Bloodaxe's Realm     The Medieval World  

No one guessed the meaning of the wedges when early travelers found cuneiform in some of the ruins that were discovered, especially the ruins of Persepolis, in Iran. Pietro della Valle, an Italian traveler, in 1621 noticed the 413 lines of inscription on the mountain wall at Behistun in western Iran (see  Behistun Inscription) and copied some of the signs. In 1674 Jean Chardin, a French trader, published complete groups of cuneiforms and noted that the inscriptions always appeared in sets of three parallel forms. The first real progress toward reading the writing at Behistun was made by Carsten Niebuhr, a German member of a Danish scientific expedition to the Middle East from 1761 to 1767. He correctly thought the threefold inscriptions to be transcripts of the same text in three different kinds of unknown writing and in 1777 he published the first accurate and complete copies of the Behistun inscriptions. These great trilingual inscriptions of Darius I, king of Persia, were written in Persian, Elamite (formerly known as Susian), and Babylonian cuneiforms. The three systems of writing were used by the Persian kings of the Achaemenid dynasty to make their decrees known to three subject nations.

The Persian cuneiform was the first of the inscriptions to be deciphered. The German scholars Oluf Gerhard Tychsen and Georg Friedrich Grotefend and the Danish philologist Rasmus Christian Rask each identified several signs. The French Orientalist Eugene Burnouf finally deciphered most of the signs of the Persian cuneiform system, and the British Assyriologist Henry Creswicke Rawlinson independently interpreted the text he had copied afresh from the Behistun rock and published the results in 1846. The task of deciphering the Persian cuneiform was made easier by existing knowledge of Pahlavi, a later Persian language. The Persian is the simplest and the most recent of all the cuneiform systems. It contains 36 characters that are almost entirely alphabetic, although they are used also for certain simple syllables. In addition, the Persian cuneiform system has a word divider. The use of the Persian cuneiform was confined to the period from 550 to 330 BC. The oldest example of this cuneiform is probably an inscription of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae and the most recent that of Artaxerxes III (reigned 358?-338 BC) at Persepolis.

The Elamite cuneiform is frequently called the language of the second form because it appears in the second position of the trilingual inscriptions of the Achaemenian kings. Decipherment of it was first undertaken by the Danish Orientalist Neils Ludvig Westergaard in 1844. The fact that the same text is repeated word for word in each cuneiform of the trilingual inscriptions was of great importance in translation of the Elamite, in which no modern language or hitherto known language gave any help. This system contains 96 syllabic signs, 16 logograms, and 5 determinants. The readings of the Elamite characters are in general fairly clear, although some words are still uncertain. The Babylonian version of the Behistun text was deciphered through the united efforts of the French Orientalist Jules Oppert, the Irish Orientalist Edward Hincks, the French archaeologist Louis Frédérick Joseph Caignart de Saulcy, and Rawlinson. The similarity of the language written in this third cuneiform system to well-known Semitic dialects was helpful in decipherment. The Behistun records gave the first clue to deciphering it, but it is now known that the Babylonian cuneiform was in use more than 2000 years before the Behistun records were inscribed. Many documents of great antiquity in this cuneiform have been found in Babylon, Nineveh, and other places near the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Babylonian cuneiform was inscribed on seals, cylinders, stone obelisks, statues, and the walls of palaces. It appears on a great many clay tablets, some as large as 22.8 cm by 15.2 cm (9 in by 6 in) and others little more than 2.54 cm sq (little more than 1 in sq). The writing is often very small. Some tablets carry six lines per 2.54 cm and must be read with a magnifying glass.


IV. Modern Knowledge of Cuneiform

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Definite proof that the cuneiform signs were originally pictographs was lacking until early pictographic inscriptions could be found. The German scholar Friedrich Delitzch in 1897 opposed the view that cuneiform signs were originally pictographs, holding instead that they developed from a comparatively small number of basic signs. Combinations of such basic signs, he held, yielded in the course of time hundreds of cuneiform signs. The theory was received with mixed approval, but most scholars inclined toward the theory of pictorial origin. The principle of pictorial origin was finally established in 1913 by the American Orientalist George Aaron Bartonin The Origin and Development of Babylonian Writing, which presented a collection of 288 pictographs found in early cuneiform inscriptions and traced their development. According to Barton, the original signs were modeled after the human body and its parts and after mammals, birds, insects, fishes, trees, stars and clouds, earth and water, buildings, boats, household furniture and utensils, fire, weapons, clothing, implements of worship, nets, traps, pottery, and musical instruments. Excavations conducted by German archaeologists from 1928 to 1931 at Erech (Uruk), on the site of present-day Al Warka', Iraq, yielded the oldest-known examples of pictograph writing on clay tablets.

The translation of cuneiform writing has contributed greatly to present knowledge of early Assyria and Babylonia and the Middle East in general. The cuneiform Code of Hammurabi is one of the most important documents to emerge from pre-Christian antiquity. Other tablets have helped to clarify the history of ancient Egypt. A cuneiform script discovered in 1929 during the French excavations of Ra's Shamrah in North Syria has proven to be an alphabet of consonants; it was estimated to have been in use from about 1400 to 1200 BC. The mythological texts written in this so-called Ra's Shamrah cuneiform alphabet have thrown light on the religious life of ancient Syria and have bearing upon the reinterpretation of some aspects of the Bible.