Reviewed by William H. Peck, University of Michigan-Dearborn
[The Table of Contents is listed below.]
This book has two principal themes. One is a biography of Jean-François Champollion; the other details the steps to the modern decipherment of ancient Egyptian. Champollion’s life as an ardent student of ancient Egypt encouraged by his older brother and returning members of Bonaparte’s expedition was eventually rewarded with an assistant professorship of history at the university in Grenoble in 1809. His publication of L’Égypte sous le Pharaons in 1814 was produced long before he could successfully read the language. His summery of his dramatic breakthrough in the decipherment came in 1822 in his Lettre à M. Dacier which was followed by a more detailed exposition two years later. Champollion was able to put his knowledge to practical use in the joint Franco- Tuscan expedition of 1828-30 where scholars were able to identify the royal names on monuments with some security. Champollion’s short life of only 41 years was a continuous adventure both intellectual and political befitting the complexity of his eventual accomplishments. A linguistic prodigy, he had begun a study of Coptic in his teens, a language that would prove crucial to his work on ancient Egyptian.
In chapter one Robinson briefly surveys the history of attempts to decipher Egyptian. The most general misconception about the language was that each sign in hieroglyphic script represented a thought or an idea. That it was partly alphabetical, partly ideographic, and partly representative of signs of classification had not to that time occurred to any western investigator immersed in languages that were essentially alphabetical. It was the slow realization by several people during the first quarter of the nineteenth century of the varied uses of the signs that the author has explained with care and detailed examination. The first assumption, that the cartouches, elongated ovals, might contain the names of royalty spelled phonetically, proved to be correct but it was still a far reach to distinguish the varied ways the signs were employed and combined. Robinson has provided an explanation of the tentative steps taken by of Champollion, as well as the others involved, that explains that deciphering the language was not accomplished in a single moment of inspiration but over a period of years by trial and error.