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A name given to the form of writing whose characters resemble a wedge (cuneus). The French equivalent is tête-à-clou; the German, keilformig; and in English, the terms “cuneatic” and “arrow-headed” are sometimes used as synonyms. This species of writing was employed by the ancient Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Armenians, Elamites, and Persians, who have left us specimens of it upon clay, stone, metal, and glass, either moulded (as in the clay) or cut and chiselled (as upon the other substances). The use of the cuneiform characters dates from a period not later than B.C. 3800, and was continued until a century or so after the beginning of the Christian era. The oldest specimen now known to exist is an inscription upon a bit of porphyry assigned to the time of Sargon of Agadé. The latest example is preserved at Munich, and is as late as A.D. 80.

It is only in the present century that scholars have been able to decipher the cuneatic characters, and to interpret satisfactorily the inscriptions that contain them. It was, in fact, many years before any one conceived the notion that the curious arrow-headed marks on the vast ruins of Persepolis and other parts of Persia had anything to do with language at all. It was in 1618 that an inkling of the truth first entered the mind of Garcia de Silva Figuëroa, an ambassador of Philip III. of Spain. In that year he visited Persepolis, and, becoming imbued with a belief that the arrow-heads were some form of writing, had a portion of one inscription copied. This he carried back to Europe, where it attracted the attention of other savants. In 1674, the French traveller Chardin, after visiting Persepolis, published copies of three sets of inscriptions, with an account of the curious characters as observed by him, pronouncing them to be writing and not hieroglyphs, but expressing his conviction that no one would ever be able to decipher them. More than a century later (in 1782), a French botanist named Michaux sent to Paris a stone which he had found at Bagdad covered with cuneiforms. By this time the curiosity of the learned had become awakened, and the mystery surrounding these inscriptions excited the interest of the ablest scholars of Europe, who gradually accumulated a large number of specimens of the cuneiform, as other travellers brought back from the East valuable materials for study. It was long, however, before anything beyond mere conjecture was attained; and many varied and conflicting theories were put forward. The characters were said to be only fanciful designs of the Oriental architects and devoid of meaning. Again, they were explained (by Witte of Rostock) as due to the work of many generations of worms. Others explained them as the writing of the Guebres. Still others viewed them as charms, cabalistic signs, or astrological formulæ. Lichtenstein thought that he had found in them certain passages from the Korân written in Kufic. Kaempfer hesitated whether to explain them as Chinese or as modifications of the Hebrew. Other scholars pronounced them Runes, Oghams, Old Greek, or Samaritan.

The first light on this apparently insoluble problem was due to the acute researches of Karsten Niebuhr, who, without professing to read or interpret the inscriptions, proved the existence in them of three distinct varieties of cuneiform alphabet, instead of the single one that had been assumed before his time. The threefold inscriptions at Persepolis he then rightly explained as transcriptions of the same matter in the three alphabets. This brilliant discovery was developed by Tychsen of Rostock (1798) and Münter of Copenhagen (1800), whose labours cleared the way for the magnificent success of Georg Friedrich Grotefend (q.v.), who, on September 7th, 1802, presented to the Academy of Göttingen the first cuneiform alphabet with its phonetic equivalents. It may be observed that this date and meeting are doubly important in the history of language-study, for then was also presented the first reading of the Egyptian hieroglyphs by Heyne. Twenty years later, St. Martin demonstrated a part of the flexional system; and Burnouf, Lassen, Westergaard, Beer, Jacques, and finally Sir Henry Rawlinson followed, each with his contributions towards a more perfect understanding of the characters and of the language which they embodied. Rawlinson, it may be remarked, was the first to read and publish the 1000 or more lines of the great Behistun inscription. (See the Journal of the Asiatic Society for 1846.)

Inscriptions in the Persian cuneiform are usually in three parallel columns, being the same text translated into three languages and alphabets: Persian, Median (also called Scythic and New Susian), and Babylonian—these being the three great peoples under the dominion of the Achaemenian kings, who thus promulgated their decrees in three languages.

Black Obelisk with Cuneiform Inscriptions. (British Museum.)


Babylonian. This is the most ancient and most important of the three varieties of cuneiform. With it are inscribed tablets and cylinders, giving a vast amount of information on history, archæology, law, government, and mythology.


Scythic. The Scythic cuneiform is never found alone (with one exception), and represents an alphabet of some 100 characters. The language which they embody is an Ugro-Finnic dialect, of which little as yet is known.


Persian. The Persian cuneiform, which always stands first in the trilingual inscriptions, is the most recent of the three, and consists of some 44 characters. It is characterized by an oblique stroke which divides its words, and the wedges of which it is composed never cross one another. The language of the Persian cuneiform is cognate with the Avestan, and is the parent tongue of the modern Persian. This character was used in the period from B.C. 570-370. In it is written the great inscription of Darius Hystaspis at Behistun, containing a genealogical record, a description of the extent of his dominions, a list of the great events

The Name Darius (Dâryavas) in Cuneiform Characters.

of his reign, with prayers to Ormuzd and the spirits. Most of these inscriptions have been found at Persepolis (q.v.), Behistun, Naksh-i-Rustam, and Hamadan.

The cuneiform characters were originally pictures of the objects which they stood for (ideographs), like the Egyptian hieroglyphics and the earlier characters in Chinese; but as time went on the forms were modified and simplified so as to lose their pictorial character, though a few still suggest the primitive design.

At first they were drawn in outline on a vegetable substance (likhusi), but a little later on clay, to the difficulties of which are due the first modification in the original shapes of the letters. The subsequent use of stone and metal carried this modification still further. An archaic revival, however, set in during the age of Assurbani-pal, when it became customary to use once more the most ancient characters. The signs, originally ideographic, became subsequently phonetic, denoting each a syllable. The cuneiform syllabary contains in all some 2000 signs—ideographic, syllabic, or purely phonetic—being sometimes used in one way and sometimes in another.

The characters were inscribed upon stone, glass, and metal with a chisel; and upon clay with a sharp-pointed stylus having three unequal faces— the largest for the outer and thickest wedges of the letters, the medium-sized for the medium

Archaic Cuneiform Character for “Fish.”

strokes, and the smallest for the finer lines. The Babylonian clay tablets or “bricks” are in size from one inch upward, pillow-shaped, and covered with characters often so minute as to be difficult to read without a magnifying glass. (See illustration on page 179.) After the inscriptions had been made, the tablet was dried in the sun and then enclosed in a case on which the inscription was duplicated. These are styled “case-tablets.” Tablets were also used by the Assyrians, especially by the literary classes; but the records of this people were very often carved upon the stone panels of their palaces and on colossal human-headed bulls. Cuneiforms have been found, likewise, on amethyst, jasper, and onyx.

Bibliography.—The bibliography of the subject is very extensive. The following standard works are selected out of a great number: Lassen and Westergaard, Ueber die Keilinschriften (1845); Hincks, On the First and Second Kinds of Persepolitan Writing, in the Trans. of the Royal Iranian Society (1846); Rawlinson, Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylon and Assyria (1850); Grotefend, Die Keilinschriften aus Behistun (1854); Ménant, Inscriptions Assyriennes (1859); id. Les Écritures Cunéiformes (1864); Oppert, La Grande Inscription de Khorsabad (1866); De Gobineau, Traité des Écritures Cunéiformes (1864); Spiegel, Die Altpersischen Keilinschriften (2d ed. 1881); Ewald, Geschichtliche Folge der semitischen Sprachen (1871); Schrader, Die Assyrisch-Babylonischen Keilinschriften (1872); G. Smith, Phonetic Values of Cuneiform Characters (1871); Sayce, Assyrian Grammar (1872); Norriś, Assyrian Dictionary (1871); Botta, Mémoire sur l'Ecriture Cunéiforme Assyrienne (1848); Oppert, Les Inscriptions Assyriennes (1862); Manant, Recueil d'Alphabets (1860); Delattre, Les Inscriptions Historiques de Ninive et de Babylone (1879); Taylor, The Alphabet (1883); Amiaud and Scheil, Les Inscriptions de Salmanasar II. (1890); Brunnon, Classified List of Compound Cuneiform Ideographs (1889); Bezold, The Tell-el-Amarna Tables (with autotype facsimiles) (1892); and the Assyriologische Bibliothek, edited by Delitzsch and Paul Haupt.

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