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Hieroglyphics opened window

Ancient history depends on drawings

By Drew Gallagher

For The Free Lance–Star

THE IMPORTANCE of the Rosetta Stone cannot be overstated in the annals of linguistics, Egyptology or, ultimately, in the world’s history.

It is not inconceivable to theorize that without the Rosetta Stone and its decipherment the whole of hieroglyphics would have been lost to history and much of what we’ve been able to glean about the Egyptian civilization from our understanding of hieroglyphics would have been lost as well. One of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world would have been confined to myth rather than history.

Many factors contributed to the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, which was discovered in 1799 and finally “cracked” over 20 years later. But as Andrew Robinson establishes in “Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean–François Champollion,” the efforts of Champollion were paramount in solving one of history’s greatest puzzles.

Champollion, considered the father of Egyptology, is rightfully revered in his native France and certainly deserving of more recognition on this side of the Atlantic. “Cracking the Egyptian Code” serves as an excellent introduction into Champollion’s life and also as an in-depth recounting of his efforts in deciphering the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone.

Champollion’s system of decipherment almost died with him when he passed away at the tragically young age of 41. He was regarded as one of the world’s foremost Egyptian scholars (and arguably the foremost), but he had only fully developed his system a short time prior to his death and had not had the health nor the time to convey his system to other pupils. If not for the posthumous efforts of his indefatigable brother and other scholars, his efforts may have been lost. Fortunately for the world, Champollion’s system of decipherment was not relegated to the intellectual scrap heap and his system is still in use today.

The genius of Champollion is beyond argument, but in “Cracking the Egyptian Code” one gets to grasp how incredibly difficult the decipherment of hieroglyphics was. Though the world has a much better understanding of hieroglyphics and their assorted meanings because of Champollion, the truth remains that we still do not fully understand the breadth and varied meanings of hieroglyphics. But because of the labors of Jean–François Champollion, the decipherment of hieroglyphics is possible, if not always 100 percent accurate, and the world of ancient Egypt remains open to us.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.


By Andrew Robinson

(Oxford, $29.95, 272 pp.)


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