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Main page » Non-Fiction » The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs

The Keys of Egypt: The Obsession to Decipher Egyptian Hieroglyphs


Jean-Francois Champollion's biography is neatly interwoven with Napoleonic history and the functions of Egyptian hieroglyphs in The Keys of Egypt. A gifted bookseller's son born in Revolutionary France, Champollion was to become "gripped by energetic enthusiasm" for Egypt. By the age of 12, he was studying several ancient languages, and, amid a "wave of Egyptomania," he would beat rivals to discover the key to deciphering hieroglyphs. If this was a race, it was a marathon. The breakthrough came after "20 years of obsessive hard work," not through the quick-fix solution often thought to have been provided by the Rosetta stone. The Keys of Egypt details Champollion's life and work, which were hampered by politics, poverty, and an almost hypochondriacal series of health problems. Its sources include letters and journals, the authors having undertaken researches in major libraries and museums. Chapters on Champollion's travels in Italy and Egypt include a good smattering of excerpts from his writings. Although no bibliography is given, there is a helpful passage on various levels of further reading. Highly instructive and fast-paced, The Keys of Egypt is perhaps less dramatic than it might be in portraying troubled times and groundbreaking discovery. It is, however, a clearly expressed and wide-ranging book explaining the complexity of hieroglyphic interpretation and revealing the man whose achievements "meant the discovery of a whole new civilization." - Karen Tiley

Set against a background of academic intrigue and international rivalry, with colorful personalities vying to be the first to unveil the meaning behind ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the story of the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone has all the ingredients of a dramatic scientific quest. Disappointingly, the Adkinses, though experienced writers and consultants on archaeology, don't make the grade in this bland, lackluster account. Instead of approaching the subject matter with new questions and fresh analysis, the authors' predictable narrative adds little to our knowledge of either the French polyglot Jean-Fran ois Champollion (1790-1832), the genius who deciphered the stone, or of the decipherment process itself. The authors focus primarily on the life and education of Champollion, his extraordinary linguistic skills and his competition with Englishman Thomas Young, who was also seeking to decipher hieroglyphs. They maintain, rather inaccurately, that Champollion has not received due recognition, which they feel has instead gone to Young. Their description of the French occupation of Egypt at the time that the Rosetta Stone was discovered is superficial and fails to take into account some of the more recent scholarship on the subject. The authors, in fact, never indicate what sources they utilized for this study. There is a solid core of readers interested in ancient Egypt and hieroglyphs who will grab this book, but they will be disappointed. More satisfied will be the novices turned on to ancient Egypt by the promotion around Abrams's Valley of the Golden Mummies. Savvy booksellers will piggyback the Adkinses' book onto that one. Illus. not seen by PW. (Oct. 15)

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Tags: Egypt, Egyptian, Champollion, hieroglyphs, obsessive, Hieroglyphs