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Champollion Jean-Francois
(1790— 1832)

Champollion Jean-Francois (1790— 1832)

Jean-François - called Le Jeune to distinguish him from his elder brother Jacques Joseph, who was also an archaeologist - was born in Figeac in southern France on 22 December 1790. Born into the time of uncertainty of the French Revolution, there was no school for him to attend, so he was educated privately by a priest, who taught him Greek and Latin.

He was a quick learner - it is said that he was able to read Homer and Virgil before he was nine years old, when he was sent to join his brother at the Académie de Grenoble. It is understood that as a boy he had also taught himself, or tried to learn, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean and Chinese. In Grenoble, under the influence of Fourier, a former secretary of the Mission in Egypt, and of his elder brother, Jean-François deepened his study of the ancient languages of the east and of Egypt in particular. His precocious talent was made clear when, aged 16, he addressed the Grenoble Academy of Arts and Sciences with a paper in which he suggested that Coptic was the ancient language of Egypt.

In 1807 Jean-François moved to Paris, where he studied at the School of Oriental Languages at the Collège de France. Dedicating himself to the study of various oriental languages - including Persian, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Zend, Pahlevi and Arabic - Champollion also began work on a dictionary and grammar of the Coptic language. Still only 19, and exempted from military service thanks to the intervention of Fourier, Champollion returned to Grenoble as an assistant professor of History. In 1814 he published his two volumes, entitled 'L'Éygpte sous les Pharaons'.

Champollion was left without an academic post in 1815, when the Faculty of Letters in Grenoble was closed. But he continued his work, delving further into the study of Coptic. It was in this period that he made his breakthrough. Examining texts brought from Egypt, he began to identify a relationship between hieroglyphic and non-hieroglyphic scripts. He initially summarised this in his famous 'Lettreà M. Dacier' in 1822, followed in 1824 by a longer thesis on the 'hieroglyphic, figurative, ideographic and alphabetic' systems of ancient Egypt. It caused a sensation, as it provided the long-searched-for solution to the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Following this success, Champollion was sent to study the Egyptian antiquities in the museums of Italy, and returned to France in 1926 as the director of the soon-to-be-opened Egyptian Museum at the Louvre. From 1828 to 1830 he conducted his one and only expedition in Egypt, systematically surveying inscriptions on monuments. A professorship in Egyptian history and archaeology was specially created for him in Paris when he returned in 1831. Jean-François died the following year, in the midst of writing his great Egyptian grammar and dictionary - which his brother published after his death. Champollion is celebrated as the founding father of Egyptology, and monuments in his memory were later erected in Figeac, Turin and Florence.

All of Champollion's work to accomplish this was conducted under difficulties; always in poverty, often in poor health, both of which by weakening his constitution can only have contributed to his early death at 41, in 1832. He was fortunate in having a very supportive elder brother, Jacques-Joseph, who outlived him, dying in 1867, aged 89, and who was considerably luckier career-wise than Jean-Francois. Neither seem to have been able to keep their heads down politically, becoming strong Bonapartists just as Napoleon's cause was in decline. Unfortunately Grenoble (intriguing to find this is a worn down form of Gratianopolis) where they were living, was on Napoleon's triumphal route from Elba to Paris in 1815. Not only did it rally to Napoleon but stayed loyal to him after Waterloo; it even had a brief rebellion against the Bourbons, in which both brothers were implicated and were lucky enough only to be condemned to a brief exile to their small native town, Figeac, as a penalty.


Central African Republic, 2002, Rosetta Stone and Jean Champollion

Egipte, 1972, Rosetta Stone and Jean Champollion

Egipte, 1999, Rosetta Stone and Jean Champollion

France, 1972, Jean Champollion

France, 1999, Museum of Champollion

Guinea, 2007, Jean Champollion, Napoleon I

Guinea, 2007, Jean Champollion

Guinea, 2011, Jean Champollion

Monaco, 1990, Jean Champollion

France, 1972.10.14, Figeak. Egypt's Letters

France, 1998.10.03, Sainte-Maxime. Jean Champollion

France, 2003, Museum of Champollion

France, 2003, Museum of Champollion

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