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.
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