Napoleon Bonaparte’s late-eighteenth-century adventures, depredations, and exploits unintentionally inaugurated an age of exploration and inquiry into Egyptian antiquities. Subsequently, sometime between 1817 and 1821, an Italian explorer, Antonio Lebolo, uncovered a tomb near Thebes, Egypt, containing a large cache of mummies and papyri. Later, eleven of the mummies were sent to New York City
, Ohio, purchased four Lebolo mummies and some papyri from Michael Chandler, an antiquities dealer visiting the area. (Hauglid, Textual History of the Book of Abraham, 1.) JS’s close associate, William W. Phelps
, provided the following account of these events to his wife: “On the last of June four Egyptian mummies were brought here. With them were two papyrus rolls, besides some other ancient Egyptian writings. . . . They were presented to President Smith. He soon knew what they were and said that the rolls of papyrus contained a sacred record kept by Joseph in Pharaoh’s court in Egypt and the teachings of Father Abraham.” Phelps added, “These records of old times when we translate and print them in a book will make a good witness for the Book of Mormon.” (William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Phelps, Liberty, MO, 20 July 1835, in Journal History of the Church, 20 July 1835, CHL.)
Later that year, in response to public excitement prompted by “erroneous statements” circulating in the press concerning the Egyptian artifacts, correspondence between Oliver Cowdery
was printed in the December 1835 issue of the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate. Published under the heading “Egyptian Mummies–Ancient Records,” Cowdery’s letter to Frye endeavored to set the record straight concerning “a quantity of ancient records.” After reviewing the circumstances surrounding acquisition of the artifacts and describing some papyri in detail, Cowdery observed in closing, “When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probable idea how large volumes they will make. . . . Be they little or much, it must be an inestimable acquisition to our present scriptures.” (“Egyptian Mummies–Ancient Records,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Dec. 1835, 2:223−227.)
By the time the Messenger and Advocate account was published, JS, Cowdery
had invested portions of the previous six months working with the Egyptian material. JS’s journal for the period from October to December 1835 contains nine entries recording activity directly associated with the Egyptian documents. In addition, a JS history entry for July 1835, probably composed by William W. Phelps in 1843, notes that JS was “engaged in translating an alphabet to the Book of Abraham, and arranging a grammar of the Egyptian language as practiced by the ancients.” (JS, History, 1838–1856, vol. B-1, p. 597.)
Several documents related to the Egyptian manuscripts were produced during summer and fall 1835, possibly extending into the winter months, by JS and his associates. The text featured here, designated “Egyptian Alphabet,” is the only manuscript in a considerably larger collection of Egyptian-related materials that contains JS’s handwriting. It also includes the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery
. This five-page document contains various Egyptian characters apparently followed by their pronunciation and an explanation of their meaning. Groups of characters and their treatment are broken into five sections of varying length with headings.
This document and some of the other related materials apparently represent an effort by JS and his colleagues to understand the papyri obtained from Michael Chandler in July 1835. About two-thirds of the text is in JS’s hand with the remainder contributed by Oliver Cowdery
was the most prominent contributor to the other Egyptian manuscripts from this period.
Note: When an Egyptian hieratic character appears on the manuscript, it is represented by a stylized “H” in the transcript. The transcript of “Egyptian Alphabet” presented here is used with permission of Brian M. Hauglid, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. Hauglid is preparing a collection of JS Egyptian materials, including this document, for print publication. All of these materials will eventually be made available on the Joseph Smith Papers website.
Note: When an Egyptian hieratic character appears on the manuscript, it is represented by a stylized “H” in the transcript. The transcript of “Egyptian Alphabet” presented here is used with permission of Brian M. Hauglid, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. Hauglid is preparing a collection of JS Egyptian materials, including this document, for print publication.
Egyptian Alphabet, JS and Oliver Cowdery Scribe, circa July–circa December 1835