Cracking Codes: Champollion’s Decipherment of Hieroglyphs in its Context

Sign up for the new joint OI and Graham School Class: Cracking Codes: Champollion’s Decipherment of Hieroglyphs in its Historical Context 

Who hasn’t been fascinated by the lore of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs?  The imagination of everyone from Plutarch to Jean-François Champollion was captured by their mystique. However, the knowledge of how to read the hieroglyphic script was lost for nearly fifteen hundred years, until Champollioin’s decipherment in 1822, the bicentennial of which we celebrate this year. The hieroglyphic “dark age” prior to 1822 was not devoid of attempts at decipherment. Hieroglyphs were thought to be a source of ancient, hidden, mystical knowledge and their associated intrigue inspired many attempts to unravel their secrets. These assumptions about mystical knowledge often influenced attempts at cracking the code, from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance and up too the Enlightenment. Even Coptic and Islamic scholars living among the monuments in Egypt could even be misled by the idea the Egyptian hieroglyphs could be “read” through allegorical meanings. It took several decades after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone for Champollion to finally realize that the hieroglyphic signs largely indicated the sounds of the ancient Egyptian language.

This class goes beyond the well known story of Champollion to investigate the intellectual background of his groundbreaking decipherment. Why were people throughout the centuries interested in Egyptian hieroglyphs in the first place? What did they hope the texts said? From Egypt, to Greece, to Europe, we will explore the philological inspiration behind the scholars who studied the hieroglyphic texts as well as the aftermath of Champollion’s decipherment. While Champollion's pioneering work marks a turning point in the decipherment, it was by no means the end of the story and the quest to figure out all of the hieroglyphic riddles continues to this day.


Interested in classes at the University of Chicago beyond the OI? One of the University of Chicago’s three original divisions, Graham was established in 1890—and has been at the forefront of lifelong learning ever since. Through free events and lectures and a rich variety of programs, Graham provides a comprehensive, interdisciplinary education for adult learners looking to explore the big ideas that challenge and change the world. Learn more about Graham’s transformative graduate degree, rigorous part-time liberal arts certificate, selection of open enrollment courses, and travel study opportunities here.