above A hand-drawn and -coloured page from Jean-François Champollion’s notebooks.

Rosetta Stone: paper, paste, and prepositions

The Rosetta Stone was the key to unlocking the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs. The results of Jean-François Champollion’s work on the Stone’s inscription may be well known, but other scholars – with different attitudes towards ancient Egypt – also took up the challenge. Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz examine what forgotten manuscripts can tell us about the decipherment of the ancient scripts.


Of all the places to be immersed in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the seaside town of Worthing must rank among the most unlikely. Located on Britain’s south coast, the town provided the model for Jane Austen’s eponymous Sanditon, ‘a small fashionable bathing place’ infested with developers eager to profit from booming tourism. The anonymous author of A Tour of Worthing (1806) lauded its ‘pure and genial air’ but otherwise struggled to relax. His subtitle, Idle Hours not Idly Spent, neatly summarised the physician and natural philosopher Thomas Young’s experiences of Worthing, where he undertook his first serious study of the ancient Egyptian scripts. This investigation, which occupied the summer of 1814, set him on a path that would intersect painfully years later with that of his rival, Jean-François Champollion, who understood the scripts very differently.

Young had by this time developed a characteristic approach to hard-to-read ancient texts. The approach owed much to his lifelong interest in ancient Greek, and his belief that its writing system perfectly captured thought. When, in one early publication, Young set out to show the proper way to write Greek characters, the point was not merely elegant penmanship. Well-formed alphabetic characters confirmed that the thought they expressed was also well-formed and correct. What should be there, was there – and if it was not, that problem could be solved by rectifying the extant fragments with his expectations for the whole.

left Portrait of the physician and natural philosopher Thomas Young by Henry Briggs, c.1822.
Portrait of the physician and natural philosopher Thomas Young by Henry Briggs, c.1822. IMAGE: Bridgeman Images.

To this formalist orientation, Young added a related talent: for order. In his medical and scientific work, Young often compiled his observations into lists productive of new knowledge – or, at least, a striking new view of what was already known. In A Practical and Historical Treatise on Consumptive Diseases (1815), Young gleaned references from centuries of disease reports, grouped them into broad historical and practical categories, and then, having noted the novelty of doing so, suggested readers begin not at the beginning, but at the end, by consulting the index. Readers who followed this advice were plunged into an alphabetically ordered miscellany, in which catarrh and fishwives jostled with Pliny and ‘iced cream’. Unprepossessing as it may seem, this odd list produced a strikingly detailed portrait of diseases. Young’s knack for productive concordances similarly shaped his studies of ancient writing.

above The print of the Rosetta Greek script Young used. The authors have marked it to show the divisions for which Young sought correspondences in the Demotic.
The print of the Rosetta Greek script Young used. The authors have marked it to show the divisions for which Young sought correspondences in the Demotic. IMAGE: courtesy of Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz.

This much was already evident in 1810, when Young came upon a published reconstruction of a carbonised papyrus scroll from Herculaneum, the small city buried along with Pompeii after the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. To Young’s dismay, the author admitted introducing words that were not present in the original document and re-rendering the text in lower-case Greek. Attempting his own version, Young demonstrated his extraordinary facility with patterns of orthography, enlarging on the fragmentary material according to his sense of what might complete a pattern he perceived. The results were astonishing: Young reproduced the original almost perfectly, sight unseen. This feat ‘at once placed its author, in the estimation of the public, in the first class of the scholars of the age,’ according to his first biographer.

At Worthing four years later, Young pored over prints of the Rosetta inscription published in the Vetusta Monumenta, an important vehicle for archaeological discoveries at that time. The Rosetta Stone had been discovered by chance over a decade before, when soldiers in Napoleon’s army were digging foundations at a fort near Rashid in Egypt in July 1799. In 1802, after the artefact arrived in Britain, George III presented it to the British Museum, where it is still on display. Its significance lies in its inscription, a decree written in ancient Greek (which was still read), Demotic, and hieroglyphs, which scholars now raced to decipher. For weeks Young worked vigorously on the inscription, and within two years he had published a bold translation of the Demotic script and a less sure-footed ‘interpretation’ of the hieroglyphic. But apart from a few hints that appeared later in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Young never explained how he arrived at these results. By the time he died in 1829, his insights seemed to have perished with him.

Except for one remnant: Memorandums of an Attempt to Decypher the Egyptian Inscription of Rosetta, the set of notes Young made as he grappled with the scripts, remains in the British Library. These notes reveal his working methods, a continuation of his approaches to other, similar materials, such as the Herculaneum papyri.

Young began by copying the Rosetta Demotic, which he called ‘Egyptian’, on to sheets of paper, leaving space between the lines to facilitate a line-by-line comparison with the Greek. ‘I have divided’, he wrote, ‘the 54 lines of the Greek as nearly as possible into 32 parts, this being the number of the Egyptian lines.’ He then segmented the Greek where he felt that it made sense to do so. This move – which reprised his approach to the Herculaneum scrolls – incorrectly, but significantly, presumed that the Greek was produced from the Rosetta Demotic, as if the latter had provided the template for the Greek rendition.

Young’s next move involved counting, ordering, and pattern recognition. He ‘collect[ed] all those groups of E. [Egyptian] characters which occur twice or more’ in order ‘to search for some Greek words which are found an equal number of times in corresponding parts.’ His first identification involved the Greek word for ‘king’, which appeared many times. Correlating that to a sequence appearing ‘24 to 30’ times in the Rosetta Demotic, he corrected his initial division of the Greek text. He made sign-by-word correspondences, focusing on royal names and titles already identified by himself or others. By bringing known elements into correspondence, he created opportunities to make informed guesses about the unknowns, completing a projected pattern.

Because Young was certain neither of the two Egyptian scripts could be alphabetic, he freely applied his method of spatial comparison to the Rosetta hieroglyphic inscription as well as the Demotic. He aligned segments of the Rosetta Greek, hieroglyphic, and Demotic scripts, cutting and pasting to effect correspondences.

Young’s sequencing presupposed that the scripts obeyed a reasonably strict word-order. From this we may infer that Young believed the writing did represent the Egyptian language, its words, and perhaps even its syntax. Yet he scrapped the possibility of the early use of phonetics, insisting that nothing like an alphabet could have been present before the Alexandrian conquest in the 4th century BC. Champollion, as we will see, believed nothing of the sort, and this fundamental difference led directly to Champollion’s successful decipherment of the hieroglyphs. Yet Young was neither an amateur nor an ignoramus when it came to ancient writing systems. What explains his intransigence?

above left Young’s cut-up, comparing the Rosetta Demotic and hieroglyphic inscriptions. Above right Portrait of Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion by Léon Cogniet, 1831.
Young’s cut-up, comparing the Rosetta Demotic and hieroglyphic inscriptions. IMAGEs: courtesy of Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz; Granger Historical Picture Archive.

To put it simply, Young disdained ancient Egyptian culture. In a letter of 1816, Young freely condemned the ancient Egyptians, writing that ‘the great mass of Egyptian monuments of all kinds relates exclusively to the religious and superstitious rites observed towards the ridiculous deities and the idolised heroes of the country.’ He argued that since ‘so foolish and so frivolous a nation’ could not have achieved much scientifically, it could scarcely have produced a phonetic writing system. These beliefs, which probably stemmed from his Quaker upbringing, simplified Young’s confrontation with the Rosetta inscription, freeing him to make spatial comparisons of the scripts informed principally by a sense of how sign sequences ought to unfold, anchored by existing beliefs about signs for certain deities and royal persons. Other sources of information, related to the culture of ancient Egypt, could safely be ignored.

One of these neglected sources was Coptic, the liturgical language of Egyptian Christianity. Although Coptic scarcely entered into Young’s engagement with the Rosetta inscriptions, it had long been central to Champollion’s study of ancient Egypt. Like many of his European contemporaries, Champollion held that Coptic was a late form of Egyptian. As a student in Paris, he studied Coptic with a local priest; this refugee brought the distant world of Egypt, which until now Champollion had only encountered in books, into his everyday life. ‘I am devoting myself entirely to Coptic,’ he wrote in a letter. ‘I want to know [it] as well as I know my French.’

Portrait of Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion by Léon Cogniet, 1831. Image: Alamy Stock Photo..

Perhaps nowhere was this rich preparation more evident than in the Lettre à Dacier of 1822, in which Champollion first laid out his major principles for reading hieroglyphs. As extensively as historians have discussed the Lettre, they rarely trace its references and sources through Champollion’s extensive archive.

The Lettre capped an intense period of work undertaken in his brother’s home on the rue Mazarine. There – in a renovated studio that once belonged to the painter Horace Vernet, lit by a wide bay of windows – Champollion put the finishing touches to a decade’s worth of study of Coptic sources. For years he had listened for echoes of Coptic in ancient Egyptian place-names and common nouns, as well as the names of deities and kings. This extensive experience with Coptic permitted Champollion to discern overlooked regularities in the scripts that, in turn, suggested principles for their decipherment.

Take vocabulary, for instance: where Young relied on presumptive references to rulers and deities, Champollion in the Lettre identified characters that seemed to stand for common objects, such as a vase, and associated those characters with Coptic words for the objects depicted. Taking the sound of each word as his point of departure, he produced hypothetical phonetic sequences that he tested by seeing how well they worked in inscriptions found on other artefacts.

Young had already identified a kind of hieroglyphic sign known as a determinative: these non-phonetic hieroglyphic characters indicated the class of signs to which other signs in the same group belonged. Champollion had also identified one, a star-shaped hieroglyph etched in a temple ceiling from Dendera, as indicating that other signs in the arrangement referred to celestial events. In the Lettre, Champollion argued that hieroglyphs might have still other facets. A hieroglyph could be phonetic, in whole or in part; some signs could even be ‘semi-alphabetic’, offering ‘merely the skeleton’ of a word, a consonantal framework to be fleshed out with vowels.

Champollion’s study of Coptic sensitised him to nuances of different dialects, in particular the ways in which changes in the spoken language could show up in its written form. In the Lettre, he identified patterns in the hieroglyphic script that corresponded to such changes in a Coptic dialect called Bashmuric. Variations in hieroglyphic sequences for ‘Alexander’, he said, reflected variations in Coptic renditions of a single consonant within the name typically found in Bashmuric. Champollion additionally claimed that hieroglyphic sequences for foreign words, such as ‘Autocrator’, a word brought into Egyptian from Greek meaning ‘emperor’, was ‘written Bashmurically’ because it also contained this variation.

above A hand-drawn and -coloured page from Jean-François Champollion’s notebooks.
A hand-drawn and -coloured page from Jean-François Champollion’s notebooks. IMAGE: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Coptic opened a uniquely informative window on to ancient Egyptian culture. In Champollion’s hands, the language tantalised not because it was esoteric but because it seemed so available and ordinary. To one hieroglyph, of a lion in repose, Champollion assigned the phonetic value ‘L’, corresponding to a Coptic word that began with the same sound. Broken into its constituent syllables, however, this Coptic word meant très velu, ‘very hairy’; he found the same word, but in reference to a bear, in a Coptic fragment of the Book of Revelation. Elsewhere in the Lettre, Champollion observed that a hieroglyph, to which he assigned the phonetic value ‘N’, looked like an alabaster vase typically containing perfumed oil known as neh, and he suggested that this oil was what gave the hieroglyph its phonetic value.

Like Young, Champollion closely studied signs for names of deities and kings – but Champollion’s study included links to Coptic. In his notebooks, Champollion explored the structure of Coptic, identifying the roots of words and distinguishing them from various modifiers to which they might be affixed. He went so far as to associate the Coptic ‘NE’, signifying filial devotion, with three phrases of the Rosetta Demotic, translating one of these phrases as ‘beloved of Ptah’. Years later, in the Lettre, Champollion reprised this effort when he zeroed in on a wavy hieroglyph usually read ideographically as having to do with water. To this sign he not only assigned the phonetic value of ‘N’, but also claimed that it was grammatically equivalent to the French de, as if the hieroglyph worked like a preposition signalling origination. What followed, of course, was the name of a ruler, Ptolemy, who was, as always, ‘beloved of Ptah’. This analysis of the wavy hieroglyph in the Lettre brought to the surface a line of inquiry into the relationship between Coptic and Demotic that he had been following for a decade.

The story of the race to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs is well known, but closer attention to neglected archival sources can shed fresh light on the main protagonists’ different approaches to the ancient scripts. Both Young and Champollion carefully compared the Rosetta Egyptian inscriptions to the Greek, and they both made extensive use of what was already known about the handling of royal names and titles, as well as such special elements as determinatives. But, as we have seen, Young narrowed his investigation to making simple spatial comparisons, and this range restriction was consistent with a view of ancient Egyptian culture as correspondingly simple. In contrast, Champollion’s deep study of ancient Egypt sensitised him to details of the culture that left discernible residues in the scripts.

Champollion’s broadly sympathetic attitude towards ancient Egyptian culture, vividly present even in his unpublished work, prepared him to discover much about the hieroglyphs that Young did not – and perhaps could not, given his narrower affinities.

Enjoy this article and want to learn more about the Rosetta Stone? Listen to Diane Josefowicz discuss the work of Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion in more detail on the PastCast.
Further reading
Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz’s book The Riddle of the Rosetta: how an English polymath and a French polyglot discovered the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs has recently been published by Princeton University Press (ISBN 978-0691200903, price £34).