Book: Fresh Light from the Ancient Monuments
Author: A. H. Sayce

Fresh Light from the Ancient Monuments By A. H. Sayce

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 120
Publication Date: 1884

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Fresh light from the ancient monuments : a sketch of the most striking confirmations of the Bible from recent discoveries in Egypt, Palestine, Assyria, Babylonia, Asia Minor. Chapters include: The Book of Genesis; The Exodus out of Egypt; The Moabite Stone and the Inscription of Siloam; The Empire of the Hittites; The Assyrian Invasions; and, Nebuchadrezzar and Cyrus.


The decipherment of the cuneiform or wedge-shaped inscriptions of Assyria has been one of the most marvellous achievements of the present century. It has often been asked how Assyrian scholars have been enabled to read an Assyrian text with almost as much certainty as a page of the Old Testament, although both the language and the characters in which it is written were utterly unknown but a few years ago. A brief history of the origin and progress of the decipherment will best answer the question.

Travellers had discovered inscriptions engraved in cuneiform, or, as they were also termed, arrow-headed, characters on the ruined monuments of Persepolis and other ancient sites in Persia. Some of these monuments were known to have been erected by the Achæmenian princes—Darius, the son of Hystaspes, and his successors—and it was therefore inferred that the inscriptions also had been carved by order of the same kings. The inscriptions were in three different systems of cuneiform writing; and, since the three kinds of inscription were always placed side by side, it was evident that they represented different versions of the same text. The subjects of the Persian kings belonged to more than one race, and just as in the present day a Turkish pasha in the East has to publish an edict in Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, if it is to be understood by all the populations under his charge, so the Persian kings were obliged to use the language and system of writing peculiar to each of the nations they governed, whenever they wished their proclamations to be read and understood by them.

It was clear that the three versions of the Achæmenian inscriptions were addressed to the three chief populations of the Persian Empire, and that the one which invariably came first was composed in ancient Persian, the language of the sovereign himself. Now this Persian version happened to offer the decipherer less difficulties than the two others which accompanied it. The number of distinct characters employed in writing it did not exceed forty, while the words were divided from one another by a slanting wedge. Some of the words contained so many characters that it was plain that these latter must denote letters, and not syllables, and that consequently the Persian cuneiform system must have consisted of an alphabet, and not of a syllabary. It was further plain that the inscriptions had to be read from left to right, since the ends of all the lines were exactly underneath one another on the left side, whereas they terminated irregularly on the right; indeed, the last line sometimes ended at a considerable distance from the right-hand extremity of the inscription.

The clue to the decipherment of the inscriptions was first discovered by the successful guess of a German scholar, Grotefend. Grotefend noticed that the inscriptions generally began with three or four words, one of which varied, while the others remained unchanged. The variable word had three forms, though the same form always appeared on the same monument. Grotefend, therefore, conjectured that this word represented the name of a king, the words which followed it being the royal titles. One of the supposed names appeared much oftener than the others, and as it was too short for Artaxerxes and too long for Cyrus, it was evident that it must stand either for Darius or for Xerxes. A study of the classical authors showed Grotefend that certain of the monuments on which it was found had been constructed by Darius, and he accordingly gave to the characters composing it the values required for spelling "Darius" in its old Persian form. In this way he succeeded in obtaining conjectural values for six cuneiform letters. He now turned to the second royal name, which also appeared on several monuments, and was of much the same length as that of Darius. This could only be Xerxes; but if so, the fifth letter composing it (r) would necessarily be the same as the third letter in the name of Darius. This proved to be the case, and thus afforded the best possible evidence that the German scholar was on the right track.

The third name, which was much longer than the other two, differed from the second chiefly at the beginning, the latter part of it resembling the name of Xerxes. Clearly, therefore, it could be nothing else than Artaxerxes, and that it actually was so, was rendered certain by the fact that the second character composing it was that which had the value of r.

Grotefend now possessed a small alphabet, and with this he proceeded to read the word which always followed the royal name, and therefore probably meant “king.” He found that it closely resembled the word which signified “king” in Zend, the old language of the Eastern Persians, which was spoken in one part of Persia at the same time that Old Persian, the language of the Achæmenian princes, was spoken in another. There could, consequently, be no further room for doubt that he had really solved the great problem, and discovered the key to the decipherment of the cuneiform texts.

But he did little further himself towards the completion of the work, and it was many years before any real progress was made with it. Meanwhile, the study of Zend had made great advances, more especially in the hands of Burnouf, who eventually turned his attention to the cuneiform inscriptions. But it is to Burnouf's pupil, Lassen, as well as to Sir Henry Rawlinson, that the decipherment of these inscriptions owes its final completion. The discovery of the list of Persian satrapies in the inscription of Darius at Naksh-i-Rustem, and above all the copy of the long inscription of Darius on the rock of Behistun, made by Sir H. Rawlinson, enabled these scholars independently of one another to construct an alphabet which differed only in the value assigned to a single character, and, with the help of the cognate Zend and Sanskrit, to translate the language so curiously brought to light. The decipherment of the Persian cuneiform texts thus became an accomplished fact; what was next needed was to decipher the two versions which were inscribed at their side.

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