How Cuneiform Was First Deciphered

By 500 BCE cuneiform writing was horizontal instead of vertical and written horizontally. This illustration from Jastrow (1915, page 70, plate 20) show the three main styles:
  1. Sections B and G show Old Persian (called class 1 dated now to 539-331 BCE)
  2. Section C shows Babylonian/Assyrian (class 3)
  3. Section D shows Neo-Elamite (class 2)

Old Persian Cuneiform (Class 1)

(Jan. 8, 2023) This page presents the history of the original backward looking approach to the decipherment of cuneiform based upon sounds. This worked fairly well for texts back to about 1800 BCE but the signs became much different the further back in time one went. This left Sumerian sign identification very uncertain.

The decipherment of cuneiform begins with the European discovery of the ruins of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire's capital of Persepolis. It had numerous cuneiform inscription scattered around the area. Over time starting in 1711 with Chevalier Chardin, copies of these inscriptions were published in Europe. By the end of that century Carsten Niebuhr realized those inscriptions came in three varieties of cuneiform shown in the illustration.

Because Old Persian (class 1) only had 42 signs he realized it was a mix of alphabetic/phonetic script. This style was later found to also be the case for Minoan Linear A by David Olmsted. In 1798 Olav Tychsen realized these different styles represented different languages. Around this time Friedrich Munter showed that the art at both Persepolis and Naksh-i-Rustam in Turkey were both Persian dating to the same era. In addition, he realized that the single angled lines in Old Persian texts (class 1) represented word dividers. This was a huge advance.

The final required advance occurred when Europeans learned to read Avastin from the remaining Zoroastrians (Parsi) in India. This ancient Persian language was was then applied to the class 1 texts with the result that rapid progress started to be made after 1798. While the Parsi script was alphabetic dating to no earlier than the 3rd century CE their language went as back to the class 1 texts.

Because most of these inscriptions involved royal tombs the most frequent word turned out to be "king" and from that start the other words were deduced aided by a few parallel formulaic Greek inscriptions. The results of this work was presented by Georg Grotefend in an 1802 paper which he read before the Gottingen Academy. The result was the correct translation of the phrase and similar phrases like: 

The next challenge was to determine the sound assignments for all the other signs. This was essentially accomplished by a triad of scholars:

  1. Edward Hincks in 1847
  2. Henry Rawlinson between 1846-1851
  3. Jules Oppert in 1847.

By 1862 with the publication of a lexicon by Friedrich Spiegel, the task was done.


Jastrow, M (1915) The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria.  Online at:

Obélisque de Manishtusu (Obelisk of Manishtusu) discovered in 1898. Is this in Sumerian or Akkadian? It has text on all 4 sides. It find location is disputed being either Kish or Susa.Now at the Louvre, SB 20 ; AS 6063. Online at:

Akkadian (Babylonian/ Assyrian) Cuneiform (Class 3)

All through the 1800's  Mesopotamian cuneiform texts started to be published. These were soon realized to be in the class 3 style of the Persian inscriptions. Because Old Persian had just been deciphered some of the monumental trilingual inscriptions in Persia were able to give a start to deciphering Mesopotamian cuneiform. This process started once again with proper names to get a core set of sign sound assignments.

This was a much older writing system which was eventually discovered to be derived from Sumerian signs. Each major Mesopotamian city seems to have used a slightly different set of signs in the beginning. These different sets were never fully merged into a coherent system. These inconsistencies caused some early controversies.

The first controversy was sign diversity. Widely different signs could represent the same sound apparently deriving from each city's traditions.  The Sumerian signs not adopted by Akkadian speakers became the Sumerian x-signs.

The second controversy involved the use of silent determinatives. Because the original Sumerian pictographic meaning of the signs was lost in their conversion to Akkadian, the Mesopotamians took to using silent determinative signs to indicate the general subject classification of the following phrase. This contrasts with Sumerian and Alphabetic Akkadian texts which do not have determinatives.

The third controversy involved polyphony in which a single sign could represent more than one sound. As time went on and signs were simplified some different sounding and looking signs converged to one sign which looked the same. Tables were made up in Assyria and Babylon to list these anomalies which were later discovered by archaeologists. 

The fourth controversy was the continued use of some Sumerian signs as pictographs (ideograms). While adding complexity to cuneiform Akkadian translations this is how a  start was made in understanding Sumerian.

Elamite Cuneiform (Class 2)

Elamite is the least well known and the last cuneiform script to be developed when the Elamites living in the highlands west of Mesopotamia adopted their language to cuneiform. This language is not Akkadian, Sumerian nor Indo-European. 

A wall sculpture from the palace of Sennacherib showing the transport of one of the palace's winged bulls into position. Image on page 406 of Jastrow, M (1915).

Naming the Mesopotamian Civilizations as "Akkadian" and "Sumerian"

A question early scholar's faced was what to call the civilization in Mesopotamia which wrote in the class 3 style of cuneiform. This language was used by all the empires in Mesopotamia. The word "Akkadian" was suggested by Henry Rawlinson in 1855 because of the frequency with which it appeared in the texts and because it was mentioned in Genesis 10:10. In 1869 Jules Oppert supported this suggestion because he noticed the phrase "king of Akkad and Sumer" in many texts.

The Ancient Middle East: Every Year

Animated map shows the growth and decline of various nations.