Henry Rawlinson on the Behistun inscription: key to the translations of Ashurbanipal’s library

January 22, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, writers, writing.


Writing: It started with the Sumerians 

— The library of Ashurbanipal: its discovery changed our view of history

The discovery of Ashurbanipal’s Library and its treasure of ancient clay tablets that contained writing up to 3,000 years old stands as one of the great archeological finds of the modern era. The discovery came in the mid 19th century, mainly through the efforts of Austen Henry Layard and Hormucd Rassam.

But neither of those men knew the full significance of what they had found because neither could translate the inscriptions of the tablets. Translations were eventually accomplished, of course, but those were difficult and painstaking. And the translation efforts actually began some 20 years before the library was discovered.

In 1835 Sir Henry Rawlinson, an officer in the East India Company and an expert in the Persian language, was assigned to a post in Iran and became interested in something known as the Behistun Inscription. Located in the Iranian desert, the inscription was a great deal of writing on a huge mountain of rock, much of which was inaccessible. It contains the same story in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. The story, in part an autobiography, is that of King Darius, who reigned in Persia around 500 BC.

The inscription is about 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, but it is located more than 300 feet off the ground on an almost sheer cliff.

Rawlinson believed that he could work out a translation of the script, but getting to where he could see it properly was the problem. The most accessible part of the script was the Old Persian, and Rawlinson was able to work out a translation of that by about 1838. He was assigned to another post and did not return to Iran until 1843.

Rawlinson studied the mountain carefully and worked out a system of suspending planks across a chasm so that he could read the Elamite portion of the script. Then he found a local boy who was willing to climb up through a crack in the rock and suspend ropes across the Babylonian portion of the script so that paper-mâché casts could be taken of that part of the script.

It was a tricky, life-threatening maneuver, but it worked.

Rawlinson got the impressions that he needed to complete the inscription. During the next couple of years, he was able to decipher the text of the other languages and to gain greater understanding of what the cuneiform characters meant in the context in which they were used. His work continued when Austen Henry Layard made the astonishing discovery of Nineveh and the thousands of clay tablets.

Rawlinson had a distinguished military and political career in amongst his antiquity studies. He was a soldier recognized for gallantry during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1843), and he later served as a member of Parliament for several years. He was also president of the Royal Geographic Society.

A number of distinguished amateur scholars worked with Rawlinson in his translation efforts. One was a young man named George Smith, whose background was humble but whose discoveries were to eclipse in the public mind those of his predecessors. His story is next week.

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