When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, his troops were astonished to discover ancient temples, tombs and statues, all covered with hieroglyphs - the last remnants of an unreadable script and a language lost in time. On their return, Egyptomania spread rapidly and the quest to decipher hieroglyphs began in earnest: fame and fortune awaited the scholar who succeeded. Jean-Francois Champollion, the brilliant son of an impoverished bookseller, was obsessed with ancient languages from a very young age, and once he heard of the unreadable ancient Egyptian text he had found the challenge to which he would dedicate his life: the decipherment of hieroglyphs. Desite his poverty, Champollion made gradual progress, although he had to fight against jealous enemies, both professional and political, every step of the way - a dangerous task, when, in post-Revolutionary France, a slip of the tongue could mean ruin, exile or even death. Failure threatened, as he was only one of many attempting to read the hieroglyphs, and his main rival, the English Thomas Young, claimed that decipherment was imminent. But Champollion refused to be distracted, and finally in 1822, he made the decisive breakthrough.
Even then he was forced to defend his reputation against attack from his critics, his success was complete: he was the first person able to read the ancient Egyptian language in well over a 1000 years.
Husband-and-wife Lesley and Roy Adkins are both archaeologists and Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London. They have written many books on archaeological subjects andhave just completed The Little Book of Egyptian Hieroglyphs. They also run a colour picture library specialising in archaeology and history. Lesley and Roy recently moved to Devon, where they are embarking on the restoration of an extensive garden.