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Etched in Stone: The Gates Unlocked

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The following is the third of a four part series on the cuneiform script from Ancient Mesopotamia, arguably the oldest script in human civilization.  This blog discusses the decipherment of the seemingly impervious script and the process which that entailed.  You can read the first and second installments.

For millennia, cuneiform etchings remained shrouded in mystery: the “script” undeciphered, its very purpose unknown, and the promise of the potential mysteries it could unlock sealed in its recondite symbols.  Originating in Sumer in ancient Mesopotamia, cuneiform was adopted and adapted by numerous civilizations and languages and, at its height, was used by the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, spreading to the Elamites, Urartians, Hittites, and finally to the Persian Empire.  Indeed, one of the complicating factors in deciphering the script was that during its more than 3,000-year history, cuneiform was used to write around 15 different languages by different civilizations, all of which had begun to disappear.

By around the 5th century BCE, cuneiform had begun to lose much of its eminence and prestige when it was rapidly overtaken by the more efficient and economical Phoenician alphabet, and later, by Aramean.  The Persians, the last to formally adopt the script, used cuneiform for two centuries until their defeat and the conquest of Persepolis at the hands of Alexander the Great in 333 BCE.  Babylon, by then a Persian dependency, surrendered to Alexander in 331 BCE.  Recognizing the city’s strategic importance, the Macedonian conqueror planned to turn it into an imperial capital and subsequently sought to restore its privileges and status.  Accordingly, he ordered the restoration of its temples, allowed it to mint currency, and began the construction of a harbor.  Alexander would himself die in the palace of the famed Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 323 BCE. These ambitious plans never materialized, however, due to power struggles amongst his generals, and in 312 BCE Babylon passed to the Seleucid dynasty, which built a new and different capital of its own.

Desolate ruins of mighty Babylon showing the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, (6th Cen. BCE), Prints and Photographs Division


Despite the script’s rapid fall from grace, renowned Assyriologist Markhum Geller believes that it continued to be used in the literary tradition of the Parthian Empire (250 BCE–226 CE).  Hence, the ability to read cuneiform persisted at least until the 3rd century CE; indeed, the last known cuneiform inscription was an astronomical text written in 75 CE.  Nonetheless, by the 3rd century CE, Babylon had fallen to the neighboring Sassanians. Known to be unaccepting of—if not hostile to–foreign religions, Geller states: “they shut the temples down and they sent everyone home.”  Still, he maintains that the reading and writing of cuneiform would continue to be used for purposes of ritual and in some case medical diagnosis.  For all intents and purposes, however, cuneiform appears to have run its course.

Cuneiform would hence become unintelligible, not to say impenetrable, to later civilizations. The Classical Greeks, for example, could not understand it, and the well-travelled Herodotus referred to it simply as Assyriyoi Logoi or Assyria Grammata (Assyrian language).  Arab and Persian historians’ attempts to decipher it during the Middle Ages did not bear much fruit.  Still, it continued to fascinate European travelers to the region who would report back on this strange script.

Interest in cuneiform was largely amplified by the Persians who, using cuneiform inscriptions on their imposing monuments, rendered the script glaringly apparent to those who visited these sites. Prominent examples of European visitors include Venetian Giosafat Barbaro in the 15th Century, Spanish ambassador to Safavid Persia García de Silva Figueroa, Portuguese friar Antonio de Gouvea, Italian traveler Pietro Della Valle, and Sir Thomas Hibbert in in the 17th Century.  Fascinated by what they saw, they did preliminary work on the script, creating rough sketches and finally determining that, in Hibbert’s words, they were ‘legible and intelligible’ hence decipherable.

The ultimate key to unlocking the script came from the inscriptions at the Bisitun pass in modern day western Iran.  The inscriptions at Bisitun, dating from 521 BCE, recorded the accomplishments of Darius the Great and his successor Xerxes in three different languages: Babylonian, Elamite, and Persian.  These inscriptions would therefore provide a crucial key to understanding cuneiform.  As such, they would prove as significant to scholars as the Rosetta stone.


Rock of Bisitun Descriptive Charts of Ancient Monuments / S.N. Deinard, Minneapolis, 1912, Judaica poster and broadside collection, Hebraic Cage, African and Middle Eastern Division


The biggest contribution based on the findings of Bisitun came from German cartographer, mathematician, and explorer Carsten Niebuhr.  Neibuhr visited Persepolis, Nineveh, and other ruins of Babylon on a major Danish expedition in the 1760s.  He would make the first accurate sketches of the trilingual Bisitun inscriptions and determine that it contained three languages which he subsequently termed Class I, Class II and Class III.  His work, published in 1778, would prove critical to later scholars seeking to unlock the mysteries of cuneiform, and to the birth of the discipline of Assyriology.

Carsten Neibuhr, Travels Through Arabia and Other Countries in the East, London 1792, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.


Sketch of inscriptions at Bisitun in Kāvaśjī Dīnśāhjī Keās, Ancient Persian sculptures; or, The monuments, buildings, bas-reliefs, rock inscriptions, &c., &c., belonging to the kings of the Achaemenian and Sassanian dynasties of Persia, Bombay, Printed at the Education Society’s Press, Byculla, 1889, Persian Cage, African and Middle Eastern Division.


Work on the decipherment of cuneiform began in full force during the 19th century.  It was initiated by Georg Friedrich Grotefend in 1802, who, utilizing Niebuhr’s work, used the Bisitun inscriptions to decipher what was now defined as “Old Persian.”  His recognition of the diagonal wedge as a word-divider was an important step in simplifying the task of segmenting sentences.  Based on the patterns used in later Middle Iranian inscriptions written in the Phoenician alphabet, Grotefend reasoned that the introductory lines of the texts would similarly contain the customary name, titles, and genealogy of the ruler albeit in three languages.  Consequently, he would soon be able to decipher long proper names and sound values.  Grotefend’s work would be followed and expanded upon by several other scholars such as Antoine-Jean Saint-Martin, Rasmus Christian Rask, Eugène Burnouf, and Christian Lassen, all of whom made significant contributions in breaking the codes to understanding Old Persian (for more information see Appendices A, B, and C.)

Once Old Persian cuneiform was sufficiently understood, scholars would tackle the two remaining scripts from the Bisitun inscriptions: Elamite and Akkadian.  Elamite would present many problems since, not only had the civilization disappeared entirely, but the language itself bore no resemblance to the Semitic or Indo-European language families.  Furthermore, there are very few extant inscriptions in the language itself, many of which are poorly preserved.  Similarly, by using the Bisitun inscriptions to apply the sounds extrapolated from Old Persian names, some insight was gained into the language now known as “New Elamite.”  Elamite has since been divided into at least three branches: Proto-Elamite, New Elamite, and Linear Elamite, but its decipherment remains problematic.

Samples of Rawlinson’s Work on Elamite in Tafeln zu Rawlinson und Norris’ Abhandlungen über die Keilinschriften, s.l., s.n., 1800z, Persian Cage, African and Middle Eastern Division.


Next on the list was Akkadian.  It is noteworthy, that, for many years, Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian were treated as variations on the same language albeit with a few differences.

By 1762, Jean-Jacques Barthélemy had already discovered that one of the inscriptions he saw in Persepolis bore a resemblance to one found on a brick in Babylon.  Further, the large number of similar, if not identical, texts found in Mesopotamia was a clear indication that it was the very center of the “cuneiform civilizations.”  Even so, Akkadian presented problems of its own, not least because of the extreme variety of signs and the differences between the older and newer forms of Akkadian.

The proper names of the Persian kings would again provide important clues and once the language was determined to be Semitic, the new philological discipline of Assyriology would soon be established.  Names such as Henry Creswick Rawlinson, Austen Henry Layard, Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert, William H. Fox Talbot, Emile Burnouf, among others, would be credited with this work and with pioneering the new discipline.  Indeed, Rawlinson’s works, such as Cuneiform Inscriptions of Ancient Babylon and Assyria, remain standard textbooks in the study of Assyriology to this day.  By the end of the 19th century, the science of Assyriology was fully established and rapidly advancing due to the efforts of scholars like Friedrich Delitzsch, Benno Landsberger, and Wolfram von Soden.

Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Character, from Assyrian Monuments / discovered by A.H. Layard, D.C.L., London : Printed by Harrison and Son, St. Martin’s Lane : Sold by the British Museum, by Longman and Co., and W. Pickering, 1851. Rare Books and Special Collections Division.


Samples of Layard’s work in Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Character, from Assyrian Monuments / discovered by A.H. Layard, D.C.L., London, 1851, Rare Books and Special Collections Division.


Sumerian, however, was not one of the scripts listed in the Bisitun inscriptions, and, as such, had not yet been recognized as an independent language; rather, it was viewed as another form of Akkadian.  Indeed, it was not until the 20th century that scholars recognized Sumerian as a unique language in its own right.  Its peculiar and largely unrelated structure, however, provided real challenges to its understanding.  Nonetheless, while Sumerian, as a language, had died out by the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE, it continued as a cult idiom of the Babylonian religion, and was artificially acquired by the priesthood.  Hence, this necessitated the use of vocabularies, grammatical lists, and the literal translations of certain religious texts into Babylonian to facilitate the process.  These, in turn, facilitated the breakthrough in deciphering Sumerian cuneiform.  The new discipline of Sumerian studies was soon established and advanced largely through the work of scholars such as Friedrich Delitzsch, François Thureau-Dangin, Arno Poebel, Anton Deimel, and Adam Falkenstein.

Friedrich Delitzche 1850-1922, Assyrische grammatik. mit paradigmen, New York, B. Westermann & co.; 1889


Samples of Delitzche’s work in Delitzche, Friedrich, 1850-1922, Assyrische grammatik. mit paradigmen, New York, B. Westermann & co.; 1889


With the secrets of the code to cuneiform being unlocked, ancient texts can sometimes revolutionize the way in which history and civilization are understood.  And as the work continues, more and more interesting facts come to light.  One interesting development involves the use of AI to help in decoding the texts.  The accuracy of this endeavor, however, has yet to be established.


Further Reading.

Inscriptions in the cuneiform character, from Assyrian monuments / discovered by A.H. Layard, D.C.L., London : Printed by Harrison and Son, St. Martin’s Lane : Sold by the British Museum, by Longman and Co., and W. Pickering, 1851.

Tafeln zu Rawlinson und Norris’ Abhandlungen über die Keilinschriften. s.l., s.n., 1800z

Arthur John Booth,  The Discovery and Decipherment of the Trilingual Cuneiform Inscriptions, Longmans, Green and Co., 1902

Friedrich, Delitzche,1850-1922, Assyrische grammatik. mit paradigmen, New York, B. Westermann & co.; 1889

I.L. Finkel, M.J. Geller, editors, Sumerian gods and their representations, Groningen : STYX Publications, 1997.

Kāvaśjī Dīnśāhī Keās, Ancient Persian sculptures; or, The monuments, buildings, bas-reliefs, rock inscriptions, &c., &c., belonging to the kings of the Achaemenian and Sassanian dynasties of Persia Bombay, Printed at the Education Society’s Press, Byculla, 1889.

Carsten Niebuhr, 1733-1815, Travels through Arabia and other countries in the East, performed by M. Niebuhr … Translated by Robert Heron. With notes by the translator, and illustrated with engravings and maps, Edinburgh, R. Morison and Son, 1792.

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson,  A Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Babylonian and Assyrian: A History of Akkadian / Andrew George

Have Scholars Finally Deciphered a Mysterious Ancient Script? / Andrew Lawler

AI translates 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablets into English: A new technology meets old languages / Alexandra Gerea

Thomas Hibbert Files


  1. Fascinating!

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