Cuneiform Inscriptions, Or Cuneatic Inserip-Tions (Lat. cuneus, a wedge), the monumental records of the inhabitants of the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. They are also called claviform (Lat. claws, a nail), cludiform (mediasval Lat. cludus, a nail), arrow-headed inscriptions, and sphenograms (Gr. a wedge). The writing is also called sphenography. All these names refer to the form of the elementary characters. These elements are two, the one resembling a wedge the other an arrow-head ; but if we regard the latter as a combination of two wedges, we may consider the writing as made up wholly of wedges. All the characters were produced by different combinations and arrangements of these figures, the variations being hardly more than those in the different handwritings of different persons. The wedge is sometimes shortened to nearly the form of an equilateral triangle ; and there are other unimportant variations. In some of the most ancient inscriptions the wedge is nearly a straight line, but all the forms are destitute of curves. This most ancient kind is sometimes, though for no good reason, styled hieratic. The inscriptions are found upon rocks, stone slabs, and monuments, on vases, gems, seals, and especially upon bricks and small cylinders or prisms, made of clay and baked in the sun or burned in kilns. The wedges are sometimes as much as two inches in length, while others, especially those made in clay, are so small as to require the aid of a magnifying glass to decipher them. Most of them are found in western Persia, but they are scattered at intervals from the confines of the Caspian to Egypt. Those which were first discovered and copied are in three different languages, and as many different kinds of writing, although each is composed of wedges. In all these trilingual inscriptions the writing which stands first, or in the most prominent position, is the simplest and was first deciphered. It is known as the Persian cuneiform writing.
That which comes next is more complicated, consisting of nearly three times as many characters as the first, and is generally called Scythian; while the third, usually designated as the Assyrian or Babylonian, is the most complicated, and is variously estimated to consist of from GOO to 700 characters. The deciphering of the characters and interpretation of the language of the first kind may be considered complete and satisfactory, and will always be regarded as one of the greatest achievements of modern scholarship. The use of this kind of writing seems to have ceased soon after the time of Alexander the Great, and for nearly 2,000 years it had been utterly forgotten. In 1618 Garcia de Sylva Figueroa, ambassador of Philip III. of Spain, while on a visit to the ruins of Persepolis, copied a small portion of an inscription, and expressed the conviction that it was in some lost writing, and perhaps some lost language. Pietro della Valle, the Italian traveller, was at this time in Persia, and on terms of friendship with Figueroa; and in 1622 he sent to Athanasius Kircher a brick inscribed with sphenograms.
From that time almost every traveller of note in the East referred to these inscriptions, and many brought specimens and copies to Europe. Half a century later Chardin published some which he had copied at Persepolis, and declared his opinion that they were writing and not hieroglyphics, but that nothing more would ever be known in regard to them. In 1767Karstens Niebuhr, the father of the celebrated historian, on his return from a voyage in the East undertaken in the service of the Danish government, brought with him copies of inscriptions found in the ruins of Persepolis. These were published a few years after, and it was principally upon them that the first successful attempts to decipher this kind of writing were made. But during the period of a century and a half that had elapsed since the time of Figueroa and Delia Valle, numerous speculations as to the nature of these inscriptions had been published. Thomas Hyde, an oriental scholar of eminence, considered them mere idle fancies of the architect, who wished to show how many different combinations of a simple stroke could be made; and he regretted that he had ever wasted any time upon them. Witte of Rostock thought they were marks of the work of generations of worms.
Other opinions were that they were talismanic signs, formulas of priests, astronomical symbols, and charms. By different persons the characters were considered to be Chinese, Cufic, Hebrew, Samaritan, or Greek; and some thought they resembled the runes of the north of Europe. Those whose opinions were the most absurd were the most earnest in their advocacy. The first real step in the solution of the problem was made by Kar-stens Niebuhr. He did not pretend to interpret these inscriptions; but he rightfully conjectured that those of which he had published copies were written in three different alphabets. That they were also in three different languages he of course could not know, but supposed the same text was written in each of the three alphabets. In 1798 Tychsen of Rostock, and in 1800 Miinter of Copenhagen, attempted further to elucidate this theory; but all they really accomplished was the correct conjectures that a frequently recurring group of characters represented some word signifying "king," and that a single wedge, frequently recurring, placed in an oblique direction pointing downward and to the right, was employed to separate the words.
Such was the condition of the problem previous to 1802. On Sept. 7 of that year G. F. Grotefend, then 27 years old, presented to the academy of sciences at Gottingen his first attempt at deciphering the cuneiform alphabet. The most complete exposition of the manner in which he arrived at his results is contained in an appendix to Heeren's Ideen uber die Politik, den Verkehr und den Handel der vornehmsten Volker der alien Welt, editions of 1815 and 1824. It is also contained in the English translations of that work, " Historical Researches," etc. (London, 1833 and 1854, vol. ii. p. 319). Grotefend endeavored to establish that the inscriptions were in some kind of writing, and that their chief characteristic was the absence of all curvatures, in consequence of which they were especially fitted for cutting in stone and other hard materials; and it is true that no direct evidence of the employment of splenography in any manner except upon stone or clay hardened by heat or materials of a like nature has been found. Grotefend confined his attention to the first or simplest kind of cuneiform writing.
He remarked that all the horizontal wedges pointed toward the right, all the perpendicular ones downward, and all the oblique ones upward toward the right or downward toward the right, while the inner angle of the arrowhead always opened toward the right, Hence he concluded that the writing was to be read from left to right. He further concluded that the inscriptions probably belonged to the age of the Achoemenian kings of Persia; and he determined to compare the names of those kings as given in the Greek historians with some of the first words of the inscriptions. He conjectured that two combinations of characters occurring in the inscriptions represented the names of kings who were father and son, and he endeavored to ascertain which of the Greek names of the Persian kings the characters probably represented. They could not be Cyrus and Cambyses, because what he supposed to be the first letters in the names were different. They could not be Cyrus and Artaxerxes, for the first seemed to be too short and the second too long in proportion to the characters. The names of Darius and Xerxes were free from these objections. Darius and Xerxes were father and son; their names commenced with different letters, and they seemed about the right length.
In all these conjectures and conclusions he was correct, and the first step in the solution of the problem was made. But he was not able to complete it. He had but a small number of copies of inscriptions; they were not entirely accurate; and they did not contain enough examples of the use of some of the letters to determine what sounds they represented. Nor did he possess the knowledge necessary to complete success. He did not understand Sanskrit, or any of the Iranian languages with which the language of ancient Persia is connected. He however succeeded in determining nearly one third of the letters correctly, and came near to a few others. The next important discovery was made by R. Rask, the celebrated Danish traveller and philologist. In his work on the Zend language (1826) he determined the value of two characters representing m and w, which Grotefend had interpreted differently. No further progress was made for the next ten years. In 1836 two works appeared almost simultaneously by two of the greatest orientalists of Europe, Eugene Burnouf in France and Christian Lassen in Germany. Each had worked in entire independence of the other.
Though the great French scholar made considerable advances beyond the results of Grotefend, his work was in a measure cast in the shade by that of his German contemporary. Lassen's most important discovery was that the short vowel a was in certain conditions to be regarded as inherent in the character representing the consonant, in the same manner as in the Sanskrit alphabet. Although Lassen's alphabet was not perfect, it was sufficient to enable scholars to undertake the work of investigating the grammatical form and interpreting the meaning of the language of the inscriptions. From this time many scholars directed their attention to the subject. Beer in Germany and Jacquet in France contributed to the correction of some of Lassen's errors. But as yet the scholars of Europe had not at hand a sufficient number of inscriptions to make much progress. In 1839 the widow of C. J. Rich, an Englishman who had resided many years in Bagdad, published from manuscripts left by her husband several additional inscriptions which he had copied with great care. In 1845 N. L. Westergaard of Copenhagen, one of the most learned orientalists of Europe, returned from a scientific journey in the East, and brought copies of several inscriptions.
He submitted his papers to Lassen, whereby the latter was enabled to correct some of his previous errors, and he published a more accurate alphabet in the journal of the German oriental society. A. Holtzmann also, in a work published in 1845, corrected some errors in Lassen's last work. But even the alphabet was not yet entirely understood. It was certain that in some cases three, in others two, different characters represented the same letter; but under what conditions one form was used rather than another was not yet determined. Three different persons, widely separated, discovered the key to the difficulty. H. C. Rawlinson of England, of whom we shall hereafter speak more fully, in a note dated at Bagdad, Aug. 25, 1846, the Rev. E. Hincks of Killyleagh in Ireland, in a paper in the transactions of the royal Irish academy, dated Oct. 22 of the same year, and Julius Oppert, in a work published in Berlin in 1847, but before the views of Rawlinson and Hincks were known in Germany, all discovered that the use of one or the other form of a consonant depended upon the vowel which followed it. Thus the sound represented by our letter d is indicated in these inscriptions by three different characters, according as it is followed by a or i or u.
But the work of Oppert also contained the important discovery that the nasals m and n were often to be pronounced before consonants although not written. This last discovery completed the deciphering of the cuneiform writing of the first kind, and no essential change in the alphabet has since been made. This alphabet, with its transliteration into Latin letters, is herewith given. It will be observed that some of the consonants vary in form according to the vowel which follows them, while others have the same form before all the vowels. The cause of this anomaly is not yet known.
It is known that the writing was at one time syllabic. For example, there was one character to represent the syllable da, another to represent di, and another to represent du; and the vowels were not represented by any separate symbol. Afterward characters were invented to represent the vowels; but the various forms of the consonants, although only one form of each was any longer necessary, were in the case of some of the letters still retained. But why the various forms should have been retained in the case of some letters and not of others, is a point not yet satisfactorily explained. - While Burnouf, Lassen, and others were prosecuting their labors in Europe, another investigator was at work in the country where the inscriptions were chiefly found. II.