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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


The Keys to Eygpt
Lesley Adkins & Roy Adkins
Perennial, 2001.

Empire of the Plains:Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon
Lesley Adkins
Thomas Dunne Books, 2004.

These two books together give an excellent picture of two pioneers in the decipherment of long-lost writing. In a more exact sense, Jean-Francois Champollion was the true pioneer, first in the field, working alone, in chronic poor health and constant poverty, exacerbated by an unstable political environment and, although achieving world recognition, dying young. Rawlinson consciously aimed to emulate Champollion’s achievement in deciphering hieroglyphics, by doing the same for cuneiform. He was, in contrast to Champollion, fortunate in his financial circumstances and in having an iron constitution, sufficiently robust for the environment in which he worked which, though certainly itself politically unstable, was in marked contrast to that back home in Britain, which had a government tolerant to the point of indifference as to what one of its representatives in the Middle East actually did. Both had state-funded jobs and both worked at their problems in what might be called their spare time. The academic world of Champollion was, however, state-dependent; Rawlinson’s was not.

The last dated hieroglyphic known was carved in 394 AD. It is surely an indication of the intellectual blind spot of the classical world that the writing and language of Ancient Egypt were available during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but that neither can have been of sufficient interest to its scientists and scholars to provoke study, interpretation and preservation. Alexandria was the cultural capital of the Western world from, say 250 to 50 BC, but there is no evidence that it left a legacy that included the millennia of Egyptian civilization. So all that has survived to help us understand it are some bi- or trilingual inscriptions, the most famous of which is the Rosetta stone. It is always nice to hear again the story of its discovery by the French and its acquisition by the British, and another account of Napoleon’s misconceived expedition to Egypt. Jean-Francois Champollion, who was to decipher hieroglyphics and is the subject of The Keys of Egypt, was born at the end of 1790, probably the most unfortunate time for a Frenchman, liable to be swept up by the conscription just when things were starting to go downhill with the Napoleonic regime. In fact he was so precocious that his connexions got him off time and again from Army service on the grounds that his ability was needed academically. Despite this ability, he had a very difficult time making a living by it. The only jobs to be had were state-funded, and most of the time when he was making his way the state was at war.

During all the years while he was too young to start on the hieroglyphic problem, nobody came anywhere near solving it, and from the account presented here, no one else managed to do so afterwards. It may be possible to except the Englishman Thomas Young, who claimed to have taken “the first step”, but if it is granted that Champollion did the same independently and that Young never managed to get any further, there are (despite the blurb on the dustjacket) no rivals to Champollion’s right to be regarded as the sole decipherer and translator. For this purpose he had to familiarise himself with Coptic, an obsolete but preserved language, descendant of Old Egyptian, distantly related to the Semitic languages, which of course he was also familiar with. All these languages were originally written down without vowels; we shall never know what the spoken language of the hieroglyphics sounded like.

The early notions about hieroglyphics, derived from inscriptions on monuments transported to Rome or from other sources, were fanciful to the point of absurdity, even to linking them to Chinese. Oddly, the Chinese cartouche format for name stamps did suggest a correct hypothesis for their presence amongst the hieroglyphics – that they contained royal or sacred names, leading to the key that began the discovery by revealing that some symbols were alphabetical and that others, which were limited in number, therefore had auxiliary functions. The authors give little in the way of description of the technical follow-up to this.

All of Champollion’s work to accomplish this was conducted under difficulties; always in poverty, often in poor health, both of which by weakening his constitution can only have contributed to his early death at 41, in 1832. He was fortunate in having a very supportive elder brother, Jacques-Joseph, who outlived him, dying in 1867, aged 89, and who was considerably luckier career-wise than Jean-Francois. Neither seem to have been able to keep their heads down politically, becoming strong Bonapartists just as Napoleon’s cause was in decline. Unfortunately Grenoble (intriguing to find this is a worn down form of Gratianopolis) where they were living, was on Napoleon’s triumphal route from Elba to Paris in 1815. Not only did it rally to Napoleon but stayed loyal to him after Waterloo; it even had a brief rebellion against the Bourbons, in which both brothers were implicated and were lucky enough only to be condemned to a brief exile to their small native town, Figeac, as a penalty.

Both mananged to retrieve their positions and Champollion finally, working of course in his spare time, solved the problem completely in 1822. Even after his recognition, which in many quarters was extremely grudging, his work was impeded by his having to undertake academic duties. As for the work itself, he was really the only person who could copy down and read with fluency the inscriptions and papyri he had to visit. Not only was this exhausting but it was constantly being interrupted by persons whose status he had to defer to by explaining what he was doing. Life might well have been easier for him had he accepted a professorial chair in Turin. One odd feature of his work was that the time scale it revealed clashed with that of the Bible, an incompatibility that not even the academic world, let alone the Church, was ready for. He did in the end gain Bourbon favour through an aristocratic patron and was able to organize and lead an expedition to Egypt, where he seems to have travelled everywhere possible (as far as the 2nd Cataract) and worked there like a demon from August 1828 to January 1830. Debilitating though this was, it seems more likely that it was the uncongenial climate and living conditions of Paris to which he returned that killed him.

Rawlinson’s task, in Persia and Mesopotamia (now Iran and Iraq) was rather different from Champollion’s. The somewhat mind-boggling evolution of cuneiform, where a single syllable (say ur) could be written with eight different ideograms, instead of being rationalised into one, and its use for different languages, rather as Latin script is today, is given a chapter of its own in Lesley Adkins’ Empires of the Plain. Purists might regard Old Persian cuneiform as somewhat spurious, since it was invented by the imperial will of Darius the First, came close to being an alphabet and though found in inscriptions, rarely appeared on clay tablets, the medium for common writing. In fact, according to the entry in my 1929 Enclyclopaedia Britannica, such clay tablets were merely for the masons to transcribe. Old Persian cuneiform was, however, invaluable as a starting point for decoding more complex writing in other languages, the most fruitful example being the large and long trilingual one cut high up in the rock face at Bisitun, forever to be associated with Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. It had been made purposely inaccessible by the rock below it being cut away after it was finished, to avoid its being desecrated, though rendering its actually being read impossible without considerable risk to life, triumphantly surmounted by Rawlinson’s nerve and climbing skill, dramatically described by Lesley Adkins in the opening pages of her book. There is no discussion of the purpose of these inscriptions, which no one could, in practical terms, get close enough to read (the symbols are only an inch or so high) and only a scribal elite could read anyway. Were they set up just for gods to read, or for posterity?

Rawlinson was born in 1810 and went to India as an East Indian Company cadet in 1827. He seems to have been highly qualified, physically and intellectually, to flourish there, excelling in sport and easily passing language exams but was moved to the periphery of Eastern affairs, first to Persia, where he trained the Shah’s troops and encountered the antiquities, including those at Bisitun, which directed his life’s interest, and finally at his own wish, to Baghdad, in the Ottoman Empire, perhaps the best place to keep in touch with the excavations being carried out by Layard and others, and with Bisitun, just over the border.

Military activity, though not his prime concern, was far from absent. As the British Resident he played a major part in the defence of Kandahar in 1840 – if Nott, its garrison commander, had been appointed to Kabul instead of Elphinstone, the disaster that was the First Afghan War would almost certainly have been avoided. As it was, Nott rejected orders from Elphinstone in Kabul to evacuate Kandahar and successfully defended it, while Ghazni negotiated an evacuation on terms which were violated and its garrison (including Nicholson, as detailed in Soldier Sahibs) harshly treated as prisoners. Rawlinson so impressed the Viceroy, Lord Ellenborough, that he offered him a plum job as Resident in Nepal, but Rawlinson, explaining “to the astonishment of my friends,” that he wanted to continue his studies in cuneiform, which had been in abeyance during his three years in Afghanistan, took the lower-paid post of Political Agent in Turkish Arabia, based in Baghdad. This was certainly a backwater and in a ruinous state, with few remnants of its past glory. For some reason which is not made clear, although he had now been away from England for 15 or 16 years, he was not given leave to return there until 1849.

The long career of Rawlinson as inscription transcriber and translator now began in earnest, for his official duties do not seem to have been that onerous and there was also time for hunting. He became acquainted with Layard who, though kept very short of money and official sanction by Canning, the Ambassador at Constantinople, was digging up ruins, some with libraries of clay tablets. Correctly starting with the Old Persian inscriptions from Bisitun and elsewhere, Rawlinson could, after the symbols had been identified from correctly giving them values derived from proper names, use Sanskrit grammar to help translate them. By 1846, this research was ready for publication by the Royal Asiatic Society, though it got lost in transmission for a time in Constantinople. It sounds an impressive and lavishly produced work of 71 pages with eight fold-out sheets of lithographs of the monument, the sculptures and the cuneiform inscriptions at Bisitun.

It would be unjust not to mention other scholars back in Europe who were also attempting to decipher cuneiform, though with little material at their disposal until Rawlinson supplied it. In this, Rawlinson’s situation differed markedly from Champollion’s, who never had any real competitors. For example, as far back as 1802, before Rawlinson was born, Grotefend in Gottingen had begun to decode an inscription reported from Persepolis, extracting values for signs from presumed royal names. Much was faulty and progress lagged until Rawlinson came up with the materials and the mind to match. Perhaps the most unfortunate of the home workers was the Irish Anglican clergyman Hincks, poor and isolated in the back of beyond, and who, though probably Rawlinson’s intellectual equal, lacked his resources and connections while depending on him for the texts to decipher. His photograph, giving him an almost grotesque appearance, compounds this negative impression of him. Unsurprisingly, relations between the two were prickly, though probably mutually stimulatory. Layard, in his Nineveh and Babylon (1867), pays him a generous obituary tribute. Another worker with a grievance was Hormuzd Rassam, a Christian Arab who worked as an archaeological assistant to Layard and Rawlinson and ended his days in England in neglect.

When he at last managed to get leave, after twenty-two years in the East, Rawlinson arrived in England as a scholarly and social celebrity, with his lectures packed, and even chaired by Prince Albert. He seems to have thoroughly enjoyed himself. After two years he returned to Baghdad; he had hoped that he would have been made Minister to Teheran, but instead someone quite unsuitable was appointed whose alienation of the Shah and his Prime Minister may have brought about an unnecessary war between Persia and Britain. But in 1855, after a fall from his horse and a return to England, Rawlinson retired from the East India Company, which at that time still governed India and appointed its representatives. In 1859, after a stint as an MP, he was appointed Envoy to Persia, but resigned the next year in disgust when, contravening the proviso he made when taking it, the post was removed from the authority of the India Office to the Foreign Office.

In 1862, at 52, he at last married and fathered two sons, both of whom became distinguished soldiers, though Adkins, apart from a mention of their activities as young men in India, gives no account of their careers. That the elder, Harry, became the general that delivered the knock-out blows to the German Army in 1918 surely deserved a few lines, while the younger, Alfred (Toby) seems to have had an enjoyable time in the Near and Middle East during and after World War I, his experiences just before and after its end being lightheartedly recounted in his Adventures in the Near East, 1918-1922, a “good read” I can thoroughly recommend.

Rawlinson himself, hard-hit by the death in 1889 of his wife Louisa, 23 years his junior, died in 1895. A Memoir by his brother was published in 1898.

And what about cuneiform itself, so laboriously deciphered? “There is a desperate need for basic and intermediate books about cuneiform,” writes Dr. Adkins plaintively, introducing her list of recommended reading. It would be churlish to ask, “To read what?” The Epic of Gilgamesh is the only work I know of that’s been published, and that in translation by Penguin Classics. Obviously field-workers (such as Lesley and her husband Roy) should be able to learn to read the various languages that were written in it and I wonder how they manage to do it if they depend on the rather unsatisfactory manuals listed, most out of print. Do the academic presses have cuneiform fonts? Are there computerised versions? There were, it is true, originally around 1200 separate signs, dropping to around 600, but this does not seem an insuperable number, especially when compared to Chinese. Perhaps the original type for both Old Persian and Akkadian cut for Rawlinson by Harrison & Co. to the design of Edwin Norris in 1846-7 is still available for modern typography; “they are,” said Rawlinson, “remarkable instances of the ingenuity, and I may add taste, of a British printer.”

The chapter on cuneiform by C.B.F. Walker in J.T. Hooker, Reading the Past, Guild Publishing, 1990 is informative, comprehensive and straightforward. Likewise is Layard, in the Introduction to his Nineveh and Babylon, mentioned above, and Johannes Friedrich, Extinct Languages (1957/1989). The Conquest of Assyria by Mogens Trolle Larsen brings in practically all the dramatis personae, all given equal treatment.

4 comments to Decipher

  • FWIW a quick google indicates that there are plenty of bueiform fonts for compuetrs:- http://www.google.com/search?q=cuneiform+font&sourceid=opera&num=100&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8

  • UnknownSage

    On the Unicode website –


    – read Michael Everson’s proposal for a standard Unicode 16-bit encoding for Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform. Ugaritic (a Semitic consonantal alphabet that just looks like cuneiform) & Old Persian cuneiform (which is halfway between a syllabary & an alphabet in exactly the same way as the Indian scripts) are separate Unicode encoding proposals.

    There’s a lot of very important Sumerian & Akkadian (Babylonian & Assyrian) literature, not only “belles lettres” but scientific stuff – including astronomy & even a rather sophisticated linguistics (just possibly the ancestor of the Paninian Indian tradition). Mesopotamian historical records are essential if we hope to assemble a unified history of the ancient world – one that handles Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Biblical, Old Persian & early Greek records synoptically.

  • The fascinating Alphabetum Unicode font, which I use, includes characters for, among quite a lot else, Ugaritic and Old Persian. According to the manual for this font, the former has 30 characters and the latter 50 (“The Old Persian repertoire contains 36 signs which represent consonants plus vowels, a set of five numbers (the rest numbers are built up by adding the base numbers together cumulatively), one word divider (a slanting wedge) and eight ideograms.”). Both are apparently part of the standard Unicode inventory, though of course fonts that use them are relatively few. Unicode, by the way, is one of the truly great open technology standards to have emerged, and yet another black mark against Microsoft is that it is another of these that they’ve ignored and marginalized for far too long, though they’ve finally gotten around to recognizing it and deploying it. In a rather inferior (at least to the internal Apple text rendering in OS X) manner, of course, but at long last nonetheless. (See http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~pinax/greekkeys/GreekKeys.html for a bit on that.)

  • Great review, by the way, Findlay.