Cracking Codes:

Champollion’s Decipherment of Hieroglyphs in its Historical Context

Champollion’s cracking the code of ancient Egyptian scripts and languages in 1822 actually had a long and winding intellectual history extending back to ancient Egypt itself. As knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs faded in the early centuries of the common era, Egyptian intellectuals were simultaneously crafting exceedingly complex and esoteric hieroglyphic texts—some using only crocodile or ram glyphs!—which employed extensive word play and puns. These texts could only be deciphered and explained by those with priestly training. Such priests cultivated the perception that they were the guardians of long lost knowledge and mystic wisdom. Travelers to Egypt writing in Latin and Greek often described their encounters with these Egyptian sages and their texts (for example, see the description at the end of Apuleius’s The Metamorphoses), all of which forms the cultural background to the appearance of the work known as Hieroglyphica, a treatise about the meaning of ancient Egyptian symbols attributed to the Egyptian priest Horapollo. The Hieroglyphica would have an immense influence on all subsequent attempts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, including those of Medieval scholars in Egypt writing in Arabic, who were the stewards, ambassadors, and descendants of the cultural heritage of Egypt.

Join instructors from the OI and the Graham School, as we look into the story the history behind Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in 1822. After examining how hieroglyphs fell into disuse in Egypt and early attempts by medieval scholars to read these hieroglyphs, attention turns to the historical situation that allowed Champollion to be successful in his decipherment and the re-discovery of the Rosetta Stone. The goal of the class is to acquaint students not only with attempts to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs and the eventual successful decipherment, but also the Enlightenment and history of science in Europe at this time in general that created the situation in which hieroglyphs could finally be read.


Tasha Vorderstrasse, PhD, OI University and Continuing Education Program Coordinator

FoyScalf, PhD, head of the OI Research Archives and Research Associate

Fred Beuttler, PhD, Graham School instructor and former associate dean for Liberal Arts Programs at the Graham School

Zoe Eisenman, MA, Director of Academics at the Graham School

Mondays, 6-8 pm, July 11, 2022–August 29, 2022, on Zoom

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