A detail of the basalt Rosetta Stone

The father of Egyptology suffered a tragic death after deciphering the Rosetta Stone


A mystery surrounds the death of a 19 th century Frenchman who unraveled a great mystery—the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Jean-Francois Champollion died young after deciphering the Rosetta Stone , which unlocked the keys to the many enigmatic and beautiful hieroglyphic texts discovered in ruins up and down the length of Egypt and gave modern people a much greater understanding of that great civilization.

Champollion was born in 1790 in France and died there in 1832, after visiting Egypt in 1829. He had felt symptoms of malaise before departing for Egypt, according to a letter to the editor of the journal Clinical Neurophysiology by Dr . Hutan Ashrafian of the Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College-London.

Jean-Francois Champollion is considered amongst the greatest linguists of all time; his decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Rosetta stone has led some to consider him the ‘‘Father of Egyptology.’’ His early death at the age of forty-one has typically been ascribed to fatigue and exhaustion from overwork on a year-long visit to Egypt. This journey is reported as having initiated his progressive demise following the return to his native France, where he died from a reported stroke two years later.’ —H. Ashrafian

Dr. Ashrafian writes that the term “stroke” is used here in a generic sense rather than a formal medical diagnosis. His family has refused to allow an autopsy, but studying reports of Champollion’s condition has led the doctor to draw some conclusions about the death of the great scholar.

Leon Cogniet’s portrati of Jean-Francois Champollion

Leon Cogniet’s portrati of Jean-Francois Champollion ( Wikimedia Commons )

While in Egypt, Champollion did not suffer from lymph disease or fevers. But later in life, Champollion suffered from muscle weakness, limb paralysis and ultimately could not breathe. He didn’t suffer from heart disease or lack of blood flow. “Furthermore, at the moment of decipherment of hieroglyphs (1828), he is noted to have collapsed, though this may be viewed as a vasovagal [fainting] episode as a result of extreme emotional outpouring. In his final weeks he became emotionally labile consistent with progression of pseudobulbar dysfunction, and eventually demonstrated a ‘locked-in’ syndrome before his death.”

The complete Rosetta Stone

The complete Rosetta Stone ( British Museum photo )

Pseudobulbar dysfunction means he was unable to speak. It may be considered ironic that a man who gave a ‘voice’ to the people of ancient Egypt and opened their world to modern scholars like never before was unable to articulate his own thoughts just before he died.

Given that he was not mentally impaired, did not have seizures but first suffered from weakness in his legs, and later was unable to speak, led Dr. Ashrafian to conclude Champollion had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—or total paralysis of his muscles.

A screenshot from National Geographic’s hieroglyph translator showing what the glyphs look like

A screenshot from National Geographic’s hieroglyph translator showing what the glyphs look like

Words of the Gods

The word hieroglyph means “sacred words” or “sacred signs.” Clement of Alexandria was the first to use the word. Ancient Egyptians called their script mdju netjer or “words of the gods.” The first known hieroglyphs date to around 3400 to 3200 BC, the pre-dynastic era. The last known hieroglyphs were carved in stone around 394 AD.

The Rosetta Stone, found by Frenchmen in 1799 in a fort at the town of Rosetta during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, has hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic and ancient Greek translations of the same text. So Champollion, who had taught himself ancient languages, was able to decipher its meaning and unlock the entire script.

For a full translation of the Rosetta Stone, see this page at the British Museum, which acquired the document and other artifacts after Napoleon’s defeat. Here is an excerpt:

‘Whereas King Ptolemy, living forever, the Manifest God whose excellence is fine, son of King Ptolemy [and Queen] Arsinoe, the Father-loving Gods, is wont to do many favours for the temples of Egypt and for all those who are subject to his kingship, he being a god, the son of a god and a goddess, and being like Horus son of Isis and Osiris, who protects his father Osiris, and his heart being beneficent concerning the gods, since he has given much money and much grain to the temples of Egypt, [he having undertaken great expenses] in order to create peace in Egypt and to establish the temples, and having rewarded all the forces that are subject to his rulership; and of the revenues and taxes that were in force in Egypt he had reduced some or(?) had renounced them completely, in order to cause the army and all the other people to be prosperous in his time as [king]’

Ancient Egyptians carved hieroglyphs into clay seals, rock, pottery vessels and bone and ivory. The Rosetta Stone scripts are carved in basalt.

Featured image: A detail of the basalt Rosetta Stone (Photo at All-len-All)

By Mark Miller

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