On the Complexities of Dechipering Cuneiform

from The Buried Book
David Damrosch

Their task was much harder than the daunting challenge Champollion had faced. The pictorial quality of Egyptian hieroglyphs meant that at least some signs showed clearly what they meant, whereas the cuneiform symbols were all highly abstract. Even when the symbols once represented something concrete, the visual reference had been obscured over time. A head could be represent by two upright wedges that had once been the neck, topped by a cluster of wedges that distantly recalled an eye, nose, and head of hair. A triangular sign might have originally signified a basked or a vagina. Even when a sign's visual origin could be guessed, this information was rarely useful, as the signs were usually used for their phonetic value rather than as pictures.

Furthermore, while one of the Rosetta stone's parallel inscriptions had been in ancient Greek--which Champollion could readily read--all three inscriptions from Behistun were in cuneiform script. Rawlinson was faced with a choice of enigmas. Fortunately, one of the three was a simple script used for Old Persian, with only thirty-six characters, and Rawlinson knew two early Persian languages. He shrewdly guessed that the monumental reliefs portrayed the dominant ancient Persian king Darius the Great, together with a line of captive or subordinate kings, and by a process of trial and error began to derive the sound values for many of the names on the monument, along with formulaic phrases such as "king of kings."

Fortunately the sound values of the three dozen Old Persian characters held good for the Akkadian text, though it had hundreds of different characters and so posed a far more difficult challenge. It took fifteen years of steady work before Rawlinson could declare, in 1850, that he had deciphered most of the inscription. In this task he was greatly aided by Akkadian's close relationship to Hebrew. . . .

The book is about the rediscovery and translation of Gilgamesh--but it includes everything from Victorian Archeology to Philip Roth's The Great American Novel. One gets a sampling of the thrill of archeology and a whiff of ancient civilization--myrrh and cinnamon for those of us with a romantic turn of mind--mouse scat and dust for those inclined to langours over anything older than this century.


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