Summary of the 'Rosetta Stone Bicentennial! Decipherment of Ancient Scripts' AMME seminar

In the second AMME seminar of the fall semester, we celebrated the Rosetta Stone bicentennial with two presentations on deciphering ancient scripts. The presentations by Dr. Thomas Christiansen (Independent) and Dr. Irving Finkel (The British Museum) highlighted some lesser-known events and characters that eventually led to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform.

Dr. Thomas Christiansen introduced us to the fascinating history of western views of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and their decipherment that is traditionally credited solely to Jean François Champollion. For a long time, hieroglyphs were seen as pictures and symbols, not a writing system that is related to spoken language. This “myth of the hieroglyphs” started already in antiquity, for example Diodorus saw them only as symbols and Plotinus believed them to reveal the ideal world of the soul. This view of the hieroglyphs only became stronger when Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica was found in the 1400’s. This two-part book gave detailed explanations of the relationship between hieroglyphic signs and their symbolic meaning. Some of the hieroglyphs of Horapollo were real Egyptian hieroglyphs, but some were clearly later additions. The explanations of the hieroglyphs’ meaning were highly speculative. For example, Horapollo writes that the sign depicting a vulture means “mother” because the bird species has only females. Incredibly, it seems that Horapollo had some access to accurate Egyptian tradition: he has correct translations of many glyphs, even though the logic behind the meaning isn’t correct. The vulture sign does in fact mean “mother”, it just has nothing to do with the species having only females.  

Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica remained the authority on hieroglyphs for a long time, but during the Renaissance and Baroque periods we got closer to real decipherment with the renewed interest in ancient Egyptian culture. In the 1600’s Athanasius Kircher correctly deduced that knowledge of Coptic was important for deciphering hieroglyphs but did not yet realize that the script is phonetic. The final steps towards decipherment began with the finding of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Johan David Åkerblad managed to identify some alphabetically spelled proper names from the demotic portion of the stone. However, it was Thomas Young who realized that hieroglyphs were not all alphabetical, demonstrated that hieroglyphs were indeed largely phonetic, established the relationship between demotic and hieroglyphic scripts, correctly deciphered some of the signs, and even realized the possibility of homophones. Jean François Champollion finalized the decipherment, basing much of his work on the foundations that Thomas Young had laid. As with previous scholars, Champollion started with proper names and foreign words, which eventually led to him cracking the code. Champollion never credited Young on the work he did, so for a long time Young’s influence was not fully appreciated. 

Dr. Irving Finkel’s presentation revealed that the decipherment of the cuneiform script was also the product of multiple talented scholars, even though traditionally Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson is seen as the main decipherer of Babylonian cuneiform. Before the decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform, Rawlinson did play a big role in deciphering the Old Persian cuneiform of the Behistun inscription. In this work, too, he benefited from the work of his contemporaries like Georg Friedrich Grotefend without acknowledgment. Old Persian cuneiform was easier to decipher, since it is semi-alphabetical. The cuneiform used in Akkadian and Sumerian on the other hand are syllabic with signs that have multiple values. On top of this, there are no spaces between words. The whole writing system seems very improbable if you are previously acquainted only with alphabetical writing. When the script was deciphered, many thought that the decipherment was a hoax since it seemed so unbelievable as a writing system. This debate was ended only by a decipherment competition organized by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1857, where it was proven that the Babylonian cuneiform was indeed deciphered correctly. 

Even though not usually credited, the Irish reverend Edward Hincks played a crucial role in the decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform. Hincks was the first person to realize many of the unique difficulties of Babylonian cuneiform that proved to be invaluable in deciphering the script. Already in 1849, he knew both that one sign can have many values, and that the same syllable can be written with many different signs. He was even able to correctly read the “Jehu, son of Omri” inscription on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Rawlinson took Hincks’ understanding and published the decipherment of Babylonian cuneiform without acknowledging Hincks’ existence or that the Irish clergyman was the one who made the most important realizations. According to Dr. Finkel, Rawlinson was able to get away with taking full credit, because he was well connected and already established. He didn’t stop stealing credit with Hincks: He also published five volumes of Inscriptions in the Cuneiform Character under his own name, even though he only oversaw the work and didn’t do the work himself. Similarly, he announced the discovery of the Cyrus cylinder as if it was his own, even though that was nowhere near the case. 

The fascinating presentations and lively discussions showed how history often paints a picture of singular great men making revolutionary breakthroughs, when in reality progress is more of a group effort where each scholar builds on top of preceding work. Join us in person or via Zoom for the next AMME seminar on Monday 31st of  October, when we will delve into ancient warfare! You can find more information here: /en/news/language-culture/amme-seminar-on-forays-into-ancient-warfare-31.10.22