The man who mastered the Rosetta Stone

The man who mastered the Rosetta Stone

The painting “Bonaparte devant le Sphinx” by Jean-Léon Gérôme depicts Napolean Bonaparte before the Sphinx in Egypt. His campaigns in Egypt and the Middle East gave rise to an enthusiastic cultural obsession with the ancient world throughout early 19th century Europe. The Rosetta Stone was discovered in the Nile Delta.

Jean-Francois Champollion by Léon Cogniet

What child has not had their imagination captured while wandering around a museum of mummies and sarcophagi and artifacts engraved with ancient hieroglyphics? Modern archeology in many aspects can be traced to this mysterious, if Orientalized and colonialist, gaze toward the shifting sands of Egypt. One figure who played a key role in the rise of the scientific discipline is French Catholic Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832).

Like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar before him, Napoleon Bonaparte became entranced with a military conquest of the important economic crossroads where the Nile met the Mediterranean. His campaigns in Egypt and the Middle East gave rise to an enthusiastic cultural obsession with the ancient world throughout early 19th century Europe. Scholars of various nations sought to understand the Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphic inscriptions found on a timeworn granite-like stone uncovered in the Nile Delta by French forces, today dated to the Fifth Ptolemaic dynasty in 196 B.C. Anyone who has visited the British Museum will recognize this rudimentary description of the famed Rosetta Stone.

When it was uncovered after almost 20 centuries, there was no one left on earth who could crack its mysterious code. Greek was easily understood, of course, but its relationships to the vernacular Demotic script and even more to the cartouches in the hieroglyphic section remained untranslated. No one knew if the sacred depictions represented letters (as Latin, Greek and English have) or pictographs (as some Chinese writing does).

Building on the work of British polymath Thomas Young, Champollion was able to unlock the stone’s secret, and thus open up the world of comprehending what the ancient Egyptians were recording on their monuments and papyri throughout the country.

He claimed, “It is a complex system, writing figurative, symbolic and phonetic all at once, in the same text, the same phrase, I would say in the same ‘word.’”

Interestingly, the interpretive key that allowed him to break the code was ancient Coptic, a language still used by Egyptian Christians today.

Certain moments of history represent a frontier where intensive paradigm shifts in knowledge occur that force us to re-examine our relationship with our identity-forming self-narratives (in which the community of the church constantly participates for Christians) and the world around us. Champollion undoubtedly lived in one of these moments.

His work started to make the Christian world think differently about the Flood and Exodus accounts along with other moments in salvation history, and was roughly coterminous with Darwin’s theories doing the same to the Genesis accounts. Such cultural plateaus and periods of explosive “jumps” have analogues in evolutionary theory, where they are referred to as “punctuated equilibria.”

We continue to wrestle with the ramifications of these discoveries into our day, and may be on the precipice of another such edge of rapid development in human knowledge with the growth of Artificial Intelligence technologies and ongoing genome studies. This will mandate concomitant ethical reflection to discern the difference between the human capacity to do something, on the one hand, and whether it should do so, on the other.

Champollion’s almost obsessive thirst for knowledge and its resultant scholarly assertions certainly made some Christians uncomfortable, as the literal timeline for the Biblical accounts was called into question.

The church had, however, long been fascinated with Egypt — a truth to which any tour through the Vatican museums can undoubtedly attest. Tradition holds, in fact, that one of the last things Saint Peter saw was not the shores of Galilee, but an obelisk brought from Egypt to the circus of Nero, and which still stands near the Via Della Conciliazione today.

Though it was not engraved with hieroglyphics as many of the other trophies of Roman conquest were, he certainly could not have fathomed the history of the already 1,200-year-old object he was seeing while hanging upside-down 2,000 years ago. But, thanks to the work of the Catholic Champollion, we can today more clearly hear the desert whispers from the land of Joseph, Manasseh and Moses, spiritual ancestors to Peter, and to us.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

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