For about 15 centuries, people, fascinated, gazed upon Egyptian hieroglyphics without comprehending their meaning.
In 1799, LT Pierre Bouchard found the Rosetta Stone while building Fort Julian on the west bank of the Nile during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign. the proclamation carved on it, praising Ptolemy V in 196 B.C., is of relatively little significance; what is important is that the inscription appears in three texts: Hieroglyphics, Egyptian Demotic Script and Greek.
Jean-Francois Champollion was a brilliant linguist who worked from an 1808 copy of the Rosetta Stone's inscription. He labored on it for 14 years without ever seeing the stone itself. In 1822 Champollion finally decided that "Ptolemy" might be read phonetically -- patiently reconstructing the name, sound by sound from the Greek and Coptic. Twenty-three years passed before the Rosetta Stone finally surrendered its secret in 1822 -- which began with the deciphering of "Ptolemy's" name. CLICK later for more info.
Other inscriptions on artifacts like obelisks and monuments could now be read. These discovery spawned an even greater interest in Egyptian archaeology. Anthropologists and archaeologists were presented with quite a challenging conflict.
In the early 1800s, around the same time Egyptian Archaeology was maturing, the Middle Passage (slave trade) was in full swing. In order for Europeans to justify the economic drive of the slave trade, blacks had to be viewed as non-humans. Animals. Tools for building the dreams of Europeans.
In stark contrast to the picture of blacks being painted by those who favored the slave trade -- anthropologists and archaeologists were discovering more statues and other artifacts which presented a different view. Black people had indeed created the many pyramids and other artifacts. What to do? The Egyptians had left behind a huge "Picture Album". See our Photo Gallery.
If the Sphinx of Giza had been defaced before 1798, is it reasonable to conclude that Denon would have at least mentioned it? Just a thought.
In his written account, Denon stated, "...Though its proportions are colossal, the outline is pure and graceful; the expression of the head is mild, gracious, and tranquil; the character is African, but the mouth, and lips of which are thick, has a softness and delicacy of execution truly admirable; it seems real life and flesh. Art must have been at a high pitch when this monument was executed…”
- Universal Magazine, 1803 (owned by The Freeman Institute Black History Collection)