Friday, September 28, 2012


Andrew Robinson, Cracking the Egyptian Code: the Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 272. ISBN 9780199914999. $29.95.

Reviewed by William H. Peck, University of Michigan-Dearborn (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This book has two principal themes. One is a biography of Jean-François Champollion; the other details the steps to the modern decipherment of ancient Egyptian. Champollion's life as an ardent student of ancient Egypt encouraged by his older brother and returning members of Bonaparte's expedition was eventually rewarded with an assistant professorship of history at the university in Grenoble in 1809. His publication of L'Égypte sous le Pharaons in 1814 was produced long before he could successfully read the language. His summery of his dramatic breakthrough in the decipherment came in 1822 in his Lettre à M. Dacier which was followed by a more detailed exposition two years later. Champollion was able to put his knowledge to practical use in the joint Franco- Tuscan expedition of 1828-30 where scholars were able to identify the royal names on monuments with some security. Champollion's short life of only 41 years was a continuous adventure both intellectual and political befitting the complexity of his eventual accomplishments. A linguistic prodigy, he had begun a study of Coptic in his teens, a language that would prove crucial to his work on ancient Egyptian.

In chapter one Robinson briefly surveys the history of attempts to decipher Egyptian. The most general misconception about the language was that each sign in hieroglyphic script represented a thought or an idea. That it was partly alphabetical, partly ideographic, and partly representative of signs of classification had not to that time occurred to any western investigator immersed in languages that were essentially alphabetical. It was the slow realization by several people during the first quarter of the nineteenth century of the varied uses of the signs that the author has explained with care and detailed examination. The first assumption, that the cartouches, elongated ovals, might contain the names of royalty spelled phonetically, proved to be correct but it was still a far reach to distinguish the varied ways the signs were employed and combined. Robinson has provided an explanation of the tentative steps taken by of Champollion, as well as the others involved, that explains that deciphering the language was not accomplished in a single moment of inspiration but over a period of years by trial and error.

In almost every survey of the history and culture of ancient Egypt there is included a short explanation of how Champollion "cracked the code". Generally these explanations are simplified for good reason so as not to detain the reader unnecessarily. In the simple versions it seems to have been the work of one man, a prodigy-genius. The actuality of the decipherment of the ancient language was a complex undertaking. There were attempts by others, notably Johan Åkerblad, a Swede, and Thomas Young, an Englishman, who each contributed to the eventual breakthrough of Champollion. The examination of the part that Young played in the first steps to understand the "picture language" of the Egyptians is a major theme of this work and the arguments of priority of discovery are far from simple.

Robinson comes to an examination of Champollion's life and achievements from a wide study of ancient languages and their discoverers. He has written on the decipherment of ancient scripts, as well as authored biographies of Michael Ventris, who was responsible for the decipherment of Linear B, and Thomas Young, whom Robinson called "Champollion's leading rival in the decipherment." Robinson calls the rivalry between Champollion and Thomas Young to decipher Egyptian "the single most fascinating aspect of the story," indicating that it took a "polymath and a specialist" who worked with different kinds of insights to ultimately come to a successful conclusion. Young was a physicist and a physiologist, "a scientist whom Albert Einstein would compare with Isaac Newton for his discovery of the interference of light in 1801". Champollion was essentially a scholar of ancient Egypt with a particular knowledge of languages including Coptic, the last vestige of ancient Egyptian.

This work is well written and produced in an attractive format. It is neither too scholarly for the general reader nor so popular as not to be a useful reference. The quality of the paper chosen gives the engravings and photographs a definition to be desired in other works. There are occasional minor misprints and identifications, some that seem difficult to explain. In the accounts of the joint French-Tuscan expedition to Egypt when Champollion was able to identify and apply correct names to the inscriptions on many of the monuments, Robinson mentions a palace of Karnak at least twice. Whether this was his misunderstanding for the temple of Karnak or if he was using a designation of Champollion's is difficult to say. The small palaces attached to New Kingdom temples had yet to be identified as such and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is was generally customary to think of the massive structures as palaces.

At one point Robinson describes Champollion as moving to a tomb "on the other side of Thebes". Since the limits of ancient Thebes had yet to be defined what was meant was probably the other side of the Nile. In one instance he mentions the accuracy of Vivant Denon's drawings at the Temple of Dendera (at least in regard to one detail) and on the next page (204) illustrates Denon's drawing of the façade of the temple in which the decoration of the screen wall is completely imaginary. Denon's sketches and drawings were done under considerable pressure according to his own accounts and many of them were completed later in France so some or obviously more accurate in detail than others... An even more obvious (and unrelated) error occurs in the caption to the upper image on page 207.1

The book concludes with a further explanation of the complexity of the language and a basic description of how hieroglyphs work, illustrated with examples of alphabetic signs, bilateral and trilateral signs (signs that stand for more than one sound), ideographs, signs that stand for what they picture, and determinatives, the signs that differentiate various classes of ideas. If the progress of deducing and understanding these different classes of signs is not clear enough in the historical exposition, this last section may provide further information.

In summary, the author has provided a comprehensive and well documented biography of Champollion, detailing his intellectual development and placing him in the contemporary political climate. Born in 1790, he witnessed the return of Bonaparte from Egypt, his ascendency to First Consul and Emperor and ultimately his demise and the return of the monarchy. The steps to the eventual breakthrough and the varied receptions, both positive and negative, that his work garnered are chronicled in some detail. This work gives Champollion his proper due in the decipherment but it reminds the reader that it was not completely a solo effort.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Egyptomania,
I. Hieroglyphic "Delirium" before Champollion,
II. A Revolutionary Childhood,
III. Reluctant Schoolboy,
IV. Egypt Encountered,
V. Paris and the Rosetta Stone,
VI. Teenage Professor,
VII. The Race Begins,
VIII. Napoleon and Champollion,
IX. Exile and Revolt,
X. reakthrough,
XI. An Egyptian Renaissance,
XII. Curator at the Louvre,
XIII. To Egypt At Last,
XVI. In Search of Ramesses,
XV. First Professor of Egyptology,
XVI. The Hieroglyphs After Champollion. Postscript, Geniuses and Polymaths",
Notes and References,
List of Illustrations,


1.   It is not Denon's drawing of Karnak Temple but of Luxor temple that is shown. This is a curious error because the view of Luxor Temple includes the pair of obelisks that were the subject of Champollion's ardent campaign of possible acquisition for France.

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