Deciphering Cuneiform: Helping Scholars to Get a Handle on Life in Ancient Mesopotamia
Cuneiform is a system of writing that was invented by the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. Believed to have been created sometime during the 4th millennium BC (between 3500 and 3000 BC), this script is regarded as the earliest known form of writing. Cuneiform became an unreadable script as its use came to an end. Nevertheless, this writing system has been preserved in the archaeological record, thanks mainly due to the clay tablets they were written on. It was only during the 19th century that cuneiform was finally deciphered and scholars could begin to understand the texts that were written in this ancient script.
Finding Cuneiform Script in Persepolis
Whilst cuneiform was first used for the Sumerian language, it was later adapted for other languages as well, including Akkadian, Elamite, and Hittite. Furthermore, several alphabetic systems were inspired by cuneiform. It is thanks to Old Persian, a writing system inspired by cuneiform, that Europeans came to know about this ancient script. The first known European references about cuneiform were made by travelers visiting Persepolis, once the capital of the mighty Achaemenid Empire.
Babylonian version of the Achaemenid royal cuneiform inscriptions known as XPc (Xerxes Persepolis c) from the western anta of the southern portico of the so-called Palace of Darius (building I) at Persepolis. (Nickmard Khoey / CC BY SA 2.0 )
During the 18th century, German explorer Carsten Niebuhr copied the carved cuneiform inscriptions he saw at Persepolis and published them when he returned to Europe. The process of decipherment, however, only began in 1802, when Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a German archaeologist and linguist, noticed that there was a recurring pattern in the introductory lines of the Old Persian texts. Grotefend was also familiar with later Sassanian inscriptions and the writings of Herodotus, so he deduced the lines names and titles of the Achaemenid rulers.
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Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a German archaeologist and linguist who worked on the decipherment of cuneiform. ( Public Domain )
Still, it was only later during the century that a real breakthrough in the decipherment of cuneiform was made. In 1835, Henry Rawlinson, who at that time was serving as an army officer in the British East India Company, visited the Behistun Inscription in Iran. This inscription, which was carved onto a cliff face during the reign of Darius the Great, contained three different cuneiform script languages – Old Persian, Akkadian, and Elamite. Rawlinson began with the Old Persian text, which he copied and deciphered. Two years later, a translation of the first two paragraphs of the inscription, which contained the titles and genealogy of Darius, was forwarded to the Royal Asiatic Society.
Behistun Inscription, cuneiform text describing conquests of Darius the Great. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran). ( Public Domain )
More Scholars Tackle Cuneiform Decipherment
Once the translation of the Old Persian text was accomplished, Rawlinson went on to tackle the Akkadian and Elamite sections of the Behistun Inscription. At the same time, another scholar, an Egyptologist by the name of Edward Hincks also began working on cuneiform texts, though independently from Rawlinson.
In 1842, the city of Nineveh was discovered by Paul-Émile Botta. During the excavations, the Great Library of Assurbanipal was unearthed. This was significant for cuneiform studies, as tens of thousands of baked clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions were found. A discovery of a similar scale would later be made in 1906, when the royal archive of Hattusa, which also contained a large quantity of cuneiform-covered tablets, was excavated.
Cuneiform inscription of Xerxes, Van, Turkey. It is a trilingual inscription, written in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite (from left to right). (John Hill/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Returning to the middle of the 19th century, Rawlinson and Hincks were soon joined by two other scholars in their quest to decipher cuneiform – Julius Oppert and William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857, the four men met in London to test the accuracy of their methods on a cuneiform text that had not been deciphered. The results produced were in close agreement, and it was declared that the decipherment of cuneiform had been accomplished.
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Cuneiform script underwent many changes over two millennia. Here is the transformation of the sign SAG “head.” ( Crystalinks)
Important Texts in Cuneiform
Since then, numerous cuneiform inscriptions have been deciphered, offering us a glimpse of life in the ancient Near East. Some of these, for example, deal with the belief system of the ancient Mesopotamians. Such texts include tales dealing with their gods or heroes, for instance, the Enuma Elish (the Babylonian creation myth), and the Epic of Gilgamesh .
Ancient Assyrian statue currently in the Louvre believed by some scholars to represent Enkidu, a major character of the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh.’ ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Others, such as the Ebla Tablets, have contributed to our understanding of economics in the ancient world. Yet other tablets, such as those from the Amarna Letters, shed light on the politics and interactions between different polities of the ancient Near East. Other topics found written in cuneiform include recipes, laws, and medicine.
One of the Amarna letters, 14th century BC cuneiform script. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Left (Wally Gobetz/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 ) and right (Wally Gobetz/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 ): Brooklyn Museum - Reliefs of King Ashur-nasir-pal II - Standard Inscription. Detail of cuneiform script. Center: British Museum, Assyrian collections (Room 10) cuneiform inscription. (Matt Neale/ CC BY 2.0 )
By Wu Mingren
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