Paris: Firmin Didot Fréres, 1836 [-1841].
First edition, rare in the original printed wrappers, of Champollion’s monumental work on Egyptian grammar, which laid the foundations for all subsequent discoveries in Egyptology. It contains the first printed list of hierolglyphs (260 in all). “The Grammar set out Champollion’s theory and classification of hieroglyphic signs, with their values and their equivalents in hieratic; in addition, it showed how the different parts of speech, including verb conjugations and noun declensions, were represented in hieroglyphic signs, with illustrative phrases taken from the monuments” (Robinson, The Revolutionary Life of Jean-Francois Champollion, 2012). Champollion himself had high expectations for his work. He is famously quoted for telling his brother Jacques-Joseph Champollion-Figeac: “To be honest, I hope that this will be my calling-card to posterity.” We have been unable to locate any copy in original printed wrappers sold at auction.
In 1799 Napoleon’s army uncovered an ancient stele in the Nile delta, now commonly known as the Rosetta Stone. Its inscription, recorded in three distinct scripts - ancient Greek, Coptic, and hieroglyphic - would provide scholars with the first clues to unlocking the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs, a language lost for nearly two millennia. Born in Figeac, France, Champollion (1790-1832) became interested in hieroglyphs, and first learned about the Rosetta stone, on a childhood visit to Joseph Fourier, who was Napoleon’s scientific advisor on his 1798 Egyptian expedition. As a boy he learnt many languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean and Chinese, and later added Coptic, Ethiopic, Sanskrit, Persian and others. To crack the code of the hieroglyphic script, Champollion started with Egyptian obelisks in Rome and papyri in European collections. In 1822 he gave a lecture, published as the Lettre à M. Dacier relative à l'alphabet des hiéroglyphes phonétiques, in which he identified hieroglyphic letters in royal names. He made his sole visit to Egypt in 1828-29, conducting the first systematic survey of the country’s monuments, history and archaeology, and studying the tombs in the Valley of the Kings (a name he first coined). On his return, the first chair in Egyptian history and archaeology was created for him at the Collège de France. Champollion died on 4 March 1832 as a result of a stroke, while preparing the results of his expedition for publication. “After the first volume of Monuments de l'Égypte et de la Nubie came the publication in 1836 of Champollion’s almost completed deathbed project, his Egyptian grammar … it was published exactly as it stood in the manuscript, and dedicated by Champollion-Figeac to [Champollion’s former teacher, Silvestre] de Sacy” (Robinson).
Hieroglyphic writing had long fascinated scholars such as Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth century and Georg Zoega in the eighteenth. As early as 1802, the Frenchman Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) and the Swede Johan David Akerblad (1763-1813) tried to penetrate the secrets of the Rosetta stone. Between 1814 and 1818, the artifact was studied by the celebrated English scientist Thomas Young, who had many of the same language skills as Champollion - but it would be Champollion who would eventually break the code. Champollion’s quest really began in 1808, when he determined that fifteen signs of the demotic script corresponded with alphabetic letters in the Coptic language. He therefore concluded that this modern language held at least the last vestiges of that spoken by the ancient Egyptians. By 1818, after having examined an obelisk from Philae, he came to understand that some of the glyphs had a phonetic value and were thus part of an alphabet, even though other symbols were strictly symbolic ideograms. But his real breakthrough came with the Rosetta Stone. Others had examined this stele before him, but it was Champollion who recognized Ptolemy’s name in Greek and demotic, and was thereby able to identify the hieroglyphic rendering. Champollion did not publish any of his decipherment work, concealing it from his competitors, until in 1822 he read his famous Letter to M. Dacier, the permanent secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres. In this document he wrote: “I am convinced that the same hieroglyphic-phonetic signs used to represent the sound of Greek and Roman proper names were used in hieroglyphic texts carved long before the Greeks came to Egypt, and that these already reproduced sounds or articulation in the same way as the cartouches carved under the Greeks and Romans. The discovery of this precious and decisive fact is due to my work on pure hieroglyphic script. It would be impossible to prove it in the present letter without going into lengthy detail.” Some of the conclusions presented in this Letter later had to be corrected, the definitive conclusions being presented in the Grammaire égyptienne and in the Dictionnaire Egyptien en écriture hiéroglyphique (1841).
As explained in the Preface to the present work, publishing the original meticulous manuscript was a monumental effort, and required that all the different alphabetic languages (French, Latin, Greek, Coptic, etc.) were set in the usual way in type, blank spaces being left for the hieroglyphs. The typesetting was then transferred to lithographic plates where the hieroglyphs were engraved and then each page, including type and hieroglyphs, reprinted lithographically. This was the first time such a technique was used in France.
The work consists of three parts, the first two (pp. 1-245 & 246-460) being issued together in 1836. The third part (pp. 461-555) was issued five years after the first two (colophon dated 1841). Copies in the original printed wrappers are recorded in two states, either all three parts bound together (as here), or in two volumes with the third part bound separately. Curiously the front wrapper refers only to the ‘Première Partie’, although the rear wrapper states that the work appeared in three parts.
Brunet I, 1780; Gay, Bibliographie des ouvrages relatifs à l’Afrique et à l’Arabe, 1729.
Folio, pp. [x], viii, xxiii, 555, . Lithographed hieroglyphs throughout, some printed in red. Original printed wrappers (some wear and small tears, rear wrapper with a horizontal tear well repaired), entirely uncut.