Jean François Champollion, the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphics, was born in Figeac in 1790.
Jacques Champollion, a travelling salesman from the Dauphiné region, arrived in Figeac around 1770. He opened a bookshop and married a local girl. It is not difficult to imagine the young Jean François sitting in his father’s shop reading the “Courrier d’Egypte”, at a time when the French Revolution had closed down the schools run by the churches.
At the age of 10 Jean François left Figeac for Grenoble with his elder brother Jacques Joseph who was to oversee his education. His passion for ancient history led him, with his brother’s approval, to study the ancient languages and their scripts.
He was only 17 years old when he undertook his studies at the Collège de France and the Ecole des Langues Orientales in Paris. He studied the text of the Rosetta stone and went through hundreds of documents, each time confronted with the stumbling block of the nature of the signs used in the three Egyptian scripts.
His perseverance in a matter where hypothesis, doubt and strokes of genius were constant companions was rewarded when he declared on 14th September 1822 “je tiens l’affaire” (I’ve got it!). He had understood that Egyptian hieroglyphics were based on a complex system of “a mixture of figurative, symbolic and phonetic symbols”.
“I’ve got it!”
Although some called him a charlatan, Jean François Champollion was admired by many. Wilhelm von Humboldt “ it is wonderful, one of the most remarkable discoveries made in his time”. The future king Louis–Philippe “ (this) brilliant discovery (…) is an honour not only for the scholar but also for the nation.”