Jean-François Champollion (December 23, 1790 – March 4, 1832) was a French scholar, philologist and orientalist, known primarily as the decipherer of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and a founding figure in the field of egyptology.
A child prodigy in philology, he gave his first public paper on the decipherment of Demotic in 1806, and already as a young man held many posts of honor in scientific circles, and spoke Coptic and Arabic fluently. During the early 19th-century French culture experienced a period of ‘Egyptomania’, brought on by Napoleon’s discoveries in Egypt during his campaign there (1797–1801) which also brought to light the trilingual Rosetta Stone.
The Rosetta Stone is a rock stele, found in 1799, inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V. The decree appears in three scripts: the upper text is Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the middle portion is Demotic script, and the lowest is Ancient Greek. Because it presents essentially the same text in all three scripts (with some minor differences among them), the stone provided the key to the modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The stone, carved in black granodiorite, is believed to have originally been displayed within a temple, possibly at nearby Sais. It was probably moved during the early Christian or medieval period, and was eventually used as building material in the construction of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta. It was rediscovered there in July 1799 by a soldier named Pierre-François Bouchard of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. It was the first Ancient Egyptian bilingual text recovered in modern times, and it aroused widespread public interest with its potential to decipher this previously untranslated hieroglyphic language. Lithographic copies and plaster casts began circulating among European museums and scholars. Meanwhile, British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, and the original stone came into British possession under the Capitulation of Alexandria and was transported to London. It has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously since 1802. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.
Study of the decree was already under way when the first full translation of the Greek text appeared in 1803. It was 20 years, however, before the transliteration of the Egyptian scripts was announced by Jean-François Champollion in Paris in 1822; it took longer still before scholars were able to read Ancient Egyptian inscriptions and literature confidently.