Henry Creswicke Rawlinson Cracks Cuneiform

Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson was born in Chadlington, Oxfordshire, England, on April 11, 1810.  He became a member of the British diplomatic service, lived in Baghdad … and dabbled in archaeology. His younger brother, George Rawlinson, became a noted historian.

At the age of 17 he joined the military service of the East India Company, posted to the Middle East, and six years later helped reorganise the Persian Army. Almost thirty years after starting with the East India Company he became one of its directors. But he also had posts on behalf of the British Government.

Rawlinson took an interest in antiquities and was able to gather numerous artefacts which he donated to the British Museum.

Rawlinson knew modern Persian and other Oriental languages. Unbeknown to Rawlinson, Georg Friedrich Grotefend, a German epigraphist had already made progress with deciphering cuneiform, but relied on many guesses and could not complete the task. While cuneiform inscriptions were abundant they were mostly short statements. Rawlinson hoped that a longer text would prove more helpful.

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An extended cuneiform text was known to exist in the mountains between Hamadan and Baghdad. A large panel of sculptured figures and many lines of text was presented in three scripts. Rawlinson assumed that the message was repeated in the three different types of symbols, making it possible to cross reference the message.

His deciphering of 1,200 lines of writing found upon the Behistun Rock was a major break-through in unlocking the ancient Babylonian script. The inscription had been created by Darius the Great and tantalised Rawlinson with the opportunity to crack the cuneiform symbols.

For four years (1835-1839) Rawlinson clambered up and down the imposing 1,700 feet high isolated rock … and there, 400 feet above the ground, “standing on a narrow ledge about a foot wide with the aid of ladders from below and swings from above, he made squeezes of the inscriptions” (Halley’s Bible Handbook).

The Afghan war delayed his studies … then he went back to Baghdad where he was appointed British Consul … and where he continued to scale and examine the Behistun inscription.

“Often in the intense heat he worked in a summer house at the bottom of the garden, a pet lion lying at his feet and a water-wheel from the river Tigris pouring water over the roof to keep it cool.”

Once Rawlinson succeeded in copying most of the great Behisitun inscription he began work on the script that was simpler than the others, which appeared to be alphabetic. The others seemed to be pictographs, ideographs and phonetic characters.

Rawlinson hypothesized the texts belonged to the period of the Archaemenid dynasty in Persia, of the Old Persian Empire (550-330 BC). Behistun was set up by Darius the Great of Persia about 519 BC. It told how Darius came to the throne and overcame those who threatened the Persian Empire. This statement was widely known throughout his realm.

Once the Persian text had been translated, it was possible to study of the other two languages. One was correctly assumed to be Babylonian. This discovery is very important to students of Assyriology since Babylonian and Assyrian languages were both Semitic and closely related. The third type was called Median or Scythian. It was the most difficult of all. It was related to the Elamite tongue, the language of Susa.

In 1846 he presented his findings to the Royal Asiatic Society.  The cuneiform symbols had finally yielded their secrets.  Now Bible scholars began to read the ancient monuments and see what light they shed upon the Holy Scriptures.

Semetic speaking Babylonians and Assyrians used the cuneiform for hundreds of years, but later discovery showed the Sumerians as the inventors, using it before 3000 BC. Rawlinson received a knighthood, as well as numerous academic awards, for this groundbreaking work which was the breakthrough for much further discovery.

Rawlinson died in 1895, and has since been known as the “Father of Assyriology“.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

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