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The decipherment of the cuneiform or wedge-shaped inscriptions of Assyria has been one of the most marvellous achievements of the present century. It has often been asked how Assyrian scholars have been enabled to read an Assyrian text with almost as much certainty as a page of the Old Testament, although both the language and the characters in which it is written were utterly unknown but a few years ago. A brief history of the origin and progress of the decipherment will best answer the question.

Travellers had discovered inscriptions engraved in cuneiform, or, as they were also termed, arrow-headed, characters on the ruined monuments of Persepolis and other ancient sites in Persia. Some of these monuments were known to have been erected by the Achaemenian princes Darius, the son of Hystaspes, and his successors and it was therefore inferred that the inscriptions also had been carved by order of the same kings. The inscriptions were in three different systems of cuneiform writing; and, since the three kinds of inscription were always placed side by side, it was evident that they represented different versions of the same text. The subjects of the Persian kings belonged to more than one race, and just as in the present day a Turkish pasha in the East has to publish an edict in Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, if it is to be understood by all the populations under his charge, so the Persian kings were obliged to use the language and system of writing peculiar to each of the nations they governed, whenever they wished their proclamations to be read and understood by them.

It was clear that the three versions of the Achaemenian inscriptions were addressed to the three chief populations of the Persian Empire, and that the one which invariably came first was composed in ancient Persian, the language of the sovereign himself. Now this Persian version happened to offer the decipherer less difficulties than the two others which accompanied it. The number of distinct characters employed in writing it did not exceed forty, while the words were divided from one another by a slanting wedge. Some of the words contained so many characters that it was plain that these latter must denote letters, and not syllables, and that consequently the Persian cuneiform system must have consisted of an alphabet, and not of a syllabary. It was further plain that the inscriptions had to be read from left to right, since the ends of all the lines were exactly underneath one another on the left side, whereas they terminated irregularly on the right; indeed, the last line sometimes ended at a considerable distance from the right-hand extremity of the inscription.

The clue to the decipherment of the inscriptions was first discovered by the successful guess of a German scholar, Grotefend. Grotefend noticed that the inscriptions generally began with three or four words, one of which varied, while the others remained unchanged. The variable word had three forms, though the same form always appeared on the same monument. Grotefend, therefore, conjectured that this word represented the name of a king, the words which followed it being the royal titles. One of the supposed names appeared much oftener than the others, and as it was too short for Artaxerxes and too long for Cyrus, it was evident that it must stand either for Darius or for Xerxes. A study of the classical authors showed Grotefend that certain of the monuments on which it was found had been constructed by Darius, and he accordingly gave to the characters composing it the values required for spelling “Darius” in its old Persian form. In this way he succeeded in obtaining conjectural values for six cuneiform letters. He now turned to the second royal name, which also appeared on several monuments, and was of much the same length as that of Darius. This could only be Xerxes; but if so, the fifth letter composing it (r) would necessarily be the same as the third letter in the name of Darius. This proved to be the case, and thus afforded the best possible evidence that the German scholar was on the right track.

The third name, which was much longer than the other two, differed from the second chiefly at the beginning, the latter part of it resembling the name of Xerxes. Clearly, therefore, it could be nothing else than Artaxerxes, and that it actually was so, was rendered certain by the fact that the second character composing it was that which had the value of r.

Grotefend now possessed a small alphabet, and with this he proceeded to read the word which always followed the royal name, and therefore probably meant “king.” He found that it closely resembled the word which signified “king” in Zend, the old language of the Eastern Persians, which was spoken in one part of Persia at the same time that Old Persian, the language of the Achaemenian princes, was spoken in another. There could, consequently, be no further room for doubt that he had really solved the great problem, and discovered the key to the decipherment of the cuneiform texts.

But he did little further himself towards the completion of the work, and it was many years before any real progress was made with it. Meanwhile, the study of Zend had made great advances, more especially in the hands of Burnouf, who eventually turned his attention to the cuneiform inscriptions. But it is to Burnouf’s pupil, Lassen, as well as to Sir Henry Rawlinson, that the decipherment of these inscriptions owes its final completion. The discovery of the list of Persian satrapies in the inscription of Darius at Naksh-i-Rustem, and above all the copy of the long inscription of Darius on the rock of Behistun, made by Sir H. Rawlinson, enabled these scholars independently of one another to construct an alphabet which differed only in the value assigned to a single character, and, with the help of the cognate Zend and Sanskrit, to translate the language so curiously brought to light. The decipherment of the Persian cuneiform texts thus became an accomplished fact; what was next needed was to decipher the two versions which were inscribed at their side.

But this was no easy task. The words in them were not divided from one another, and the characters of which they were composed were exceedingly numerous. With the assistance, however, of frequently recurring proper names even these two versions gradually yielded to the patient skill of the decipherer; and it was then discovered that while one of them represented an agglutinative language, such as that of the Turks or Fins, the other was in a dialect which closely resembled the Hebrew of the Old Testament. The monuments found almost immediately afterwards in Assyria and Babylonia by Botta and Layard soon made it clear to what people this dialect must have belonged. The inscriptions of Nineveh turned out to be written in the same language and form of cuneiform script; and it must therefore have been for the Semitic population of Assyria and Babylonia that the kings of Persia had caused one of the versions of their inscriptions to be drawn up. This version served as a starting-point for the decipherment of the texts which the excavations in Assyria had brought to light.

It might have been thought that the further course of the decipherment would have presented little difficulty, now that the values of many of the Assyrian characters were known, and the close resemblance of the language they concealed to Hebrew had been discovered. But the complicated nature of the Assyrian system of cuneiform the great number of characters used in it, the different phonetic values the same character might have, and the frequent employment of ideographs, which denoted ideas and not sounds caused the progress of decipherment to be for some time but slow. Indeed, had the Assyrian inscriptions been confined to those engraved on the alabaster bulls and other monuments of Nineveh, our knowledge of the language would always have remained comparatively limited. But, fortunately, the Assyrians, like the Babylonians before them, employed clay as a writing material, and established libraries, which were filled with a literature on baked bricks.

One of the most important results of Sir A. H. Layard’s explorations at Nineveh was the discovery of the ruined library of the ancient city, now buried under the mounds of Kouyunjik. The broken clay tablets belonging to this library not only furnished the student with an immense mass of literary matter, but also with direct aids towards a knowledge of the Assyrian syllabary and language. Among the literature represented in the library of Kouyunjik were lists of characters, with their various phonetic and ideographic meanings, tables of synonymes, and catalogues of the names of plants and animals. This, however, was not all. The inventors of the cuneiform system of writing had been a people who preceded the Sémites in the occupation of Babylonia, and who spoke an agglutinative language utterly different from that of their Semitic successors. These Accadians, as they are usually termed, left behind them a considerable amount of literature, which was highly prized by the Semitic Babylonians and Assyrians. A large portion of the Ninevite tablets, accordingly, consists of interlinear or parallel translations from Accadian into Assyrian, as well as of reading books, dictionaries, and grammars, in which the Accadian original is placed by the side of its Assyrian equivalent. It frequently happens that the signification of a previously unknown Assyrian word can be ascertained by our finding it given as the rendering of an Accadian word, with the meaning of which we are already acquainted. The bilingual texts have not only enabled scholars to recover the long-forgotten Accadian language; they have also been of the greatest possible assistance to them in their reconstruction of the Assyrian dictionary itself.

The three expeditions conducted by Mr. George Smith, as well as the later ones of Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, have added largely to the stock of tablets from Kouyunjik originally acquired for the British Museum by Sir A. H. Layard, and have also brought to light a few other tablets from the libraries of Babylonia. Although, therefore, only one of the many libraries which now lie buried beneath the ground in Babylonia and Assyria has, as yet, been at all adequately explored, the amount of Assyrian literature at the disposal of the student is already greater than that contained in the whole of the Old Testament. Apart from the help afforded by the old dictionaries and lists of words and characters, he has more facilities for determining the meaning of a word by a comparison of parallel passages than the student of Biblical Hebrew; and in many instances, accordingly, Assyrian has made it possible to fix the signification of a Hebrew word, the sense of which has hitherto been doubtful.

The Assyrian student, moreover, possesses an advantage which is not shared by the Hebraist. Owing to its hieroglyphic origin, the cuneiform system of writing makes large use of what are called determinatives, that is to say, of characters which have no phonetic value, but which determine the class to which the word they accompany belongs. It is, therefore, always possible to tell at a glance whether the word with which we are dealing is the name of a man, of a woman, of a deity, of a river, of a country, or of a city; or, again, whether it denotes an animal, a bird, a vegetable, a stone, a star, a medicine, or the like. With all these aids, accordingly, it is not wonderful that the study of Assyrian has made immense progress during the last few years, and that an ordinary historical text can be read with as much certainty as a page from one of the historical books of the Old Testament. Indeed, we may say that it can be read with even greater certainty, since it presents us with the actual words of the original writer; whereas the text of the Old Testament has come to us through the hands of successive generations of copyists, who have corrupted many passages so as to make them grammatically unintelligible.

At the same time, the hieroglyphic origin of the cuneiform mode of writing has been productive of disadvantages as well as of advantages. The characters which compose it may express ideas as well as sounds; and though we may know what ideas are represented, we may not always know the exact pronunciation to be assigned to them. Thus, in English, the ideograph + may be pronounced “plus,” “added to,” or “more,” according to the pleasure of the reader. The Assyrian scribes usually attached one or more phonetic characters to the ideographs they employed, in order to indicate their pronunciation in a given passage; but these “phonetic complements,” as they are termed, were frequently omitted in the case of well-known proper names, such as those of the native kings and deities. Hence the exact pronunciation of these names can only be settled when we find them written phonetically; and there are one or two proper names, such as that of the hero of the great Chaldean epic, which have never yet been met with phonetically spelt.

Another disadvantage due to the hieroglyphic origin of the Assyrian syllabary is the number of different phonetic values the same character may bear. This caused a good deal of trouble in the early days of Assyrian decipherment; but it was a difficulty that was felt quite as much by the Assyrians themselves as it is by us. Consequently they adopted various devices for overcoming it; and as these devices have become known the difficulty has ceased to be felt. In short, the study of Assyrian now reposes on as sure and certain a basis as the study of any ancient language, a knowledge of which has been traditionally handed down to us; and the antiquity of its monuments, the copiousness of its vocabulary, the perfection of its grammar, and the syllabic character of the writing which expresses vowels as well as consonants all combine to make it of the highest importance for the study of the Semitic languages. Its recovery has not only shed a flood of light on the history and antiquities of the Old Testament, it has served to illustrate and explain the language of the Old Testament as well.