic.
But we didn’t even know at first that the three texts on the Rosetta Stone contained the same information.
And two of the three alphabets are ancient Egyptian scripts that stopped being used: the hieroglyphic and the demotic.
The demotic script found on the Rosetta Stone… um… well, demotic was not as elaborate as hieroglyphic writing.
It was used for more mundane matters, oh, like, um, administrative documents.
These ancient Egyptian scripts were replaced by Coptic script.
But eventually the Arabic language replaced Coptic, and this cut off the linguistic link between ancient and modern Egypt.
Now, the Rosetta Stone was remarkable because as I said, on it was the same text in three different alphabets— Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphic.
The stone was essentially the dictionary that scholars needed to interpret the meaning of the hieroglyphs.
And it took a uniquely equipped researcher to finally decipher and understand what was written on the stone.
ThomasYoung, an English scholar, was the first to seriously attempt to decipher the symbols on the Rosetta Stone.
He suspected, rightly, that the hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols, that they represented sounds rather than pictures.
Until then, all scholars assumed that hieroglyphs were pictographs, that they symbolized objects or concepts.
ThomasYoung focused his attention on one set of hieroglyphs that he thought would probably spell out a single word: the name of a king or queen.
He guessed that the symbols represented the name of the early Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy, since Ptolemy was also written in Greek on the stone and was indeed a Greek name.
And Young did actually prove that these hieroglyphs represented sounds rather than whole words.
Strangely, though, he gave in to the dominant thesis of the day, that hieroglyphs were pictographs.
He actually dismissed his own findings as an anomaly because the Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek, not Egyptian!
In other words, he figured it was an exception to the rule.
It was phonetic because it was Greek, not Egyptian.
How else could an Egyptian depict a Greek name other than spell it out?
And that brings us to the hero of our story, Jean-Francois Champollion.
Champollion built on Young’s work, showing that different hieroglyphs spelled the names of kings or queens, like Alexander or Cleopatra, but his critics noted that these were still not traditional Egyptian names.
He hadn’t done any more than Young had been able to do, so he couldn’t disprove the dominant theory.
Then in 1822, Champollion was shown a set of hieroglyphs that contained traditional Egyptian names.
The first two of these symbols were unknown, but Champollion knew that the repeated hieroglyph to the far right symbolized an “s” sound.
He then drew on his linguistic knowledge to arrive at the solution to the problem.
You see, unlike any of the other scholars who had tried to crack the code, Champollion happened to be fluent in Coptic.
He wondered, and, uh, this was the real breakthrough, if Coptic was the language symbolized by the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone, and if so, then perhaps that first disk-shaped symbol might represent the Sun.
And the Coptic word for Sun is“ra.” See where this is headed?
So if the symbol were Coptic, the first symbol would be “ra” and then an unknown symbol followed by a double “s” sound.
Was this, Champollion wondered, the name Ramses?
He was eventually able to confirm that it was.
So, he had figured it out: hieroglyphs were mainly phonetic, they represented sounds, not pictures, and the underlying language was Coptic.
A lot of work remained, but Champollion had cracked the code.