A taut story of 19th-century scholarly research by husband-and-wife archaeologists, with lashes of intrigue and scandal thrown in for good measure.
If, as some historians have suggested, Napoleon conquered Egypt in order to liken himself to Caesar and thus circle the wagons of history, his erstwhile subject Jean François Champollion took it on for quite another purpose: he wanted to “investigate the creation of the world and the beginning of time itself.” Grand though his ambition was, Champollion was no Indiana Jones. A sickly and frail child, he showed an unusual ability to learn languages from the ground up, mastering Greek and Latin by the time he was 12 and learning many other ancient and modern tongues (although he never quite grasped German). He was also blessed with an extraordinary visual memory, which allowed him to pick up patterns in arcane alphabets that other scholars missed. Applying these talents to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, which had not been used for a millennium-and-a-half, he spent the better part of two decades puzzling over textual and epigraphic evidence, sorting out syllables and phonemes and breaking much new ground—an achievement that infuriated his rivals, foremost among them the English scholar Thomas Young and the Swedish archaeologist Johan Akerblad, who sought to be the first to decipher the ancient code. Young accused Champollion, groundlessly, of plagiarism and evidenced a keen hatred for his French counterpart that poisoned the professional literature for years. Champollion’s poor health kept him out of the field, and even his desk work took its toll; toward the end of his life, he complained that “My last picture with 700 hieroglyphic and hieratic signs has killed me.”
The authors know their Egyptology, and in them Champollion has found worthy champions. Their highly readable account will be of wide interest to students of ancient history and cryptology—and to anyone who enjoys a bookish detective story.