A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter X
The new science of oriental archaeology
How the records were read
After all, then, granted the choice of materials, there is nothing so very extraordinary in the mere fact of preservation of these ancient records. To be sure, it is vastly to the credit of nineteenth-century enterprise to have searched them out and brought them back to light. But the real marvel in connection with them is the fact that nineteenth-century scholarship should have given us, not the material documents themselves, but a knowledge of their actual contents. The flight of arrow-heads on wall or slab or tiny brick have surely a meaning; but how shall we guess that meaning? These must be words; but what words? The hieroglyphics of the Egyptians were mysterious enough in all conscience; yet, after all, their symbols have a certain suggestiveness, whereas there is nothing that seems to promise a mental leverage in the unbroken succession of these cuneiform dashes. Yet the Assyrian scholar of to-day can interpret these strange records almost as readily and as surely as the classical scholar interprets a Greek manuscript. And this evidences one of the greatest triumphs of nineteenth-century scholarship, for within almost two thousand years no man has lived, prior to our century, to whom these strange inscriptions would not have been as meaningless as they are to the most casual stroller who looks on them with vague wonderment here in the museum to-day. For the Assyrian language, like the Egyptian, was veritably a dead language; not, like Greek and Latin, merely passed from practical every-day use to the closet of the scholar, but utterly and absolutely forgotten by all the world. Such being the case, it is nothing less than marvellous that it should have been restored.

It is but fair to add that this restoration probably never would have been effected, with Assyrian or with Egyptian, had the language in dying left no cognate successor; for the powers of modern linguistry, though great, are not actually miraculous. But, fortunately, a language once developed is not blotted out in toto; it merely outlives its usefulness and is gradually supplanted, its successor retaining many traces of its origin. So, just as Latin, for example, has its living representatives in Italian and the other Romance tongues, the language of Assyria is represented by cognate Semitic languages. As it chances, however, these have been of aid rather in the later stages of Assyrian study than at the very outset; and the first clew to the message of the cuneiform writing came through a slightly different channel.

Curiously enough, it was a trilingual inscription that gave the clew, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone, though with very striking difference withal. The trilingual inscription now in question, instead of being a small, portable monument, covers the surface of a massive bluff at Behistun in western Persia. Moreover, all three of its inscriptions are in cuneiform characters, and all three are in languages that at the beginning of our century were absolutely unknown. This inscription itself, as a striking monument of unknown import, had been seen by successive generations. Tradition ascribed it, as we learn from Ctesias, through Diodorus, to the fabled Assyrian queen Semiramis. Tradition was quite at fault in this; but it is only recently that knowledge has availed to set it right. The inscription, as is now known, was really written about the year 515 B.C., at the instance of Darius I., King of Persia, some of whose deeds it recounts in the three chief languages of his widely scattered subjects.

The man who at actual risk of life and limb copied this wonderful inscription, and through interpreting it became the veritable "father of Assyriology," was the English general Sir Henry Rawlinson. His feat was another British triumph over the same rivals who had competed for the Rosetta Stone; for some French explorers had been sent by their government, some years earlier, expressly to copy this strange record, and had reported that it was impossible to reach the inscription. But British courage did not find it so, and in 1835 Rawlinson scaled the dangerous height and made a paper cast of about half the inscription. Diplomatic duties called him away from the task for some years, but in 1848 he returned to it and completed the copy of all parts of the inscription that have escaped the ravages of time. And now the material was in hand for a new science, which General Rawlinson himself soon, assisted by a host of others, proceeded to elaborate.

The key to the value of this unique inscription lies in the fact that its third language is ancient Persian. It appears that the ancient Persians had adopted the cuneiform character from their western neighbors, the Assyrians, but in so doing had made one of those essential modifications and improvements which are scarcely possible to accomplish except in the transition from one race to another. Instead of building with the arrow-head a multitude of syllabic characters, including many homophones, as had been and continued to be the custom with the Assyrians, the Persians selected a few of these characters and ascribed to them phonetic values that were almost purely alphabetic. In a word, while retaining the wedge as the basal stroke of their script, they developed an alphabet, making the last wonderful analysis of phonetic sounds which even to this day has escaped the Chinese, which the Egyptians had only partially effected, and which the Phoenicians were accredited by the Greeks with having introduced to the Western world. In addition to this all-essential step, the Persians had introduced the minor but highly convenient custom of separating the words of a sentence from one another by a particular mark, differing in this regard not only from the Assyrians and Egyptians, but from the early Greek scribes as well.

Thanks to these simplifications, the old Persian language had been practically restored about the beginning of the nineteenth century, through the efforts of the German Grotefend, and further advances in it were made just at this time by Renouf, in France, and by Lassen, in Germany, as well as by Rawlinson himself, who largely solved the problem of the Persian alphabet independently. So the Persian portion of the Behistun inscription could be at least partially deciphered. This in itself, however, would have been no very great aid towards the restoration of the languages of the other portions had it not chanced, fortunately, that the inscription is sprinkled with proper names. Now proper names, generally speaking, are not translated from one language to another, but transliterated as nearly as the genius of the language will permit. It was the fact that the Greek word Ptolemaics was transliterated on the Rosetta Stone that gave the first clew to the sounds of the Egyptian characters. Had the upper part of the Rosetta Stone been preserved, on which, originally, there were several other names, Young would not have halted where he did in his decipherment.

But fortune, which had been at once so kind and so tantalizing in the case of the Rosetta Stone, had dealt more gently with the Behistun inscriptions; for no fewer than ninety proper names were preserved in the Persian portion and duplicated, in another character, in the Assyrian inscription. A study of these gave a clew to the sounds of the Assyrian characters. The decipherment of this character, however, even with this aid, proved enormously difficult, for it was soon evident that here it was no longer a question of a nearly perfect alphabet of a few characters, but of a syllabary of several hundred characters, including many homophones, or different forms for representing the same sound. But with the Persian translation for a guide on the one hand, and the Semitic languages, to which family the Assyrian belonged, on the other, the appalling task was gradually accomplished, the leading investigators being General Rawlinson, Professor Hincks, and Mr. Fox-Talbot, in England, Professor Jules Oppert, in Paris, and Professor Julian Schrader, in Germany, though a host of other scholars soon entered the field.

This great linguistic feat was accomplished about the middle of the nineteenth century. But so great a feat was it that many scholars of the highest standing, including Joseph Ernest Renan, in France, and Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, in England, declined at first to accept the results, contending that the Assyriologists had merely deceived themselves by creating an arbitrary language. The matter was put to a test in 1855 at the suggestion of Mr. Fox-Talbot, when four scholars, one being Mr. Talbot himself and the others General Rawlinson, Professor Hincks, and Professor Oppert, laid before the Royal Asiatic Society their independent interpretations of a hitherto untranslated Assyrian text. A committee of the society, including England's greatest historian of the century, George Grote, broke the seals of the four translations, and reported that they found them unequivocally in accord as regards their main purport, and even surprisingly uniform as regards the phraseology of certain passages - in short, as closely similar as translations from the obscure texts of any difficult language ever are. This decision gave the work of the Assyriologists official status, and the reliability of their method has never since been in question. Henceforth Assyriology was an established science.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.