I’ve been puzzled several times by the mysterious ignorance of Champollion in the early nineteenth century — not among ordinary Americans of that day, but among modern scholars writing about the Book of Abraham. While a review of newspapers and books in the 1830s to 1840s (and before) shows many references to the breakthroughs associated with the Rosetta Stone and Champollion’s work to decipher it, and while the rise of Egyptomania in the 19th century was intimately associated with the fascination with Egyptian stimulated by news on the progress in deciphering Egyptian, some modern scholars discussing the Book of Abraham seem to feel that news about Champollion was only available to elite scholars, not ordinary people like, say settlers in Ohio in 1835. Their theories on the origin of the Book of Abraham as a product of Joseph’s environment rely on Egyptomania without knowledge a key factor behind Egyptomania, the phonetic nature of Egyptian and the potential for its decipherment.
The theory that Joseph was translating as many as 200 words from a single simple character of mystic Egyptian is essential for typical critical narratives about the origins of the Book of Abraham, while some of us argue that Joseph’s prior comments regarding the gold plates and the Book of Mormon’s information on the nature of its written language systems (called reformed Egyptian by the time Mormon was writing) already would seem to rule our the ignorant belief that one character could give vast mountains of text when unlocked with priestly oracular gifts.
Examples of the puzzling view of “American Egyptomania without Champollion” from scholars within the Church are found in two volumes of the Joseph Smith papers, which tell us that knowledge of Champollion was not widely available in the US in the 1830s and 1840s, and in a recent lecture from Terryl Givens that tells us Joseph subscribed to the outdated 17th-century views of Kircher, wherein one character could convey a great deal of information. I discuss these in my recent paper at The Interpreter on the Joseph Smith Papers’ volume on the Book of Abraham, a book that I consider to be a wonderful resource with some serious flaws. One example from the opening pages of the reviewed volume follows:
Even after Champollion’s groundbreaking discoveries, though, some
continued to assert competing theories about Egyptian hieroglyphs,
whether they rejected Champollion’s findings or were ignorant of them.
Indeed, in America in the 1830s and 1840s, Champollion’s findings were
available to only a small group of scholars who either read them in
French or gleaned them from a limited number of English translations or
summaries. (The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of
Abraham and Related Manuscripts, ed. Robin Scott Jensen and Brian
M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018), Volume 4, p. xviii.)
If one looks at publications from that era, it’s easy to see that knowledge about the story of Champollion and the Rosetta Stone was common across the US, not just reserved for elite scholars. So where did the idea of Egyptomania without knowledge of Champollion come from?
The source may be the one professor quoted most frequently in the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham. Not Hugh Nibley, the most prolific and influential scholar to have tackled the many issues related to the documents and information in the Book of Abraham volume if the Joseph Smith Papers — he is cited a total of zero times as if he and his ideas did not exist. Rather, the most visible and influential scholar based on citations in the Joseph Smith Papers volume on the Book of Abraham would be Dr. Robert K. Ritner, the hostile critic of Joseph Smith. His book, cited over 50 times in the JSP volume, is The Joseph Smith Egyptian Papyri: A Complete Edition, P. JS 1–4 and the Hypocephalus of Sheshonq (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2013); Kindle edition. (The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Vol. 4, cites the 2011 version printed by the Smith-Pettit Foundation in Salt Lake City.)
In his introduction, Ritner writes:
Copying the texts with the assistance of select “scribes,” Smith quickly recognized several biblically-themed compositions within the papyri, eventually including the Book of Abraham (P. Joseph Smith 1), the record of Joseph of Egypt (P. Joseph Smith 2 and 3) and a tale of an Egyptian princess Katumin or Kah tou mun (P. Joseph Smith 4). Only the first of these translations was ever published, beginning in serialized excerpts during 1842, well before Jean François Champollion’s correct decipherment of Egyptian was generally known in America.3
His footnote #3 gives the evidence he cites to support the proposition that in 1842, new of Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian was not generally known in America. Let’s take a look:
3…. Champollion’s discovery was reported in the United States in the New York Herald, December 28, 1842. For its potential restraint on Smith’s future translations, see Brodie 1945, pp. 291–92 (regarding the falsified “Kinderhook plates” supposedly found in an Indian mound). Smith noted in his journal that he “translated a portion” of the plates, which he thought recounted the history of a person buried in the mound, “a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” The translations of this hoax were not published.
He doesn’t exactly say that this was the actual first announcement to the general public, but obviously he is implying that this 1842 publication somehow shows that Champollion’s breakthrough was not generally known at that time.
I was quite surprised to read Ritner’s claim and his supporting footnote, for it took only a few minutes of searching at Newspaper.com to find many interesting stores from the 1830s or earlier treating the Champollion story as if that were already common knowledge (an issue I explore much more fully in my article at The Interpreter). Something is wrong here. So let’s take a look at the reference cited by Ritner. It must say something that convinced the grand scholar that Champollion was unknown before that story came out. Perhaps it mistakenly claims to be the first publication of the news out of some kind of editorial slip.
Fortunately, readers can see the source Ritner cites at the Chronicling America website:
Here is the text:
EGYPTIAN ANTIQUITIES. — Mr. Glidden has commenced his course of lectures at Boston on the Antiquities of Egypt, and his introductory has received a pretty severe castigation from the hands of Mr. Tasistro, as our readers will perceive from the annexed article which we cut from the pages of the Boston Notion, of which Mr. T. is editor. Mr. Tasistro, we may remark, has travelled over the same ground, which Mr. Glidden attempts to describe, and his criticisms are therefore properly entitle to respect attention:–
MR. GLIDDEN’S INTRODUCTORY LECTURE ON EGYPT–
The rising importance of the investigation of the hieroglyphical literature and inscriptions of the ancient Egyptians has been rapidly extending the interest in this subject, from being confined to the learned and curious throughout every rank of intellectual society. It has spread all over the continent of Europe, and now not only occupies a marked share of the attention of the studious inquirer and antiquary, but engages the active enterprise of scientific explanations and of many intelligent individuals of different nations.
Having ourselves traversed a considerable portion….
Curious indeed! For an article that supposedly shows that Americans in late 1842 still hadn’t heard of Champollion, note that Champollion is introduced only with his last name — as if no introduction were needed. And no introduction is given. This is not an announcement of Champollion’s accomplishment or story, but news about criticism on a lecture given by a third party on the antiquities of Egypt. The background story of the Rosetta Stone and Champollion are assumed to be well known to the readers.
In other words, Ritner has completely misread this reference. It undermines his assertion. Other scholars appear to have accepted his pronouncement and have built upon it, adding such touches as the assertion that only a few French-reading elites might have been aware of Champollion’s story — just as only a few elite Ph.D.s in astrophysics today are aware that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
In Ritner’s defense, I can see how the emphasis on Europe in the article might lead a casual reader to conclude that the explosion of knowledge of and interest in Champollion’s work was a European thing only. But that misreading is unjustified. The critic being cited, Mr. Tasistro, may have been Louis Fitzgeral Tasistro, an Irishman who came to the US four or five years before this article was written. His great familiarity with widespread European interest in Champollion must not be interpreted as evidence against such interest or awareness in the States. Americans may not have been as intensely interested or as well informed as Europeans in general, but flame of American Egyptomania surely was not burning bright without the fuel of Champollion. The reference cited by Ritner simply does not support his claim and implicitly contradicts it.
Many myths have similar pedigrees. One elite scholar makes an unsupported assertion, and others assume that the elite one must be right and accept the pronouncement or embellish it a bit, and off we go. It’s nice today that we often have easy access to many sources so that we can check and see for ourselves.
Update, Aug. 25, 2019: For further evidence regarding knowledge of Champollion among the early members of the Church, see my latest post: “Is There Direct Evidence that the Early Saints Had Heard of Champollion?,” Aug. 25, 2019.