Ancient History & Civilisation


The history of science shows that often discovery and practical application are widely separated in time. When Botta collected, besides his sculptures, bricks covered with strange cuneiform (wedge-shaped) characters and had them copied and sent to Paris—he himself not having the least idea how to read them—there were scattered throughout Europe and the Near East many scholars who already knew the key to the script.

Though it sounds unbelievable, for years these experts in Oriental tongues to some degree had understood the writing of a people whose actual existence, before Botta adduced evidence for it, had been purely a matter of conjecture. Indeed, at the time Botta’s books were published, cuneiform script had already been known for exactly forty-seven years. All that had blocked the progress of decipherment was a lack of new, different, clearer, and more numerous inscriptions than the scholars had seen up to that time. The essential information required for the decipherment of the cuneiform system of writing had been acquired long before anything was known of Sargon’s palace, or of Nineveh—the site Layard was about to explore—beyond what was related in the Bible. But after Botta’s pioneer contribution, which was soon afterwards extended and enriched by the discoveries of the daring Layard—he would let himself down the wall of a cliff with block and tackle to copy an inscription—Mesopotamian material accumulated in a flood. There was an immense increase in excavational results, and rapid advances in the field of comparative linguistics led to great improvements in the art of decipherment. In the course of a single decade the heterogeneous mass of information about the history of ancient peoples of the Middle East had taken on such definitive shape that by the 1850’s the archæologists were able to incorporate new information in the general scheme about as fast as it developed.

The first man to take a decisive step in the direction of deciphering cuneiform writing, however, was motivated neither by scholarly curiosity, nor by the scientific impulse. He was a German, in 1802 a young man of twenty-seven employed as assistant master in the schools of Göttingen. This schoolmaster deciphered the first ten letters of a cuneiform script simply in order to win a bet.

Knowledge of the existence of cuneiform writing goes back to the seventeenth century, when the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle brought the first inscribed brick back to Europe. In the Philosophical Transactions of 1693 Aston printed two lines of cuneiform writing copied by a certain Flower, agent in Persia of the East India Company. The first really exciting report on Mesopotamia—it dealt with land and people as well as with inscriptions and monuments—was by Karsten Niebuhr. This Hannoverian, who was in the service of Frederick V of Denmark, from 1760 to 1767 traveled through the Near East in the company of other scholars. Within the space of a year all members of the expedition were dead with the exception of Niebuhr. Undismayed, Niebuhr continued to explore on his own, and came back safe and sound. His Reisebeschreibung von Arabien und anderen umliegenden Ländern (Description of Travels in Arabia and Adjacent Lands) was the book that Napoleon kept with him constantly during the Egyptian expedition.

The first copies of cuneiform writing to arrive deviously in Europe were largely taken from a field of ruins seven miles to the northeast of Shiraz. Niebuhr correctly identified this gigantic heap of rubble as the remains of ancient Persepolis. The ruins at Persepolis belonged to a later culture than the one revealed at Botta in the 1840’s, and largely consisted of the remains of the residence of Darius and Xerxes, a huge palace destroyed by Alexander the Great, “during a drinking bout when he was no longer in control of his wits,” as Diodorus says. And Clitarchos, telling about the same banquet, says that it was the Athenian dancer Thais who, in the fury of her dance, snatched a burning brand from the altar and hurled it among the wooden columns of the palace, whereupon Alexander and his companions, all of whom were drunk, followed her example. Droysen, in his history of Hellenism, says that this story is a tale “spun with extraordinary talent, but at the expense of true history.” Medieval princes of Islam were still occupying the palace during their heyday, but when they passed away the buildings fell completely into ruins, and the site became a grazing ground for sheep. Early travelers who visited the ruins took away with them whatever they pleased. There is scarcely a large museum anywhere in the world that does not have fragments of Persepolitan reliefs on exhibit. Flandin and Coste made drawings of the ruins. Andreas and Stolze photographed them in 1882. Like the Colosseum at Rome, the palace of Darius served as a stone quarry for later builders. Throughout the last century each decade saw further deterioration of the ruins. From 1931 to 1934 an expedition commissioned by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and led by Ernst Herzfeld, carried on the first really methodical investigation at Persepolis and, while there, took effective measures to preserve what relics were left.

In this Mesopotamian region cultures are super-imposed as nowhere else in the world. The following is a quite conceivable chain of events and serves to illustrate just what this means. An Arab, let us say, brings some clay tablets covered with cuneiform writingto an archæologist at his headquarters in Baghdad. On one of the clay tablets, which has perhaps been found in the Behistun area, is written a speech by Darius, King of the Persians.

The archæologist, who has his Herodotus handy, checks the dates of Darius and finds that he was at the height of his power at about 500 B.C., at which time he had just built the capital of a mighty kingdom. By examining other tablets the archæologist finds allusions to old dynastic successions, to wars, devastations, and murderous deeds. In the course of his search he may run across a reference to Hammurabi, which will have brought him in touch with another vast kingdom, which reached its peak about 1700 B.C., or he may come upon the name of Sennacherib, which will connote a third great kingdom, this one having flourished between the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. And to round out the cycle the archæologist need only follow his Arab into the street and with him join a circle of listeners squatting spellbound about a professional teller of fairy tales, and listen while he recounts, in monotonous singsong, a story of Harun al-Rashid, the wonderful caliph who was at the height of his power about A.D. 800, at the time when Europe was under the sway of Charlemagne.

Six great and widely dominant cultures have flourished in Mesopotamia in the region between present-day Damascus and Shiraz, each of which left a powerful mark on the antique world. These cultures, all compressed in a narrow space, interlocking, mutually fructifying, yet essentially independent, together covered a span of five thousand years. Five thousand years of human history, at times fraught with horror, at times with exaltation, have unrolled in the land between the two rivers. Compared with the complexities that greeted the archæologist in Mesopotamia, Schliemann’s nine-leveled Troy was a beginner’s problem. For of the nine levels of Troy only one had any true historical importance, the other eight being of minor interest. As for cultural levels of minor importance in Mesopotamia, they are beyond counting. One city of the Akkadian period, which dates back to three thousand years B.C., shows five distinct levels of debris, and at this time Babylon was not even born.

Text of a cuneiform inscription on a cylinder roll. In line 13 the king announces the founding of a temple: “Even at that time I had E-mach, temple of the Goddess of Ninmah in Babil, builded new.” The last four lines are a warning directed at potential vandals: “Who with malice prepense destroys, effaces, or moves from its place this my signed attestation, may he be denounced by Ninmah before Bel, Sarrateia, his name, his seed in the land, may it be destroyed.”

It is obvious that during such vast stretches of time, speech and the written language, like all else, must show drastic changes. And there are even greater differences between the various types of cuneiform writings than there are between the hieroglyphs of different periods in Egypt, or between the hieratic and demotic scripts. The specimens forwarded by Botta to Paris looked quite different from those Niebuhr brought home from Persepolis. As it happened, however, the Persepolitan tablets, some two and a half thousand years old, provided the key to the variant forms of script that emerged from the debris of the Euphrates and Tigris Valley. (The first publications on the decipherment of the cuneiform writing are all concerned exclusively with the Persepolitan form, not the kind used in Assyria or Babylonia.)

The decipherment of the cuneiform script was a true work of genius. It was one of the human mind’s most masterly accomplishments, and ranks with the greatest scientific inventions.

Georg Friedrich Grotefend was born on June 9, 1775, at Münden in Germany. He was trained at the Pædagogium, first in his home town, later at Ilefeld, after which he studied philology at Göttingen. In 1797 he was made an assistant teacher at the municipal school of Göttingen, and in 1803 became pro-rector, and later vice-principal, of the Frankfurt am Main grammar school. In 1817 he founded a learned society for the study of the German language, and in 1821 he became director of the Lyceum at Hannover. In 1849 he was pensioned off, according to law, and on December 15, 1853 he died.

At the age of twenty-seven, however, this man, whose life was otherwise free from the slightest hint of divagation or extravagance, conceived the unlikely notion that he could find the key to the decipherment of the cuneiform characters. The idea came to him while he was drinking with some comrades, who took him up when he offered to bet on his hunch. The only material that he had to work with was some bad copies of the Persepolitan inscriptions. With youthful aplomb he struck directly at the heart of the puzzle and succeeded in cracking a problem that the best scholars of the time had declared insoluble. In 1802 he presented the first results of his investigations to the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen. Amid the spate of his later philological writings, all of which have long since fallen into oblivion, his Beiträge zur Erläuterung der persepolitanischen Keilschrift (Contributions to a Commentary on the Persepolitan Cuneiform Writing) stands out like a tower, untouched by time.

What Grotefend found to work upon was this:

The Persepolitan inscriptions were remarkably diverse in character. On some of the tablets there were three different kinds, written side by side in three different columns. Grotefend, the humanist, was thoroughly acquainted with the history of the ancient Persian ruler of Persepolis, through the Greek writers. It was known that Cyrus had annihilated the Babylonians about the year 540 B.C., sealing the fate of Babylonian civilization and clearing the stage for the first great Persian kingdom. From this fact the inference could be drawn, Grotefend believed, that at least one of the scripts on the tablet represented the language of the conqueror. It was highly probable, too, in Grotefend’s opinion, that the middle column—since it is common practice to put the most important in the middle—was Old Persian writing. Moreover, one group of signs and another single sign reappeared frequently, and to Grotefend this suggested that the group stood for the word king; and the single character—it was a wedge slanting obliquely upward from left to right—was thought to be a word divider. These conclusions were supported by similar findings in other inscriptions.

Cuneiform inscription on the masonry wall of the north citadel of Babylon. In his day Grotefend was unable to decipher it. It contains a proclamation by Nebuchadnezzar, which says, in effect: “The Duru of the palace, Babylon, have I made with stones of the mountains.” A prayer follows this declaration.

This was Grotefend’s beginning, about as slight a grip on the matter as could be imagined. As yet he had no idea even of the direction in which the inscriptions read, whether from left to right, right to left, top to bottom, or bottom to top. He was just young enough, however, not to be lured off the track by ancillary considerations and continued to press on to the roots of the problem. Champollion was not faced with nearly so complicated a problem when he deciphered the hieroglyphs twenty years later, since he had the Rosetta Stone.

Grotefend first laid down the fact that the cuneiform characters actually were a form of writing and not mere decoration. Then he reasoned that, on the evidence of a complete absence of curved lines, the characters were never meant to be “written,” but rather to be impressed into some permanent medium, such as clay. Today we know that this way of recording language, though it strikes us as being exceedingly laborious, actually sufficed to regulate the whole complex of political and economic intercourse in Mesopotamia and ancient Persia up to the time of Alexander the Great. Today a typist uses carbon paper to make copies of a business communication, while the old Persian scribe inscribed the message on soft tablets of clay, keeping one copy and sending the other way. The fresh clay tablets were quickly baked hard in an oven.

Grotefend next showed that the prevailing arrangement of the characters was such that the points of the wedges headed either downwards or to the right. The angles formed by the meeting of two wedges consistently opened toward the right. This apparently simple clue gave him an idea of how the inscriptions should be read. “They must be held,” he writes, “in such fashion that the tips of the vertical wedges point downwards, those of the oblique wedges to the right, and the openings of the angles also to the right. If this is done, it will be found that no cuneiform writing is written in a vertical, but always in a horizontal direction, and that moreover, the marginal figures on the seals and cylinders are no criterion for the direction of the script.” Simultaneously he concluded that the script was read from left to right, which none but a European takes for granted.

All this, however, had little to do with the actual act of decipherment, which means to find the sense of a document. The critical step still lay ahead. It was at this juncture that Grotefend proved his genius. Among many other things, genius implies the ability to reduce the complicated to the simple, and to recognize inclusive structural principles. Grotefend’s inspiration was astoundingly simple.

It may be assumed, he said to himself, that certain mannerisms in the writing found on monuments—the specimens of cuneiform writing he was using were inscriptions taken from monuments—must have remained unchanged throughout long periods of time. The phrase “Rest in peace” carved on the gravestones of his own district had been used by his grandparents and great-grandparents, and undoubtedly would be used by his children and his children’s children. Therefore, was it not reasonable to suppose that certain introductory or salutatory words or phrases of known meaning on New Persian monuments might also be found on the Old Persian? For example, was it not possible that the Persepolitan inscriptions should begin with the familiar phrase:

X, great King, King of Kings, King of A and B, Son of Y, great King, King of Kings,

etc.? In other words, was it not likely that the dynastic formula should be the same in all three columns of the tablet? This proposition was a clever extrapolation of the basic assumption that one of the frequently repeated groups of wedges stood for the wordking.Now, from this proposition the following corollaries might conceivably be drawn: If the formula could be taken literally, the first word must be the king’s name. Thereafter an oblique wedge, dividing it from the next word, must follow. Next two words would come, one of which must mean king. And this critical word, king, could be identified by the frequency of its repetition.

This is only the bare outline of Grotefend’s complicated reasoning, but litle imagination is needed to appreciate what a feeling of exultation young Grotefend, the assistant schoolteacher, must have experienced when he finally discovered in quiet Göttingen, thousands of miles away from the land from which the original cuneiform writing came and three thousand years away in time, that his hypotheses were correct. It is perhaps too much to say that he proved the whole hypothetical interpretation. What he did do was find the genealogical salute repeated many times; also the word that must mean king. Would anyone accept his evidence? And exactly what had he gained by his discovery?

Grotefend reviewed his results and noted that in almost all the inscriptions at his disposal there were only two different versions of the same cuneiform groups at the head of the columns. However carefully he checked, the same words were at the beginning, it appeared, in either one or the other variation. These groups, according to his theory, should contain the names of kings. Now, in some inscriptions he found both variant cuneiform groupings in the same column heading.

Grotefend’s thoughts began to race. Could this uniformity mean that all the inscriptions were identified with only two different kings? And in those cases where the name groupings appeared in close conjunction, was it not highly probable that a father-son relationship was indicated, according to the classic formula?

He noticed that when the names appeared separate, the first in the order was followed by the sign presumably standing for “king,” whereas the second was not qualified in this fashion. From this, in line with his theory, he deduced the following schema:

X (King), son of Z,

Y (King), son of X (King).

Up to this point Grotefend’s results had all been purely theoretical. They had depended entirely on the frequency of certain character groupings and the serial connection of these groupings. Now, when Grotefend, going over this last deduction, suddenly saw an airtight, concrete proof for his notions, his feverish excitement can be imagined. What was there to catch the eye in the formula?

The clue to the solution is plain to see. It is a lacuna, a something-left-out, which is decisive for the next step. More precisely, the lack of a word, King, after the name in the schema which appears as “Z.”

If the formula is correct, it describes a dynastic succession of grandfather, father, and son, in which father and son were kings, but not the grandfather. Grotefend, breathing a sigh of relief, was now in a position to say: If I am able to find a royal succession among the Persian dynasties that fits this picture, I have proved my theory and deciphered the first words of the cuneiform writing.

“Fully convinced that I would have to seek for two kings from Achæmenidian dynasty … I began to check through the royal successions to find out which names most nearly fitted the inscriptional characters. They could not be Cyrus and Cambyses, because the two names in the inscriptions did not have the same initial letter, nor could they be Cyrus and Artaxerxes, because the first of these names, relative to the characters, was too short, the second too long. There were no names left to choose from but Darius and Xerxes, and they fitted so easily that I had no doubt about making the right choice. This correspondence was clinched by the fact that in the son’s inscription the father’s name had the sign of royalty beside it, whereas this character was lacking in the father’s inscription. This observation was confirmed by all the Persepolitan inscriptions.”

Grotefend read the first cuneiform text in this manner.

That was the proof. There was no denying its logic, but a final step had yet to be taken. Up to now Grotefend had been using the Greek version of the royal names, particularly that version handed down to posterity by Herodotus. Basing his interpretation on the name of the grandfather, which was known to him, he wrote as follows:

“Since a correct decipherment of the names had already given me over twelve letters, including all the letters of the royal title except one, the next move was to put names known only in Greek into their Persian form, in order to get a correct value for each character in the royal title and so divine the language in which the inscriptions were written. I now learned from the Zend-Avesta (a collective term for the sacred Persian writings) that the name Hystaspes was pronounced Goschasp, Gustasp, Kistasp, or Wistasp in Persian. This gave me the first seven letters of the name Hystaspes in the Darius inscription, and the last three I already knew from a comparison of all the royal titles.”

A beginning had been made.

Improvements followed, yet, remarkably enough, more than thirty years had passed before anyone was able to make another significant advance. The next contributors to the science of cuneiform decipherment were the Frenchman Émile Burnouf, and the German Christian Lassen, the investigations of both of whom were written up in 1836.

The name of Champollion, decipherer of the hieroglyphs, is widely known, yet, paradoxically enough, hardly anyone seems to have heard of Grotefend. His theory is never taught in the classroom, and many modern encyclopedias either ignore him entirely or dismiss him with a brief reference in the bibliography. Nevertheless he, and he alone, must be accorded priority in making possible the historical interpretation of Mesopotamian excavation.

Priority, I say, for an Englishman, working independently, also succeeded in solving the riddle of the cuneiform writing. These independent discoveries, incidentally, are typical of science. The Englishman’s contribution to Assyriology did not appear, however, until 1846, some time after Grotefend’s interpretation had been revised and improved by Burnouf and Lassen.

None the less, the Englishman must get credit for going far beyond his predecessors. He succeeded in bringing cuneiform writing out of the specialist’s study into the university classroom, in developing methods of decipherment to a point where the original language could be taught like any other. It was he who forged the tool that made it possible to handle the mass of inscriptional material that steadily accumulated throughout the nineteenth century. (On one occasion a whole library of clay tablets was found. But that is a story to be told farther along.) To give some idea of the wealth of material hidden in the Mesopotamian region, so many cuneiform tablets were collected by Volrath Hilprecht’s American expedition at Nippur between 1888 and 1900 that the task of deciphering them and publishing the results has not been completed even to this day.

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