Cuneiform and the Bible

See Also: Empires of the Plain

By Lesley Adkins
Author and Archaeologist
October 2003

    In the early nineteenth century, the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion embarked on deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, because he was fascinated by the origins of the world and thought he might gain access to texts that were far older than the Bible. In this he was successful, and the full story is told in my book The Keys of Egypt, including his dramatic breakthrough in 1822, followed by his tragically early death a decade later. Had he lived, it is curious to think that he would certainly have followed with interest and energy the last great linguistic challenge – the decipherment of cuneiform – and would have entered into correspondence with the man who did the most for decipherment: Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. I have recently turned my attention to Rawlinson’s story, published as Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon, a story that is full of adventure, linguistic challenges and the discovery of civilizations that were to prove the veracity of Old Testament stories.

    Rawlinson was born in 1810 at Chadlington in Oxfordshire, England, and so was twenty years younger than Champollion. At school, he proved himself very able at Latin and ancient Greek, but decided that he did not want to go to university, but preferred to enter the army. At the age of seventeen he went to India as a military cadet in the East India Company, but his interest in languages did not flag, and he began to learn Hindustani, Marathi and Persian. He was so proficient at Persian that he was sent with a military mission to Persia, nowadays called Iran, where he came face to face with cuneiform inscriptions, initially at the ancient city of Persepolis, but later on he discovered inscriptions carved on rock faces. Many of them were trilingual – written in three languages. The most crucial inscription was on the face of a mountain at Bisitun in western Persia, close to the border with modern-day Iraq, which was an enormous monument carved on the orders of Darius the Great. It was regarded as inaccessible, because the path to it had been quarried away after the inscription was finished. Nobody had reckoned on Rawlinson, though, who by chance was posted to the remote town of Kermanshah, just twenty miles away. Rawlinson had not only become obsessed with cuneiform, he was also an excellent and daring mountaineer.

    Unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform was not a single system of writing representing just one language – it was used for numerous languages over three thousand years and varied from language to language. Before the decipherment of cuneiform, stories in the Bible and those of Greek and Roman writers were the only written record of the ancient history of the Middle East. Genesis related that after the Flood, Noah, his wife, his sons Shem, Ham and Japeth and their wives were the only people in the world. Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah, was supposedly the initial ruler of Shinar and Assyria, which made up Mesopotamia, stretching from the Taurus mountains of Anatolia southwards to the Persian Gulf and encompassing much of modern Iraq. Shinar was the Hebrew name for Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia), while Assyria was the name given to northern Mesopotamia. The name Mesopotamia is itself an ancient Greek term, ‘between the rivers’, referring to the Tigris and Euphrates. Genesis records Nimrod as the founder of the first cities after the Flood, including Babel, Nineveh and Calah – better known today as Babylon, Nineveh and Nimrud.

    As all the people of the world descended from Noah and his sons, only one language should have been spoken, and so the author of Genesis tried to explain that the confusion of many languages was a punishment from God, the story referring to the building of the fabled city of Babylon that grew up alongside the Euphrates. The story relates that at Babylon a mud-brick tower – the Tower of Babel – was constructed with the intention of reaching heaven, which incurred the displeasure of God. The story may have been inspired by Babylon’s immense ziggurat known as Etemenanki (‘Foundation of Heaven and Earth’). Like other ziggurats, Etemenanki was a solid stepped pyramid with a monumental exterior staircase and temple on top. The reasons for God’s displeasure are not given in Genesis, but the punishment was to disperse the inhabitants of Babylon far and wide and to ‘confuse their language’, so that they spoke different languages and could no longer communicate and cooperate. Because the similar-sounding Hebrew word balal means ‘confuse’ (and therefore a confusion of languages, or babble), the Genesis writer believed that this was why the city was called Babel. The name was actually derived from the much earlier name of Babilu, which, written in cuneiform, means ‘gate of the god’, and later on the ancient Greeks called the city Babylon. The origin of the city’s name had nothing to do with why many languages are spoken throughout the world, but referred to the impressive gates of this fortified city. Because knowledge of cuneiform and its languages had been lost, so too had the origins of the name Babylon.

    The main natural resources of ancient Mesopotamia were clay, silt and mud, as well as bitumen, which seeped to the surface in many areas, a hint of today’s oil industry. Buildings such as ziggurats were constructed primarily of bricks that were manufactured by mixing together mud, straw and water and shaped in wooden moulds, after which they were left to dry hard in the sun, and only rarely baked in a kiln. Mortar was unknown, but mud bricks were bonded together with mud and also bitumen. Bricks were entirely coated with bitumen as a protection against damp when it was necessary to waterproof the foundations of buildings, because such bricks rapidly revert to mud when wet. Even with normal wear and tear, mud bricks gradually turn to dust, so that collapsed buildings would form a layer of soil over which new buildings were constructed. With the accumulation of rubbish and decomposed bricks, mounds (called tells) were formed and have become a distinctive feature of the Mesopotamian landscape.

    The lack of stone and the abundance of mud not only determined building methods in Mesopotamia, but also its very writing system. With no other suitable material for writing, the ubiquitous mud was used to make rectangular, square-shaped or occasionally oval tablets. From a ball of damp clay, tablets were flattened into a shape that fitted in the hand, though some could be far larger, and generally had one convex and one flat side. Writing was done usually with a reed stylus by making impressions in the damp clay. Because one end of the stylus was cut at an angle, wedge- or triangular-shaped marks were produced, with signs made up of lines or strokes that had one end wider than the other, displaying a characteristic wedge or tapering shape. The system of writing is known today by the clumsy word ‘cuneiform’, which is literally ‘of wedge-shaped form’, from the Latin word cuneus, meaning wedge. After writing, tablets were left to dry hard in the sun, or occasionally fired in a kiln.

    Cuneiform was not a language, but a script or writing system that was used to convey several different spoken languages. In Egypt, hieroglyphic writing was used only to write down the ancient Egyptian language, so hieroglyphs tend to be considered as both a writing system and the ancient language, but cuneiform is more like the later Roman script, which was first used at Rome to write down Latin. With modifications, this Roman script has continued to be a writing system for over two thousand years and is used today to write down numerous languages worldwide, such as English and Spanish. Cuneiform is similar to the Roman script in that it too was used for a long period to write down different languages, evolving to suit each language and also evolving over time. For around three thousand years it was the writing system that recorded the many languages spoken across an extensive area, from Iraq to Syria, central Turkey and south-west Iran. These languages included Sumerian, Akkadian, Urartian, Elamite and Old Persian. Cuneiform was last used at Babylon in AD 75 on a clay tablet about astronomy. Because the system of cuneiform varied from language to language and changed over time, decipherers like Rawlinson had a twofold problem: working out the particular writing system and translating the language in question.

    Sumerian was the earliest language to be written in cuneiform, and on the early tablets, the signs were grouped randomly in boxes. With the increased use of signs for syllables, the written language became more structured, and grammatical elements developed. More complex words could be expressed, and because word order became important, signs began to be written in a single horizontal line, from left to right. Even so, there was no punctuation, nor spaces between words. Because Sumerian cuneiform signs started off as pictographs that were subsequently used as ideograms and syllables as well, almost every sign acquired several different functions. Many signs (termed polyphones) acquired several alternative sounds. For example, the sign du, meaning ‘leg’, could also have other associated meanings with different pronunciations, such as gub, ‘to stand’, gin, ‘to go’, and túm, ‘to bring’. To get around this problem, the final consonant could be emphasized by adding another sign, a phonetic complement, comprising that final consonant and a vowel (usually a). This sign was not pronounced, but indicated what word was meant. For example, when this particular sign was to be read as gin, a sign for na was added, which cuneiform scholars write as gin(na) or ginna. Some Sumerian signs were pronounced the same way (like flour and flower in English). These signs are termed homophones – having the same sound. For example, there were ten different signs for the word or syllable pronounced tum.

    Sumerian ceased to be an everyday spoken language by about 2000 BC, but scribes continued to copy out texts and word lists, often with Akkadian translations, because Sumerian became a prestigious and scholarly dead language, like Latin in the Middle Ages. Akkadian, the oldest known Semitic language, belonging to the same family of languages as Hebrew and Arabic, had become the everyday spoken language. Originally used alongside Sumerian, Akkadian was first written down around 2800 BC, initially for proper names within Sumerian texts, but from 2500 BC as full Akkadian texts. Although a Semitic language, the cuneiform writing system for Akkadian was based on Sumerian, despite the two languages being vastly different. Rawlinson did not tackle Sumerian, because he only realized its existence years after he begun his work. Akkadian (‘the tongue of Akkad’) takes its name from Akkad (or Agade), which was founded as the capital city of the new empire of Akkad around 2300 BC by King Sargon, after uniting several independent city states in northern Babylonia and Sumer. The city of Akkad has never been discovered, but it probably lay north of Babylon.

    Most Akkadian words had more than one syllable, and the cuneiform signs used to spell out words phonetically were either single vowels such as a, consonant-vowels such as tu, vowel-consonants such as an or consonant-vowel-consonants such as nim – never single consonants. Sumerian signs were frequently adopted as syllables or to represent entire Akkadian words. For example, the Sumerian sign an, meant sky or heaven, and this same sign was adopted for Akkadian, but in that language was pronounced as shamu. The same Sumerian sign could mean a god, dingir, which was also adopted in Akkadian, but pronounced ilu. As in Sumerian, a few Akkadian signs were used as determinatives and placed before or after words to clarify the type of word (such as a place or a god), and these signs were not pronounced. Phonetic complements functioned in a similar way to those of Sumerian cuneiform, but were not so widely used.

    By 2000 BC about six hundred Akkadian signs were used, but most signs had two or more values or readings, representing a syllable, an entire word or a determinative. Some signs (the polyphones) had more than one phonetic value or syllable, such as one sign that can represent the syllables urlig, or tash, and several different signs (the homophones) shared the same sound, such as various signs that all represent the sound ur. As with Sumerian, scholars today show a sign’s value by a system of accents and numbers: the most common homophone in a group has no notation, the second an acute accent over the vowel, the third a grave accent, and the fourth and following have numbers, as in urúrùrur4 and ur5, called ur-one, ur-two, ur-three, ur-four, ur-five and so on. They are all pronounced the same – as ur.

    Sumerian had a great influence on the written form of Akkadian, such as the verb occurring at the end of the sentence, which does not occur in other Semitic languages. However, verbs in Akkadian were not constructed like those of Sumerian (which had a fixed root word to which prefixes or suffixes were added). Instead, they had a root of three consonants (triliterals), which changed internally according to the meaning, mainly with the addition of different vowels. Many Akkadian nouns ended in ‘m’, such as sharrum (king), but this ending was dropped towards the end of Old Assyrian and Old Babylonian, so that the word became sharru. There were no spaces between words, but there was occasional punctuation, such as an upright wedge to indicate the beginning of a sentence. The writing was read from left to right, and larger clay tablets could be divided into columns, like a modern newspaper, which were also read from left to right. Horizontal lines often separated each line of cuneiform writing.

    There were three main Akkadian dialects, known today as Old Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian, and all used slightly different cuneiform scripts. In reality they were so similar that the terms tend to be interchangeable, and today they are studied as a single language, although as with any other language, Akkadian changed over the centuries. From 1400 BC cuneiform, especially Babylonian, became the international language, the lingua franca, of diplomatic relations and trade over a vast area from Asia Minor to Egypt. From the eighth century BC, Aramaic – the Semitic language of the Aramaeans, a nomadic tribe from the Syrian desert – became widespread as a spoken language, gradually replacing languages such as Akkadian. Scribes of cuneiform and Aramaic are depicted in reliefs working side-by-side at this time. The Aramaic writing system, based on the Phoenician alphabet, was much more simple and could be written with pen and ink on materials such as parchment and papyrus. It soon began to be adopted in place of cuneiform, and Aramaic became the international language of diplomacy and administration, while Akkadian became a literary and scholarly language.

    From the sixth century BC Persia began to expand its already immense empire westwards, firstly into areas like Elam and Babylonia where cuneiform was used and later as far as Egypt and Greece. Elamite, which is a non-Semitic language not closely related to any other, is first seen around 2300 BC and became an official language of the Persian Empire. It is known mainly from hundreds of clay tablets found at Susa, the city that became the summer capital of Darius the Great, and also at his new capital Persepolis, as well as on monumental inscriptions such as at Bisitun. Not content with adopting Babylonian and Elamite cuneiform, Darius also invented a system of cuneiform for writing down his own language of Old Persian, which had never before been written down. This was the first time in antiquity that a complete writing system had been invented, rather than gradually evolving. Old Persian cuneiform was used for the first time from 521 BC in the inscription at Bisitun, and Darius and his successor Xerxes had many of their achievements recorded in other trilingual inscriptions in Elamite, Babylonian and the newly invented Old Persian cuneiform.

    Loosely based on the signs used for Sumerian and Akkadian, Old Persian cuneiform was a far simpler system, since it followed the alphabetical principles of Aramaic. There were thirty-six signs in all – signs for the three vowels ai and u, twenty-two signs for consonants usually linked to the vowel a, four linked to the vowel i and seven to the vowel u. Two simple signs were used as word dividers, which was to prove a valuable aid to decipherment, and single signs represented the words king, land, earth, god and Ahuramazda, as well as numerals. Unlike other types of cuneiform, the invented Old Persian cuneiform is rarely found on clay tablets, but normally as inscriptions on rock faces, metal plaques, vases, stone buildings and stone monuments. Old Persian cuneiform was in use for less than two centuries, having been abandoned by the time the Macedonian Greek conqueror Alexander the Great defeated Darius III in 333 BC, overran the Persian Empire and sacked Persepolis.

    Three languages were present in the Bisitun inscription – Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian – using three different versions of cuneiform to convey the same message, and so the inscription was an invaluable aid to understanding cuneiform scripts. Rawlinson not only had the dedication and skill to copy the inscription, but he also possessed the linguistic abilities to tackle the decipherment, impelled by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of history and ancient geography and a driving ambition to be first in anything he tackled. After serving in the First Afghan War, he turned down a more prestigious job so that he could take on the role of Political Agent at Baghdad in order to be close to the cuneiform inscriptions in the mountains of western Persia, including Bisitun. By chance, he found himself at the heart of the most important cuneiform discoveries, because the mounds of Mesopotamia, once ancient cities, such as Nineveh, Nimrud abd Babylon, were just starting to be explored. Rawlinson was in a prime position to examine the cuneiform inscriptions covering the relief sculptures and colossal statues, as well as the thousands of cuneiform tablets that had belonged to the palace libraries.

    The decipherment of cuneiform was not a straightforward process, and Rawlinson began with the most simple type: Old Persian. In fact, a German scholar by the name of Grotefend had already made some headway, using drawings of trilingual inscriptions from Persepolis. Rawlinson initially had no idea of Grotefend’s existence, so duplicated and then surpassed his work. In 1802, over three decades before Rawlinson began his work,Grotefend studied the most simple of the three scripts: the Old Persian. Just a few years earlier, Silvestre de Sacy, an Oriental scholar in Paris, had worked out the meaning of Sasanian (Middle Persian) inscriptions from Naqsh-i Rustam near Persepolis, using the aid of identical inscriptions in ancient Greek. Because they contained the names and title of kings, Grotefend thought that these cuneiform inscriptions might be similar, but perhaps dating to the time of Xerxes. From these suppositions, he thought that the inscriptions would include the formula ‘Xerxes, great king, king of kings, son of Darius, great king, king of kings, son of Hystaspes’.

    Using this method, Grotefend successfully identified the groups of signs for Xerxes, Darius and Hystaspes and also the group of signs for ‘king’, but did not work out all the individual cuneiform signs correctly. Using versions of the names derived from ancient Greek, Hebrew and Avestan, he thought that the cuneiform signs for Darius represented d-a-r-h-e-u-sh (darheush), although in fact they spell da-a-ra-ya-va-u-sha (darayavaush). The cuneiform signs for Xerxes were identified by him as kh-sh-h-e-r-sh-e (khshhershe), but they are actually xa-sha-ya-a-ra-sha-a (xashayarasha). The group of signs that Grotefend believed meant ‘king’ gave him kh-sh-e-h-?-?-h, when looking at identical signs within darheush and khshhershe. From the Avesta, he knew that khsheio was a royal title, so he deduced that the missing signs were i and o, to give khshehioh, although the word is actually xa-sha-a-ya-tha-i-ya (xashayathaiya). By working out the values of the signs that he thought represented the name Hystaspes, and by filling in the gaps, Grotefend arrived at g-o-sh-t-a-s-p (goshtasp), although it is now spelled vi-i-sha-ta-a-sa-pa (vishatasapa).

    From identifying these names, Grotefend next worked out part of the alphabet for Old Persian, not realizing that many signs represented syllables, not single alphabetical letters. Despite many errors, he had achieved the first steps in decipherment. When Rawlinson began his work, he had the enormous advantage of the huge Bisitun inscription, which gave him far more material. In just a few years, he had worked out all the meanings of the Old Persian signs, as well as a great deal of vocabulary and grammar. He made contact with the Royal Asiatic Society in London, a learned society that was highly supportive of his work and published many of his results. He next set to work on Babylonian, but began to have competition from other scholars, notably the brilliant Edward Hincks in Ireland. Even so, Rawlinson had the huge advantage of examining all the finds that were coming out of the excavations. Again, he worked out the value of many signs, much vocabulary and grammar. What was of particular interest was the discovery by him in 1850 of names and events that occurred in the Old Testament, such as Judah, Hezekiah, Jerusalem and Samaria. This announcement created enormous interest, because it provided the first real link between the Assyrians and the Old Testament, and the promise of constructing a true, well-dated history. Biblical studies took on a new dimension, as people, places and events were found to be real.

    In 1870 the Society for Biblical Archaeology was formed in London, and Rawlinson became its Vice-President. Less than two years later, George Smith, one of his protegés, made a startling discovery at the British Museum when he was studying a cuneiform tablet from Nineveh: he came across a version of the Flood story that was earlier than the Bible, part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He delivered a lecture to the society at the end of 1872, attended by an audience of distinguished people including the Prime Minister, such was the level of interest. Smith’s discovery was incredible news, because it showed that the Old Testament version was not unique, and he was sponsored to go back to Nineveh, though tragically he died soon after of dysentery. Rawlinson himself died in 1895, by which time he had seen many other scholars extend his work, with Biblical studies and Biblical archaeology well and truly established.

Article Comments

Submitted by Gene Tackett on Mon, 03/15/2021 - 07:29


I fine it interesting that there is no mention of Irving Finkel or his fine book "The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood". He has carried on the work of Rawlinson at the British Museum. In addition, he contributed to the work of John Curtis and Nigel Tallis "Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia".

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