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Two Hundred Years Ago, the Rosetta Stone Unlocked the Secrets of Ancient Egypt

Still Waters

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Posted (IP: Staff) ·

When Jean-François Champollion, a 31-year-old Frenchman who’d dedicated his life to the study of ancient Egypt, burst into his brother’s Paris office on September 14, 1822, he made an emphatic declaration—“Je tiens mon affaire!” (“I’ve got it!”)—then promptly collapsed. According to popular lore, the philologist, or scholar of historical languages, only recovered from his fainting spell five days later.

The dramatic nature of Champollion’s announcement was emblematic of his idiosyncratic character. (The scholar, says writer Edward Dolnick, was “an over-the-top, histrionic, melodramatic figure, always bursting with ecstasy or despondent in misery.”) But his reaction was also far from hyperbolic, considering the significance of the discovery in question. As Champollion revealed to a room of his peers nearly two weeks later, he’d solved one of history’s greatest mysteries: how to read Egyptian hieroglyphs and, by extension, unlock the secrets of the ancient civilization.


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