Decipherer's deeds of derring-do

Empires of the Plain
August 20, 2004

Egyptologists have no difficulty in crediting Jean-François Champollion, the subject of Lesley Adkins' last book, with the decipherment of hieroglyphs. But for Assyriologists the decipherment of cuneiform is a much more complex proposition.

Although it was Henry Rawlinson who, at considerable personal danger, copied the crucial trilingual inscriptions in Iran, his work on the decipherment process was part of a much wider picture. This interesting book is as much about that process as it is about Rawlinson. A great deal of research has been incorporated in a form that will appeal to both the specialist and non-specialist.

Rawlinson was the seventh child of Abram and Eliza Rawlinson of Chadlington Manor in north Oxfordshire. He had a somewhat lonely childhood but excelled at Latin and Greek while at boarding school.

From an early age, however, Rawlinson had set his heart on joining the Army and was known in the family as "the General". At 16, he joined the East India Company as a cadet. Before leaving for India in July 18, Rawlinson received private tuition in Hindustani, Persian and military drawing from Thomas Myers in Blackheath. In India he became an ensign in the Bombay Buffs.

At the age of 23 there occurred a defining moment in Rawlinson's life when he was sent with a military detachment to the Shah of Persia in Tehran. In February 1834, the young man passed through Shiraz and made an excursion to Persepolis, the city built by Darius I, who acceded to the throne in 522BC.

He examined the ruins and copied his first inscriptions, without having any idea of what they meant.

Rawlinson was chosen to raise and train a new battalion of Kurdish troops in the province of Kermanshah, on the main trade route from Tehran to Baghdad. On the way there he made a detour to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) at the foot of Mount Elwand, the capital of the Medes in the 8th century BC, where there were two adjacent panels of trilingual cuneiform inscriptions in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Rawlinson carefully and accurately made copies of these.

In July 1836, he finally began work at the gorge of Bisitun, with which his name was for ever to be associated. A massive monument of Darius dominates the plain 200ft below.

Not only did Rawlinson manage to scale the monument - access having been destroyed by the original constructors in antiquity - but he was also able, occasionally standing on one leg, to make creditable copies of most of the inscription. This was a hair-raising feat of derring-do, determination and bravery.

Rawlinson's ground-breaking decipherment of the Old Persian version of the inscription was published by the Royal Geographical Society in 1839. After he became political agent (and later British Consul) in Baghdad in 1843, he was able to devote more time to his linguistic ambitions.

From then on, his energies were directed towards the race to publish.

Meanwhile in Europe, other scholars had made considerable headway.

Rawlinson's Bisitun drawings and further translations were published by the Royal Asiatic Society in 1845. In 1848, "the Irish intruder", as Adkins describes him, entered the picture. Edward Hincks, an impecunious Irish clergyman, had read Hebrew at Trinity College Dublin and published a Hebrew grammar in 1832. Using all available cuneiform material, he had forged ahead with far better understanding.

Rawlinson returned to England at Christmas in 1849 after 22 years in the East. He was a national hero: brave, romantic, glamorous and eligible.

Hincks, by contrast, was somewhat dour, in dire financial circumstances and well away from the action, living in Ireland.

The two men met in 1850 but it was not a success. Rawlinson continued to hog the limelight and claim most of the credit for decipherment. This was a great pity because in many ways their work could have been complementary.

Rawlinson was always far more interested in the historical and geographical content of the texts, while Hincks, a brilliant linguist, was more concerned with the signs, the script and the grammar.

Rawlinson returned to Baghdad in 1851. In 1855, he abandoned his diplomatic career and returned to London to concentrate on decipherment.

Unlike Hincks, he had a handsome pension and in February 1856 he was knighted. Learned societies heaped honours on him. The British Museum published his translations. It is greatly to his discredit that he tried to prevent the museum from publishing Hincks' translations too. In due course he took George Smith (who was to discover the Flood Tablet and put together the Epic of Gilgamesh) under his wing.

Rawlinson died a hero of the Victorian age. But he had too high an opinion of himself and an inability to give credit to others. Adkins has taken her subject very much at his own valuation, with the result that her somewhat uncritical view of his achievements mars an otherwise well-researched book.

Henrietta McCall is curator in the department of the Ancient Near East, British Museum.

Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon

Author - Lesley Adkins
Publisher - HarperCollins
Pages - 424
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 00 712899 1

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