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Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion.

Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion. By Andrew Robinson. (London, England: Thames & Hudson, 2012. Pp. 272. $29.95.)

These are good times for biographies of key figures in the history of Egyptology. Just in the past year or so, important, document-based biographies of the seventeenth-century polymath and "proto-Egyptologist" Athanasius Kircher [1601/2-1680] and the influential American scholar James Henry Breasted [1865-1935] have appeared from major academic presses. Falling approximately in the middle of these fine recent studies is Andrew Robinson's magnificent new biography of Jean-Francois Champollion [1790-1832]. Robinson has produced the first full-length (and fully realized) biography of this key figure in the emergence of modern Egyptology, celebrated as the man who "cracked the hieroglyphic code" after centuries of frustrated or misguided efforts.

Of course, it was never really that simple. As Robinson makes clear in his prologue on "Egyptomania" and first chapter on the "hieroglyphic delirium" of the early modern age, the "rediscovery" of ancient Egypt and its hieroglyphs was the product of generations of effort, exemplified by the monumental efforts of Athanasius Kircher, who, though ultimately misled by his insistence on the entirely symbolic function of the hieroglyphs in their most "advanced" usage by the Egyptian priests, contributed significantly to the recovery of Coptic and its identification (in the West) as a later form of the ancient Egyptian language.

The next major steps were the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone the following year. Recognizing the potential of the stone's trilingual inscriptions in Greek, Egyptian Demotic (cursive), and hieroglyphic, European scholars like the French baron Silvestre de Sacy [17581838]--a mentor and sometime nemesis of his pupil, Champollion--and the British scientist and all-around polymath Thomas Young [1773-1829] began to search for equivalents of the names of the Macedonian rulers of Egypt in the hieroglyphic section.

It was Young, in particular, who made considerable progress in deciphering the Demotic text, identified the hieroglyphic cartouches as containing the names of the Ptolemaic rulers, and tentatively identified a selection of alphabetic signs and words in the hieroglyphic inscription. Young's findings, published in 1819 in the Encyclopedia Britannica, were to be of material assistance to Champollion's own "breakthrough" in 1822, although Young's contribution was notoriously ignored in his Lettre a M. Dacier relative a I'alphabet des hieroglypbes phonetiques, published the same year.

The often-bitter rivalry between the unacknowledged Young and the frequently mercurial, difficult, and self-defeating Champollion is a major theme in Robinson's book. So are the brilliant scholar's turbulent relations with family, teachers, colleagues, and the ever-changing political authorities of his day. Indeed, the book's subtitle, "A Revolutionary Life," is both telling and well chosen. Born in the southwestern town of Figeac a little over a year into the decades-long turmoil of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic and Restoration aftermaths, Champollion's early years were deeply affected by the conflicts of the age. This was especially true after his move at age ten to Grenoble, which, as Robinson makes clear, became Champollion's true personal and intellectual home. A staunch republican and Bonapartist, the young Jean-Frangois had a way of ending up on the wrong side of the authorities. More often than not, he ended up being saved by the machinations of his older brother, Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac, who emerges as a sympathetic and patient figure here.

Readers will find much to admire in Robinson's book. What struck this reader in particular was the author's ability to harmonize and integrate the study's two principal themes--the fascinating and turbulent life of Champollion the man, on the one hand, and the scope and limits of his scholarly accomplishments, on the other. The chapters devoted to Champollion's youth and early career and his long-delayed, climactic journey near the end of his short life to Egypt itself are written with the narrative power and empathy of a fine novel. And even the technical discussion of the various stages and missteps in the decipherment of the hieroglyphs--an incredibly dense and complicated topic for the uninitiated--is presented with the utmost clarity.

In the end, what lingers in the mind is Robinson's sharp comparison of the very different scholarly characters of the rivals, Champollion and Young. The former was possessed of an obsessive, single-minded devotion to the problem of the hieroglyphs (and fell in love with Egyptian art and culture); the latter was a sociable polymath and practicing physician who pursued his Egyptian studies among a variety of other interests in his "off-hours." This is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the period, in the history of Egyptology and ancient studies, or anyone looking for a good and memorable read.

Brian A. Curran

Pennsylvania State University
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Author:Curran, Brian A.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2014
Words:781
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