The Egypt Code Breakers: a fascinating documentary on the deciphering of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics

Jacques Plaisant, “The Egypt Code Breakers” (2022)

A fascinating tale in itself, told in a mix of animated sequences and live action interviews with archivists and Egyptologists, this documentary celebrates the life and work of 19th-century French philologist Jean-François Champollion (1790 – 1832) who became famous for deciphering Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic script and showing that it was used to record historical information, and not limited to recording sacred and ritual information as many scholars of his time believed. The story begins with Champollion meeting his much older brother Jacques-Joseph Champollion in Paris in 1801; the older Champollion, working in an import-export company, undertook to educate the young boy and taught him to read. Home-schooling and working proved difficult to do so the older Champollion sent the younger to a school where the boy’s talent for learning languages like Latin, Greek and a slew of Semitic languages, notably Hebrew, Ethiopic, Arabic, Syriac and Chaldean, was discovered. From then on, Champollion le jeune expressed an interest in Ancient Egypt and determined to be the first to decipher its hieroglyphic system of writing. He learned to read, write and even speak Coptic and studied the famous Rosetta Stone from a copy made by an abbot, the original stone having been captured by the British from the French in Alexandria in 1801.

Much of the documentary is given over to Champollion’s efforts to decipher the hieroglyphic system in a gradual and progressive way, along which he demonstrated that hieratic script was based on hieroglyphic script, and discovered that hieroglyphic script used a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs. Some of his work was based on the work of a rival researcher, the British polymath Thomas Young, who is mentioned in the documentary rather briefly. The rivalry between the British polymath and the younger French philologist, not to mention the political and cultural rivalry between Britain and France that surely overshadowed the two men, is not mentioned.

After making several breakthroughs that enabled him to read and decipher the hieroglyphic signs, in the 1820s Champollion made two expeditions to Egypt and visited a number of sites such as the temple complex at Abu Simbel to examine, read and decipher the texts on stone monuments and to make drawings and notes. After these expeditions, Champollion was appointed chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the prestigious Collège de France by King Louis Phillippe I in 1831, but ill health and exhaustion from overwork forced him to retire from teaching. Champollion died from a stroke at the age of 41 years in 2832.

Using archived correspondence between the Champollion brothers, the documentary emphasises the support Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac gave to his younger brother. Although many researchers are interviewed for the documentary, few of them are not French and none is from Egypt. An Egyptian researcher’s point of view on Champollion’s legacy might have been interesting to know, since Champollion dressed in Egyptian fashions of the time during his trips to the country. Come to think of it, there is nothing in the documentary about how Champollion interacted with the Egyptian people during his expeditions, what communications he had with the governor Muhammad Ali Pasha, and what he spoke, wrote or thought of Egypt and Egyptians compared with what he knew of the ancient culture.

The animations breathe life and zest into what could have been a dry recounting of Champollion’s life and work, and the whole documentary turns out to be an intriguing introduction into one man’s dedication to deciphering the hieroglyphic system and unlocking the secrets of Ancient Egypt that such deciphering enabled.