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The decipherment of cuneiform

The decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform begins with the discovery of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis. The site was visited by Europeans from the Renaissance on, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that the first accurate copies of the inscriptions were made by a Danish adventurer, Carsten Niebuhr. A number of people had attempted to decipher these texts since they had been discovered, and the most important of these is arguably the German schoolteacher Georg Grotefend, who, in 1802, noticed a recurring pattern in the signs. Due to his familiarity with the later Sassanian inscriptions and with the works of Herodotus, Grotefend correctly deduced that these patterns likely read "Xerxes, great king, king of kings, son of Darius, king of kings" and "Darius, great king, king of kings, son of Hystaspes." However, it was not until Niels Louis Westergaard's and Edward Hincks' major breakthroughs in 1845 and 1846, respectively, that the Persepolis inscriptions could begin to be more fully understood. Hincks continued to make progress in deciphering the Old Persian cuneiform script for the next few years and also began examining cuneiform inscriptions from elsewhere in the ancient Near East, particularly Mesopotamia.

The next significant leap in the decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform came from work on the trilingual Bīsitūn inscription. Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, a British army officer stationed in Baghdad, made the first accurate copies of this inscription, which are engraved on a nearly inaccessible high cliff overlooking a valley in Bisitun, Iran. The fact that this inscription included three versions of the same text written in Old Persian, – already satisfactorily deciphered – Elamite, and Babylonian was arguably the most significant factor in the decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform.

On 19 January, 1850, Rawlinson presented a preliminary translation, – though without a copy of the text or a transliteration – of what is now referred to as the Black Obelisk, recently brought back to England from Nimrud by Layard. The text on this Neo-Assyrian black limestone bas-relief obelisk refers to the deeds and military conquests of Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC). The identification of the Biblical king Jehu in this text was made by Hincks, who published his own translation of the text in December 1851. By the end of the 1850s, Hincks and Rawlinson had successfully provided a working decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform.


Burnouf, Eugène. 1833. Commentaire sur le Yaçna. Paris: Imprimerie Royale.

Cathcart, K. J. 1983. “Edward Hincks (1792-1866) and the Decipherment of Cuneiform Writing,” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 7, 24-43.

Cathcart, K. J. 2007-2009. The Correspondence of Edward Hincks. 3 vols. Dublin: University College Dublin Press.

Cathcart, K. J. 2011. The Earliest Contributions to the Decipherment of Sumerian and Akkadian. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal, 1, 1-12.

Cathcart, Kevin J. & Donlon, Patricia. 1983. “Edward Hincks (1792-1866): A Bibliography of his Publications,” Or 52, 325-356.

Daniels, Peter T. 1994 “Edward Hincks’s Decipherment of Mesopotamian Cuneiform,” in K. J. Cathcart, ed., The Edward Hincks Bicentenary Lectures. Dublin: Department of Near Eastern Languages, University College Dublin, pp. 30-57.

Daniels, Peter T. 1996. “Methods of Decipherment,” in P. T. Daniels & W. Bright, eds., The World’s Writing Systems. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 143-159.

Daniels, Peter T. 2009 “Rawlinson, Henry ii: Contributions to Assyriology and Iranian Studies,” Encyclopaedia Iranica.

Gordon, Cyrus H. 1968. Forgotten Scripts: The Story of their Decipherment. London: Thames and Hudson.

Grotefend, Georg F. 1815. “Über die Erklärung der Keilinschriften, und besonders der Inschriften von Persepolis,” in A. H. L. Heeren, Ideen über die Politik, den Verkehr und den Handel der vornehmsten Völker der alten Welt. Vol. 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, pp. 397-433. Eng. trans. 1833: “On the Cuneiform Character, and particularly the Inscriptions at Persepolis,” in Historical Researches into the Politics, Intercourse, and Trade

Hincks, Edward. 1846. “On the First and Second Kinds of Persepolitan Writing,” Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 21, 114-131.

Hincks, Edward. 1847a. “An Attempt to Ascertain the Number, Names, and Powers, of the Letters of the Hieroglyphic, or Ancient Egyptian Alphabet; Grounded on the Establishment of a New Principle in the Use of Phonetic Characters,” Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 21, 132-232.

Hincks, Edward. 1847b. “On the Three Kinds of Persepolitan Writing, and on the Babylonian Lapidary Characters,” Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 21, 233-248.

Hincks, Edward. 1847c. “On the Third Persepolitan Writing, and on the Mode of Expressing Numerals in Cuneatic Characters,” Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 21, 249-256.

Hincks, Edward. 1847d. “Some Passages of the Life of King Darius, the Son of Hystaspes, by Himself”: a review article on Henry C. Rawlinson, The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, in Dublin University Magazine 29 (January), 14-27.

Hincks, Edward. 1848. “On the Inscriptions at Van,” JRAS 9, 387-449.

Hincks, Edward. 1850. “On the Khorsabad Inscriptions,” Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 22, 3-72.

Hincks, Edward. 1851. “On the Language and Mode of Writing of the Ancient Assyrians,” Report of the Twentieth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; held at Edinburgh in July and August 1850, p. 140 + 1 plate.

Hincks, Edward. 1852. “On the Assyrio-Babylonian Phonetic Characters,” Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 22, 293-370.

Hincks, Edward. 1854. Report to the Trustees of the British Museum Respecting Certain Cylinders and Terra-cotta Tablets, with Cuneiform Inscriptions. London: Harrison. See also Literary Gazette, No. 1944, 375-377; No. 1959, 707-708.

Hincks, Edward. 1856a. “Are There Any Assyrian Syllabaries?”: A Letter to the Editor, Monthly Review 1, 130-132.

Hincks, Edward. 1856b. “Brief des Herrn Dr. Edw. Hincks an Prof. Brockhaus,” ZDMG 10, 516-518.

Hincks, Edward. 1858. “On the Relation between the Newly-Discovered Accadian Language and the Indo-European, Semitic and Egyptian Languages; with Remarks on the Original Values of Certain Semitic Letters and on the State of the Greek Alphabet at Different Periods,” Report of the Twenty-Seventh Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; Held at Dublin in August and September 1857, 134-143 + 1 plate.

Hincks, Edward. 1863. “On the Polyphony of the Assyrio-Babylonian Cuneiform Writing. A Letter to Professor Renouf from Rev. Dr. Hincks,” The Atlantis 4, 57-112.

Hincks, Edward. 1866. “Specimen Chapters of an Assyrian Grammar,” JRAS NS 2, 480-519.

Lassen, Christian. 1836. Die altpersischen Keil-Inschriften von Persepolis. Entzifferung des Alphabets und Erklärung des Inhalts. Bonn: Weber.

Rawlinson, Henry C. 1846-1847. The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, Decyphered and Translated, with a Memoir on Persian Cuneiform Inscriptions in General, and on that of Behistun in Particular. JRAS 10; London: John W. Parker.

Rawlinson, Henry C. 1850. “On the Inscriptions of Assyria and Babylonia,” JRAS 12, 401-483. Published separately as A Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria; including Readings of the Inscription of the Nimrud Obelisk, and a Brief Notice of the Ancient Kings of Nineveh and Babylon.London: John W. Parker.

Rawlinson, Henry C. 1851. “Memoir on the Babylonian and Assyrian Inscriptions,” JRAS 14, i-civ, 1-16.

Rawlinson, Henry C. 1861-1884. The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, assisted by E. Norris, G. Smith, and T. G. Pinches, 5 vols. London: Trustees of the British Museum.

Sayce, Archibald H. 1874. “The Languages of the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Elam and Media,” Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 3, 465-485.

Sayce, Archibald H. 1882. “The Cuneiform Inscriptions at Van, Deciphered and Translated,” JRAS NS 14, 377-732.

Schulz, Friedrich E. 1840. “Mémoire sur le lac de Van et ses environs,” JA, 3rd ser., 9, 257-323. Wellhausen, Julius

Schulz, Friedrich E. 1876. “Über den bisherigen Gang und den gegenwärtigen Stand der Keilentzifferung,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 31, 153-175.

Westergaard, Nils L. 1844. “On the Deciphering of the Second Achaemenian or Median Species of Arrowhead Writing,” Mémoires de la Société Royale des Antiquaires du Nord, 271-439.

Westergaard, Nils L. 1845. “Zur Entzifferung der achämenidischen Keilschrift zweiter Gattung,” ZKM 6, 337-466.

the_decipherment_of_cuneiform.txt · Last modified: 2015/01/09 11:16 by hawkins
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