Jean-François Champollion (23 December 1790–4 March 1832) was a French classical scholar, philologist, orientalist, and is credited as the father of Egyptology.
Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs, with the help of groundwork laid by his predecessors : Sacy, Akerblad, Young and William Bankes, Champollion translated parts of the Rosetta stone in 1822, showing that the ancient Egyptian was similar to Coptic, and the writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.
He was born at Figeac, Lot, in France, the last of seven children (two of whom were already dead before his birth). He lived in Grenoble for several years, and even as a child showed an extraordinary linguistic talent. By the age of 16 he had mastered a dozen languages and had read a paper before the Grenoble Academy concerning the Coptic language. By 20 he could also speak Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Amharic, Sanskrit, Avestan, Pahlavi, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, Persian, and Chinese in addition to his native French. In 1809, he became assistant-professor of History at Grenoble. His interest in oriental languages, especially Coptic, led to his being entrusted with the task of deciphering the writing on the then recently-discovered Rosetta Stone, and he spent the years 1822–1824 on this task. His 1824 work Précis du système hiéroglyphique gave birth to the entire field of modern Egyptology. He also identified the importance of the Turin King List.
His interest in Egyptology was originally inspired by Napoleon's Egyptian Campaigns 1798–1801. Champollion was subsequently made Professor of Egyptology at the Collège de France. In 1828 and 1829, Champollion led the joint Franco-Tuscan expedition to Egypt, together with Ippolito Rosellini, the professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Pisa. He travelled upstream along the Nile and studied an exhaustive number of monuments and inscriptions. The expedition led to a posthumously-published extensive Monuments de l'Egypte et de la Nubie (1845). Unfortunately, Champollion's expedition was blemished by instances of unchecked looting. Most notably, while studying the Valley of the Kings, he irreparably damaged KV17, the tomb of Seti I, by physically removing two large wall sections with mirror-image scenes. The scenes are now in the collections of the Louvre and the museum of Florence.
Exhausted by his labours during and after his scientific expedition to Egypt, Champollion died of an apoplectic attack in Paris in 1832 at the age of 41 and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. His elder brother, Jacques Joseph Champollion-Figeac edited certain of his works; Jacques Joseph's son, Aimé-Louis (1812–1894), wrote a biography of the two brothers.
Young was also one of the first who tried to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, and was himself based on the works by Akerblad who built up a demotic alphabet of 29 letters. But Akerblad believed that demotic was entirely phonetic or alphabetic and was wrong. Young felt that, and by 1814 he had completely translated the "enchorial" (demotic, in modern terms) text of the Rosetta Stone (he had a list with 86 demotic words), and then studied the hieroglyphic alphabet and make some good work but failed to recognise that demotic and hieroglyphic texts were paraphrases and not simple translations. In 1823 he published an Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities. Some of Young's conclusions appeared in the famous article "Egypt" he wrote for the 1818 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
When Champollion published his translation of the hieroglyphs, Young praised his work but also stated that Champollion had based his system on Young's articles and tried to have his part recognized. Champollion, however, was unwilling to share the credit. In the forthcoming schism, strongly motivated by the political tensions of that time, the British supported Young and the French Champollion. Champollion, whose complete understanding of the hieroglyphic grammar showed the mistakes made by Young, maintained that he had deciphered alone the hieroglyphs. However, after 1826, he did offer Young access to demotic manuscripts in the Louvre, when he was a curator there.
Reeves, N (1996), The Complete Valley of the Kings