Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
308
CHRONOLOGY

found that demonstrated a high development of artistic genius, but great libraries were soon revealed,—books consisting of bricks of various sizes, or of cylinders of the same material, inscribed while in the state of clay with curious characters which became indelible when baking transformed the clay into brick. No one was able to guess, even in the vaguest way, the exact interpretation of these odd characters; but, on the other hand, no one could doubt that they constituted a system of writing, and that the piles of inscribed tablets were veritable books. There were numerous sceptics, however, who did not hesitate to assert that the import of the message so obviously locked in these curious inscriptions must for ever remain an absolute mystery. Here, it was said, were inscriptions written in an unknown character and in a language that for at least two thousand years had been absolutely forgotten. In such circumstances nothing less than a miracle could enable human ingenuity to fathom the secret. Yet the feat pronounced impossible by mid-century scepticism was accomplished by contemporary scholarship, amidst the clamour of opposition and incredulity. Its success contains at once a warning to those doubters who are always crying out that we have reached the limitations of knowledge, and an encouragement and stimulus to would-be explorers of new intellectual realms.

In a few words the manner of the discovery was this. It appears at a glance that the Assyrian written character consists of groups of horizontal, vertical or oblique strokes. The characters thus composed, though so simple as to their basal unit, are appallingly complex in their elaboration. The Assyrians with all their culture, never attained the stage of analysis which demonstrates that only a few fundamental sounds are involved in human speech, and hence that it is possible to express all the niceties of utterance with an alphabet of little more than a score of letters. Halting just short of this analysis, the Assyrian ascribed syllabic values to the characters of his script, and hence, instead of finding twenty odd characters sufficient, he required about five hundred. There was a further complication in that each one of these characters had at least two different phonetic values; and there were other intricacies of usage which, had they been foreknown by inquirers in the middle of the 19th century, might well have made the problem of decipherment seem an utterly hopeless one. Fortunately it chanced that another people, the Persians, had adopted the Assyrian wedge-shaped stroke as the foundation of a written character, but making that analysis of which the Assyrians had fallen short, had borrowed only so many characters as were necessary to represent the alphabetical sounds. This made the problem of deciphering Persian inscriptions a relatively easy one. In point of fact this problem had been partially solved in the early days of the 19th century, thanks to the sagacious guesses of the German philologist Grotefend. Working with some inscriptions from Persepolis which were found to contain references to Darius and Xerxes, Grotefend had established the phonetic values of certain of the Persian characters, and his successors were perfecting the discovery just about the time when the new Assyrian finds were made. It chanced that there existed on the polished surface of a cliff at Behistun in western Persia a tri-lingual inscription which, according to Diodorus, had been made by Queen Semiramis of Nineveh, but which, as is now known, was really the work of King Darius. One of the languages of this inscription was Persian; another, as it now appeared, was Assyrian, the language of the newly discovered books from the libraries of Nineveh. There was reason to suppose that the inscriptions were identical in meaning; and fortunately it proved, when the inscriptions were made accessible to investigation through the efforts of Sir Henry Rawlinson, that the Persian inscription contained a large number of proper names. It was well known that proper names are usually transcribed from one language into another with a tolerably close retention of their original sounds. For example, the Greek names Ptolemaios and Kleopatra became a part of the Egyptian language and appeared regularly in Egyptian inscriptions after Alexander’s general became king of Egypt. Similarly, the Greek names Kyros, Dareios and Xerxes were as close an imitation as practicable of the native names of these Persian monarchs. Assuming, then, that the proper names found in the Persian portion of the Behistun inscription occurred also in the Assyrian portion, retaining virtually the same sound in each, a clue to the phonetic values of a large number of the Assyrian characters was obviously at hand. Phonetic values known, Assyrian was found to be a Semitic language cognate to Hebrew.

These clues were followed up by a considerable number of investigators, with Sir Henry Rawlinson in the van. Thanks to their efforts, the new science of Assyriology came into being, and before long the message of the Assyrian books had ceased to be an enigma. Of course this work was not accomplished in a day or in a year, but, considering the difficulties to be overcome, it was carried forward with marvellous expedition. In 1857 the new scholarship was put to a famous test, in which the challenge thrown down by Sir George Cornewall Lewis and Ernest Renan was met by Rawlinson, Hincks, Oppert and Fox Talbot in a conclusive manner. The sceptics had declared that the new science of Assyriology was itself a myth: that the investigators, self-deceived, had in reality only invented a language and read into the Assyrian inscriptions something utterly alien to the minds of the Assyrians themselves. But when a committee of the Royal Asiatic Society, with George Grote at its head, decided that the translations of an Assyrian text made independently by the scholars just named were at once perfectly intelligible and closely in accord with one another, scepticism was silenced, and the new science was admitted to have made good its claims.

Naturally the early investigators did not fathom all the niceties of the language, and the work of grammatical investigation has gone on continuously under the auspices of a constantly growing band of workers. Doubtless much still remains to be done; but the essential thing, from the present standpoint, is that a sufficient knowledge of the Assyrian language has been acquired to ensure trustworthy translations of the cuneiform texts. Meanwhile, the material found by Botta and Layard, and other successors, in the ruins of Nineveh, has been constantly augmented through the efforts of companies of other investigators, and not merely Assyrian, but much earlier Babylonian and Chaldaean texts in the greatest profusion have been brought to the various museums of Europe and America. The study of these different inscriptions has utterly revolutionized our knowledge of Oriental history. Many of the documents are strictly historical in their character, giving full and accurate contemporary accounts of events that occurred some thousands of years ago. Exact dates are fixed for long series of events that previously were quite unknown. Monarchs whose very names had been forgotten are restored to history, and the records of their deeds inscribed under their very eyes are before us,—contemporary documents such as neither Greece nor Rome could boast, nor any other nation, with the single exception of Egypt, until strictly modern times. There are, no doubt, gaps in the record; there are long periods for which the chronology is still uncertain. Naturally there is an increasing vagueness as one recedes farther into the past, and for the earlier history of Chaldaea there is great uncertainty. Nevertheless, the Assyriologist speaks with a good deal of confidence of dates as remote as 3800 B.C., the time ascribed to King Sargon, who was once regarded as a mythical person, but is now known to have been an actual monarch. Indeed, there are tablets in the British Museum labelled 4500 B.C.; and later researches, particularly those of the expedition of the University of Pennsylvania at Nippur, have brought us evidence which, interpreted with the aid of estimates as to the average rate of accumulation of dust deposits, leads to the inference that a high state of civilization had been attained in Mesopotamia at least 9000 years ago.

While the Assyriologists have been making these astonishing revelations, the Egyptologists have not been behindhand. Such scholars as Lepsius, Brugsch, de Rougé, Lenormant, Birch, Mariette, Maspero and Erman have perfected the studies of Young and Champollion; while at the same time these and a considerable company of other explorers, most notable of whom