Listen to part of lecture in the history class.
The professor has been discussing Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Egyptian hieroglyphs are the ancient Egyptian writings, found in ancient Egypt on walls, monuments, and on the inside and outside of the temples.
Hieroglyphic writing ended abruptly about 1600 years ago, and it mystified the most brilliant minds in the study of the Egyptian artifacts and archeology for many many centuries.
Finally, the possibility of deciphering hieroglyphs came about with the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta stone.
The Rosetta stone is arguably the most famous archeological artifact ever discovered.
It contains the same exact text written in three different alphabets: Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic.
But we didn't even know at first, that the three texts on the Rosetta stone contain the same information.
And two of the three alphabets are ancient Egyptian scripts that stop being used, the hieroglyphic and the demotic.
The demotic script found on the Rosetta stone, um... well, demotic was not as elaborate as the hieroglyphic writing.
It was used for more mundane matters or like administrative documents.
These ancient Egyptian scripts were replaced by Coptic script, but eventually the Arabic language replaced the Coptic, and this cut off the linguistic link between ancient and modern Egypt.
Now the Rosetta stone was remarkable, because as I said,on it,was the same text in three different alphabets: Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic.
The stone was essentially the dictionary that the scholars needed to interpret the meaning of hieroglyphs, and it took a uniquely equipped researcher to finally decipher and understand what was written on the stone.
Thomas Yang, an English scholar, was the first to seriously attempt to decipher the symbols on the Rosetta stone.
He suspected rightly, that the hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols, that they represented sounds rather than pictures.
Until then, all scholars assumed that the hieroglyphs were pictographs, that they symbolize objects or concepts.
Thomas Yang focused his attention on one set of hieroglyphs that he thought would probably spell out a single word, the name of a king or queen.
He guessed that the symbols represented the name of the earlier Egyptian ruler Ptolemy, since Ptolemy was also written in Greek on the stone and was indeed a Greek name.
And Yang, did actually prove that these hieroglyphs represented sounds rather than whole words.
Strangely though, he gave in to the dominant thesis of the day that hieroglyphs were pictographs.
He actually dismissed his own finding, as an anomaly, because the Ptolemy dynasty was Greek, not Egyptian.
In other words, he figured that it was an exception to the rule.
It was phonetic because it was Greek not Egyptian.
How else could an Egyptian depict a Greek name other than spell it out?
And that brings us to the hero of our story, Jean-Francois Champollion.
Champollion built on Yang's work, showing that different hieroglyphs spell the name of the kings or queens like Alexander or Cleopatra.
But his critics noted that this was still not traditional Egyptian names.
He hadn't done any more than Yang had been able to do, so he couldn't disprove the dominant theory.
Then, in 1822, Champollion was shown a set of hieroglyphs that contain traditional Egyptian names.
The first two of the symbols were unknown, but Champollion knew that the repeated hieroglyphs to the far right symbolized an "S" sound.
He then drew on his linguistic knowledge to arrive at the solution to the problem.
You see, unlike the any of other scholars who have tried to crack the code, Champollion happened to be fluent in Coptic.
He wondered and this was the real breakthrough, if the Coptic was the language that symbolized by the hieroglyphs on Rosetta stone, and if so, then perhaps that first this shape symbol might represent the sun.
And the Coptic word for sun is "ra".
See where this is headed, so if the symbol were Coptic, the first symbol would be "ra".
And then, an unknown symbol followed by a double "S" sound, was this, Champollion wondered, the name "Ramses".
He was eventually able to confirm that it was.
So, he had figured it out. Hieroglyphs were mainly phonetic, they represented sounds not pictures, and the underlying language was Coptic.
A lot of work remained, but champollion had cracked the code.