A Warfare of Greediness over the Rosetta Stone: Deciphering Hieroglyphics

The Rosetta Stone located in the British Museum is described as a thick plate made of a black rock called granodiorite. It is a broken part of a larger stone carved in 196 BC including different versions of the same text in three inscriptions: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic and Ancient Greek. At that time, Hieroglyphs were used for religious affairs, Demotic was the daily language used by common people and Ancient Greek was for administrative issues in Egypt. When the Stone was discovered by French commander Pierre François Bouchard during the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799, Egyptian hieroglyphs were not deciphered yet. Bouchard quickly recognized the importance of this trilingual text and sent it to Napoleon Bonaparte. However, in 1801 French army was defeated by Britain and confiscated Rosetta Stone.

Ancient Languages (1)

The discovery of Rosetta Stone aroused widespread public interest in Europe with its potential to decipher previously untranslated hieroglyphic script and copies began circulating among European museums and scholars (Dalby, 2019, p.1). Scholars already knew Ancient Greek and were familiar with Old Coptic. In the light of these two inscriptions decryption of hieroglyphs began. Similar to their political relationship at that time, the discovery and translation of Rosetta Stone turned into a rivalry between France and Britain. Eventually, deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs turned into an entangled case. This significant accomplishment is usually attributed to the French polyglot Jean-François Champollion, referred as the founder of Egyptology. On the other hand, English polymath Thomas Young is accepted as a pioneer of this study. This article discusses the decipherment of hieroglyphs in three periods.

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the International Congress of Orientalists, 1874 (2)

Solid attempts to decipher hieroglyphs started with the discovery of Rosetta Stone. Before being captured by the Arabs, Egypt had a native language called Coptic. There was formerly a Coptic alphabet until the 2nd century AD. However, it was replaced by Greek letters, resulting in the creation of Old and New Coptic. Therefore, the alphabet of Old Coptic became obscured over time. In 1643, long before the discovery of Rosetta Stone, Athanasius Kircher, a reputed scholar and polymath of his

The Rosetta Stone in Three Writing Systems (3)

time, argued that the Coptic inscription represents the same language as hieroglyphs (Lee & Merrill, 1989,p . 20). Based on this argument, scholars assumed that it would be possible to decipher the hieroglyphics by deciphering the Old Coptic script. The study of the relationship between Old Coptic and the hieroglyphs was first carried out by Silvestre de Sacy, a French nobleman and scholar. He was also a mentor of the three scholars who were the successors of his research. Sacy tried to decipher the Rosetta Stone by comparing the symbols and locations of names through mathematical analysis. However, he reached a dead end after some progress and passed the study to the Swedish diplomat and scholar, Johan David Åkerblad. As an expert on New Coptic, he managed to compare its alphabet with Old Coptic, identifying some of the phonetic values and words. However, since he could not understand that Old Coptic was not entirely alphabetic, his progress was halted.

Significant progress is made by British polymath Thomas Young. He was a medical doctor interested in physics, philosophy, musical harmony and linguistics. In addition, he was fluent in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, Samaritan, Chaldean, , Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Ethiopic. In 1813, he started to work on the Rosetta Stone. Young noticed that another inscription called Hieratic, represented a simplified version of hieroglyphics, and hieroglyphs was fundamentally the same as the Old Coptic. In the light of the previous studies of Johan David Åkerblad and his mentor Silvestre de Sacy’s claim about ‘cartouche’, Young was able to identify the phonetic values of some of the hieroglyphs. He identified the locations of the name ‘Ptolemaios’ in the Greek text and after that, traced a set of letters in the Old Coptic text that matched this. When he noticed the name had square brackets before it in diabolical texts, he realized that brackets are the equivalent of the ‘cartouche’ in Hieroglyphs, which are described by Sacy as a sign of royal names. Thus, Young was able to identify the phonetic value of the hieroglyphs and Demotic letters used in ‘Ptolemaios’. Since he realized that Old Coptic was not entirely alphabetic, he managed to further Åkerblad’s studies. On the other hand, he neglected the phonetic values of hieroglyphs by assuming that they are mostly symbolic. Since he thought that hieroglyphs cannot be translated completely, his examination came to a halt as well. Young described his achievements as ‘the amusement of a few of his leisure hours’ (Young, 2010, p. 14).

Phrases from the last line of the Rosetta Stone in hieroglyphic, Demotic (Old Coptic) and Greek scripts as published in Young's 1819 article on Egypt for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (4)

The breakthrough came from Jean-François Champollion. He was a French polyglot who specialised in Egyptology and speaks Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Persian, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi and New Coptic. In 1814, Champollion wrote a letter to the Royal Society in London, asking for a copy of Rosetta Stone to analyze his theories. He received a reply from the foreign secretary of Britain’s Royal Society, Thomas Young. He rejected by saying "I do not doubt that the collective efforts of savants, such as M. Åkerblad and yourself, Monsieur, who have so much deepened the study of the Coptic language, might have already succeeded in giving a more perfect translation than my own” (Adkins & Adkins, 2000, p. 126). Meanwhile, the relationship between Champollion and his teacher Sacy broke down due to the political effects of Battle of Waterloo. “The royalist de Sacy turned against the republican Champollion, openly advising Young to regard his former student as a potential plagiarist” (Robinson, 2012, p. 28). Being encouraged again, Young decided to continue studying The Rosetta Stone and published an article. Champollion commented on this article by stating “The discoveries of Dr. Young announced with such pomp are merely ridiculous boasting” (Robinson, 2022, p. 122 ). Then, he published an article as well. However, he did not credit Young’s studies despite mentioning them, and most of his conclusions were proved to be wrong. Meanwhile, the competition between Young and Champollion was escalated, including Sacy on the side of Young. Admitting the flaws of his article, Champollion decided to withdraw it. However, he continued his studies and eventually concluded that hieroglyphic is a mixture of phonetical values, alphabetic elements and logograms (symbols representing whole words). In the light of Young’s former studies, Champollion identified the hieroglyphs used for the names of foreign rulers of Egypt and created a phonetic alphabet. In order to confirm his results he made a comparison by using other monuments: a cartouche from a temple in Abu Simbel and the Kingston Lacy Obelisk, which is a bilingual text including Ancient Greek and hieroglyphs. In 1822, Champollion published his “Lettre à M. Dacier”. This scientific letter addressed to the president of the French National Library included phonetic values of Old Coptic letters and hieroglyphs. Furthermore, he proved that hieroglyphs, Old Coptic, and Hieratic were the same language and demonstrated how a word can be represented by symbols. Hereby, Ancient Egyptian came alive again. Despite all his political differences, Sacy appreciated this great accomplishment of his student.

The duelling duo: (a) Thomas Young MD, (b) Jean-François Champollion (5)

Hieroglyphics were used to document the aspects of ancient Egyptian life, such as historical events and information about gods and rulers. Thomas Young was one of the first to identify phonetic values of some of the hieroglyphs and realized that Hieratic, Old Coptic and hieroglyphs were the same. By putting a great amount of effort to conclude this study, Jean-François Champollion found the key to Ancient Egypt by deciphering the three inscriptions. Prior to this date, Ancient Egypt could only be studied through the Bible and Greek and Roman historian accounts. Hieroglyphs was a dead language for about 1500 years.

The decipherment made it possible to learn about Egyptian legends, kingdoms, religion and more by reading the original records, providing an immense contribution to Egyptology.

On the other hand, the rivalry between the two scholars that made the main contribution persisted. In his work, E. A. Wallis Budge gave special emphasis to Young's contribution compared with Champollion's (Dalby, 2019, p. 10). Even, there was a conflict about the size of the portraits of the two scholars. In 1972, despite being rejected initially by the British, Rosetta Stone send to the Louvre in Paris on the occasion of 150th anniversary of “Lettre à M. Dacier”. French visitors complained that the portrait of Champollion was smaller than one of Young on the information panel whereas English visitors complained that the opposite was true, despite the portraits were in fact the same size (Dalby, 2019, p. 10). An efficient cooperation could prevent this kind of dispute and accelerate the process. Nonetheless, thanks to the grueling and hard work of all scholars, it is now possible to read historical documents penned by the Egyptians.


Adkins, L., & Adkins, R. A. (2000). The Keys of Egypt: The obsession to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. HarperCollins Publishers.

Dalby, A. (2019). Rosetta Stone. WikiJournal of Humanities, 2(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.15347/wjh/2019.001

Lee, H. B., & Merrill, B. L. (1989). Athanasius Kircher 1602-1680 jesuit scholar: An exhibition of his works in the Harold B. Lee Library collections at Brigham Young University. Friends of the Brigham Young University Library.

Robinson, A. (2012). A clash of symbols. Nature, 483(7387), 27–28. https://doi.org/10.1038/483027a

Robinson, A. (2022). Cracking the Egyptian code: The revolutionary life of jean-francois champollion. Thames & Hudson.

Young, T. (2010). An account of Some Recent Discoveries in hieroglyphical literature and Egyptian antiquities: Including the author's original alphabet, as extended by mr. Champollion, with a translation of five unpublished Greek and Egyptian manuscripts. Cambridge university press.

Image Sources

Figure 1: Fuchs, J. (2022). How learning ancient languages improves educational experiences. [Photograph]. dailytargum. https://dailytargum.com/article/2022/01/fuchs-how-learning-ancient-languages-improves-educational-experiences

Figure 2: NOW Rosetta Classic, LLC. (2006). Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the International Congress of Orientalists, 1874. [Illustration]. Retrieved from https://freemaninstitute.com/rosettastone.htm

Figure 3: Universal History Archieve / Bridgeman Images. (n.d.). How the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of ancient civilizations [Photograph]. National Geographic. https://i.natgeofe.com/n/7c5df0a2-fd71-4fd2-acf8-9489102f736d/534231.JPG?w=2520&h=3292

Figure 4: Robinson, A. (2007). Phrases from the last line of the Rosetta Stone in hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek scripts as published in Young's 1819 article on Egypt for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Alphabet]. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160932707000282

Figure 5: Robinson, A. (2007). The duelling duo. (a) Thomas Young Md, Frs (1773-1829) by Sir Thomas Lawrence (copy by Henry Perronet Briggs). Royal Society, London, Uk/The Bridgeman Art Library. (b) Jean-François Champollion (1790–1832) by Leon Cogniet. The Louvre/The Bridgeman Art Library. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160932707000282

Author Photo

Deniz Aktunç

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