Hieroglyphs from the North: new Champollion correspondence on the 190th anniversary of his decipherment

190 years ago today, on the 27th of September 1822, a young scholar delivered a paper just eight pages long and rather unassumingly titled ‘Letter to Monsieur Dacier’, but which would completely change the world’s understanding of ancient history. The scholar was Jean-François Champollion and his paper was the first truly significant breakthrough in the decipherment of hieroglyphs. By cracking a code that had defeated scholars for hundreds of years, he revealed the key to ancient Egypt’s secrets, opening up over three thousand years of history and one of the world’s oldest civilisations. After almost two millennia of relying on ancient Greek and Roman historians’ somewhat spotty understanding of the much older history of Egypt and the persistent misinterpretation of Egyptian writing as purely symbolic, with Champollion’s breakthrough the ancient Egyptians were finally able to speak for themselves. Champollion’s achievements were certainly the work of a genius but he also worked unbelievably hard, which probably contributed to his sudden death at age 42, and his great grammar and dictionary had to be published posthumously by his brother. Arguably the first Egyptologist, despite a relatively short career, he was already a hard act to follow.

Although the French scholar is famed for his work on the Rosetta Stone, the trilingual Egyptian inscription now in the British Museum, he was more interested in the insights it could offer than the text itself. In fact he never actually bothered to publish a full translation! When I began my work with the British Museum’s Future Curator programme, it was unsurprisingly that I got drawn into answering public enquiries about the Rosetta Stone and learning more about Champollion’s work. But I little expected to continue this research at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was posted for a year as part of the BM programme’s expertise sharing.

To my astonishment, the archivist there, June Holmes, casually mentioned that the museum had in its possession an incredibly rare letter written by Champollion, part of the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Egyptian collection. I was astounded. Further investigation revealed an additional letter, though preserved only in copied translation, written even earlier, just one year after Champollion’s initial breakthrough, when his understanding of the ancient Egyptian language was still in its early stages. Object enquiries are now a routine part of museum work, so it was rather delightful to instead find the museum itself applying to someone else to interpret its objects! It was exhilarating to read Champollion’s sometimes faltering yet surprisingly confident and competent early work on one of the objects on display in the museum, the mummy of Bakt-en-Hor. Before Champollion was able to decipher the inscription, absolutely nothing was known about her and the usual stereotypical assumptions about her being a ‘princess’ abounded. Though he did not succeed in reading her name, his efforts gave the first real insights into her identity and beliefs.

It was also just fascinating to read the words of the great man himself and find a rather different story to the generally accepted narrative of ‘the usual rivalry and animosity between the British and the French’ (Usick 2002, 77). Access to the Rosetta Stone and accurate copies of its inscription had been the source of some friction between Champollion and his English rival Thomas Young. When Champollion later failed to acknowledge a debt to Young’s early insights, his relationship with English scholars grew even frostier. The letters somewhat contradict this though, revealing a warm correspondence between the great man and the liberal scholarly community in the North East, which likely stemmed from a mutual interest in Egypt and shared political beliefs.

Newcastle was home to an enlightened scholarly community community at the time (the city’s Literary and Philosophical Society was host to the first public room to be lit by electric light, as well as many other scholarly achievements), as well as having rather radical political leanings towards social, political, and religious reform, including strong support for the French Revolution. The Champollions’ reformist ideals and dangerous support for Napoleon over the monarchy certainly adversely affected their careers. At the time, Champollion’s initial achievements were questioned, but the forward-thinking scholars of Newcastle upon Tyne embraced his breakthrough. The letters demonstrate that the inscription on the Great North Museum: Hancock’s mummy, Bakt-en-Hor, was amongst the earliest hieroglyphic texts read by Champollion, and offer new insights into the early process of his decipherment.

For Champollion, at a time when he had not yet been able to achieve his dream of travelling to Egypt, any hieroglyphic texts were precious and vital to his continuing progress with the script and language. As Richard Parkinson has stated, ‘The decipherment of the Egyptian scripts is not a single event that occurred in 1822, but a continuous process that is repeated at every reading of a text or artifact. Like any process of reading, it is a dialogue.’

Before leaving Newcastle next week at the end of my post, I wanted to seek a new dialogue by bringing those historic dialogues to light again- both Champollion’s dialogue with the ancient Egyptian language and with the scholars of Newcastle. On Thursday 4 October I will give a free lecture at the Great North Museum: Hancock to share my findings and honour the 190th anniversary of the decipherment. I will be presenting a work-in-progress, but I hope to finish this very soon and publish the letters. Many readers won’t be able to make it to the lecture, but to learn more about Champollion, I highly recommend Andrew Robinson’s recently published very readable and informative biography Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion, and Richard Parkinson’s Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, from the British Museum 1999 exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the Stone’s discovery.

Pharaoh: King of Egypt, my new book

In over three thousand years of history, ancient Egypt was ruled by hundreds of kings; to the untrained eye, they may often seem undistinguishable in their idealised representations, but their stories are more varied and extraordinary than might be imagined. In my new book, written to accompany the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, I explore many of these fascinating stories through the fabulous objects in the British Museum’s collection, from beautiful gilded palace tiles to a papyrus account of royal assassination. The aim of both the exhibition and the book is to juxtapose the ideals of kingship with the more complex realities faced by Egypt’s rulers.

For example, Amun-Ra, king of the gods, was frequently invoked by the Egyptian kings who sought to align themselves with him, but no one could have imagined the many ways in which his name would be used by the pharaohs over the centuries: Hatshepsut, who declared herself the first female king (not queen), told of her own birth as resulting from an assignation between her mother and Amun-Ra in disguise as her father; the kings of Nubia (ancient Sudan) justified their invasion of Egypt as a rescue mission for Amun-Ra, who they alleged was no longer being properly honoured in his own country; Alexander the Great sought out the oracle of Amun-Ra at Siwa Oasis where the god (or his nervous priests) acknowledged the Macedonian conqueror as his son.

The book has been a joy to write, but it actually almost never happened. The plan for the exhibition had always been to focus on creating an open online catalogue so we could offer free access to further object information, which is exactly what we did and you can visit the online catalogue here. It was only just as the exhibition was opening that BM Press broached the possibility of creating of a small affordable illustrated book to accompany the exhibition. The objects themselves are so stunning, from the huge wooden tomb guardian statue of Ramses I to the most delicate gold jewellery of the Middle Kingdom, that the prospect of working further with them was very appealing. In some ways the late start proved quite useful because it offered the opportunity to explore in the book some of the great stories that hadn’t made it into the exhibition.

For example, almost everyone knows of the boy-king Tutankhamun and the incredible discovery of his tomb’s treasures, but fewer will be familiar with the confusion over royal succession after his untimely death. Having died barely out of his teens, Egypt was left without a royal heir to inherit the throne, his only two children having been still born and interred with their father. It’s recorded that a royal widow of that period, probably Tutankhamun’s, wrote in her desperation to a foreign ruler, the Hittite king: ‘My husband died. I do not have a son. But, they say, many are your sons. If you would give me one of your sons, he would become my husband’. But the Hittite prince never made it to his coronation. En route to Egypt, the Hittite prince was murdered and Tutankhamun’s vizier Ay took the throne instead. Ay performed the traditional ceremonies usually carried out at the pharaoh’s funeral by his son, thereby smoothing the path to his succession. Over and over through ancient Egyptian history, the ideals of kingship were used to help soften the much harsher realities of ancient life and maintain stability and power.



While the exhibition consists of 14 sections ranging from royal titulary to temple building, family life to war iconography, my approach for the book was to condense these into a simpler framework of five chapters, each one exploring a key aspect of the king’s duties and mythologized roles, and how different the reality often was from the ideal:

  • ‘The son of Ra’, supposedly descended from the gods, but often crowned through circumstance, conspiracy or invasion
  • ‘The Lord of the Two Lands’, responsible for maintaining order and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt, though their failure sometimes plunged the country into civil war
  • ‘He who builds the mansions of the gods’, serving as high priest, building temples, or rather taking the shortcut of reusing older monuments
  • ‘A champion without compare’, a warrior-king, supposedly protecting Egypt from her enemies, but being conquered in turn just as often
  • ‘Lord of Eternity’, when the pharaoh was buried and thought to become one with the gods, after which he might subsequently be worshipped, maligned or forgotten

Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with brand new colour photographs and introduced by two quotations, one framing the idealised vision of the pharaoh in a particular role, the other presenting a starkly different view, to give the ancient Egyptians a chance to speak for themselves in their own words.

For the final chapter, ‘Lord of Eternity’, a quotation from the poem The Tale of Sinuhe illustrates the mythological beliefs surrounding the death of the king and the manner in which his subjects were expected to honour him:

“The God ascended to his horizon; the Dual King Sehotepibre, mounted to heaven, and was united with the sun, the divine flesh mingling with its creator. The palace was in silence, hearts were in mourning.”

In reality, deceased kings could generally expect to be treated much more harshly, as this account by tomb robbers in the Amhurst Papyrus demonstrates:

“We stripped off the gold which we found on the noble mummy of this god. We found the royal wife likewise and we took all that we found on her too. We set fire to their inner coffins.”

I hope that the book Pharaoh: King of Egypt will be an enjoyable introduction to ancient Egyptian kingship and some of the amazing objects in the British Museum’s collection (and it’s only £9.99!). For those in the UK who haven’t yet seen the exhibition, it’s currently on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 14 October, after which it will be in Glasgow from 3 November 2012 to 24 February 2013, and finally Bristol from 15 March to 9 June, 2013.