Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing - with Irving Finkel

Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing - with Irving Finkel

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00:12
all right already already okay and thank you very much for that subtle and delicate introduction it's not appreciative right well the first thing I've got to tell you is the misnomer under which we are all laboring because ancient writing has nothing to do with cones because cones are an artificial system of finding a writing technique which bamboozles everybody else and drives them into lunatic asylums that is not the intention behind the cuneiform writing system or Egyptian hieroglyphs although of course we did
00:45
end up bamboozled in lunatic asylums well that's quite another matter so this bizarre writing if you've never seen it before you shortly will is nothing to do with codes it is a proper functional writing system with the same purpose behind it there's our own alphabetic system so it's come to my attention recently rather miserable in its import that there are people in this country who've never actually seen the keenya form tablet how this can be in
01:14
this day and age I don't know but I brought one to show you now this tablet is an utter corker it has many immediately obvious characteristics for example it's written in about 1780 BC is you can obviously tell it looks like a letter but it isn't in fact it's a wondrous inscription and it's more interesting than everything else in the British Museum clicked and put together it's rather embarrassing because it doesn't belong to us but it is written from left to right ruled lines and the
01:47
writing system is a bit like printing in that you have a stylus like a chopstick and you press the end of this chopstick into the surface of the clay gently and each time you make a stroke that is part of a sign and all the signs in the world are made up of one or two or three did some design so once you've learned that you can ride anything so this tablet was written by a very high quality literary bribe you can see the fronts more or less easy to read the back looks like it's been trampled by elephants and of course that's the most interesting part
02:19
so this is made of clay and that was the first writing system using ancient mesopotamian it's a jolly good thing they did use clay because all the tablets in the British Museum without last all the books and papers in the British Library for certain and every single piece of nonsense record you're on a computer will be long gone and we will be the winners now I'll show you that tablet not in order to sell the book which is tempting pile of witches in the hall outside in which our
02:50
chairperson is already alluded to twice that's just happens to be on the slide but the point is that that is the replica of the babylonian idea of what the ark in the flood story looked like which came out of that tablet which is a kind of recipe to build it so when you saw that you wouldn't necessarily leap to that conclusion but it does underline the fact that it is real writing of real language with real grammar and real meaning and no ambiguity and not occurred so the part that we have to
03:22
start in the educational business with the map this is the most insulting and baby lighting that I could find and but once it shows you where he dick is which is that brown blob down on the left and I'm going to be talking about stuff from the blue Bob in the middle which is kind of Iraq which when I started out isn't serious nobody in this country knew where that was at all and of course they do now for all the wrong reasons so writing began as far as we know and definitely before in Egypt in Iraq about
03:51
3500 BC so if any other speaker this evening floats in front of you and starts talking about Egyptian stuff hieroglyphs anything like don't believe a word of it if they try to claim primacy now the fact is this that they use clay which was freely available in a god-given way because the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers which provided the Mesopotamian ami invented by the Greeks and was perfect for forming writing tablets without bits in it which would take
04:22
sharp impressions and dry perfectly in the Sun and that's what they did they started with clay and they lasted they stuck with it until about the second century AD so well well over 3,000 years of continuous use and on the right you see some reads of the type which grow liberally in Iraq so you got a six inch bit cut it at the right angle stripped off the stuff and there you had a free writing and tool which would last you for ages so it was a very simple matter and very fortunate that that's what be
04:53
happened so this is not going to be an exam or a test or anything depressing like that there are two points about this lecture firstly nobody is allowed to go to sleep or I shall get very angry and the second thing is there might well be a test before you're allowed to leave the building now we have tablets from almost the whole of this is you know these are the salient points which I want you to remember and tattoo on your wrists when you get home firstly that this is the oldest writing system we know from archaeology secondly that it began with pictographs the old-fashioned
05:25
word when you do a little picture of something to give you an idea and the kind of pictures they did were the sort of thing that talented children of three or four most average school children do in their 17 which is to draw a little blob for a head with an eye on it and that's the sort of thing they did at the outset so here you can see on these extracts a drawing of a jug for beer with a pointed bottom which would stand up in the ground next to it there is a draw a pictograph of an ear of barley and below that there is a pictograph
05:57
which has a man's head and a bowl of food which is the verb to eat so this is a very simple kind of thing such as you might expect the Martians to invent or something of the kind and when the first signs of this kind were brought into use they had behind them behind there their format the requirement to document and Inland Revenue kind of matters they wanted to measure wages in and out they wanted totals that added up so that
06:28
really unpleasant people could come and test what really measly people had been keeping records for over the last month so that plague which hangs over our lives today is responsible for writing at First Instance and it was certainly not lovelorn poets who took this and turned it into a writing system so they could record their low and lewd desires for posterity it was a long time really before literature trotted along and somebody realized that you don't just use it for
07:00
this mundane purpose but he had this brain opening quality and real writing began and so forth so those are the first kind of science they rather clear they're rather easy to understand now this is the worst slide in the world probably but the second point I want you to remember for your test is this that the script evolved graphically in a way which makes perfect sense so if you look down the left-hand column those are relatively simple to understand pictographs of the first kind I'll give
07:29
you a clue the three and hover pieces are a mountain the one below that which is three hammered pieces and a triangle with a slit up middle is a foreign slave girl get the idea that's the sort of thing and then they had all these pictographs and basically two things happened because in the outset the early phases they drew with a point much as we draw with the pieces with a buyer on a piece of paper with a continuous line and that fell out of use and they use
08:01
the cut read to reduce these curvy form natural figures as you see on the left any two sharp angular things which consist of separate strokes of the styles so there's a shift from realism to a kind of abstraction and it's when you get to the abstraction phase that we are no longer really pictographic at all and you don't depend so much on what the sign looks like in terms of origin in order to know what it means and you can see from left to right about a three
08:32
thousand year period of development and if you see one end of the other together you would have no idea probably they were connected but the same phenomena with Egyptian because hieroglyphic and damoff taking this you knew what came in between you never think they were connected but they are in the same measure derivatives from a drawing point of views so this script moved from a simple business of drawing pictures or ideas into a method of recording sound and that is the essence of writing that you have a set of marks which record the
09:05
sound of a language with its words and grammar and all the components which somebody else can put on the record player and retrieve the words when they read it this is a miraculous matter and the shift from pictographic news to writing sounds was the only real giant leaf man has ever made apart from the envelopment of the electric guitar about 1952 so these squat complacent priests on the left with a fact belly in the smug look isn't a Cimmerian of the third
09:36
millennium he spoke one of the languages which is recorded in canary form writings he's right his language is unconnected to any living language at all it's quite bizarre the guy on the right is an Assyrian who spoke the assyrian language for which assyrian and babylonian dialects and that is a semitic tongue related to modern semitic languages so you have one writing system for two totally unconnected languages and this is a very interesting matter but scholars and boys and people who went to
10:08
school had to learn and read the classics and Sumerian and they could get by in both so they had a kind of symbiotic relationship between the two languages and this guy lives in the British Museum there are many conundrum about Cimmerian grammar I have many time as whispered in his ear asking for some kind of charity and we never get a single word out of it so this is what the time that the first tablet was written down in about 1800 BC that's what the process looks like you
10:38
hold the tablet in your left hand you write with the stylus on your right hand and there's no way of doing it apart from that and what is the interesting philosophical issues is that you can see a modern counterpart of this almost exactly on the tube very regularly now what I find fascinating is not the implication that the thing is unchanged in all the intervening millennia what is really interesting is that the vocabulary of most people who use those pocket devices very very little superior to what the Sumerians were doing in 3400
11:08
BC that's to say you need a small number of signs and in the modern world say you have 12 signs do you're stupid if you have 12 characters nine of them mean light because you have to say like like like like like and it has nothing to do with the word like so this is a philosophically interesting matter because politicians and other clowns argue that we are making progress and really the study of history and the asari of a theory ology does not support that in any measure whatsoever now this
11:41
is what became of that script when it was a fully developed and flexible beautiful thing firstly it was written by calligraphers that pictograph neither in developed into the most sophisticated fluent cuneiform this is written by probably one of the best rides in the country who worked for a fan of health worked in his library this is part of the Gilgamesh tablet and that the writing is absolutely a joy to read and you can see that the man who wrote that
12:14
tablet was a calligrapher and when he finished it he must have put it down with more than a sigh of self-satisfaction so within the space of and a few centuries and simple pictographs when you say bottle of milk no to the milkman in order to write proper literature in that this kind of thing it made a huge leap and then we had literacy so now you get the heartbeat how'd you know form works I'm
12:45
going to tell you about three things and then and you won't get a lollipop so one principle is you have one sumerian sign for one word okay that's perfectly straightforward and it's intelligible because since they began as pictographs that's how they began a drawing of an apple and mend and so forth so the deepest oldest level is one sign for one word which is Sumerian because that's the first language now
13:18
when you are a learning scribe writing this tablet for Ashurbanipal you had an interesting technique at your disposal rather snooty rather smart that when you're writing Babylonian if you wish to you can write given word in Sumerian with one sign like in the very old-fashioned way which the learning reader was then put into his own tongue so in Sumerian the word for King is Lu
13:48
Gao so if we're an old scribe reading Sumerian we see that sign there ah we say Lu gala we know what that means the boss but an Akkadian scribe 500 years later who wants to refer to the king himself can draw that old sign for King but not read it Lu gal in the Sumerian language but supply the equivalent in his own language this is an intrinsic part of the delight and joy that comes to your life when you start studying
14:19
cuneiform and you see at the bottom the helpful clue in white you do this all the time because you write s with obliques through the middle and when you read it you don't say to essence with the bleep through the middle you say $2.00 and cities to do with money you do it instantly well that principle is a very common thing in Sumerian and Akkadian writing that you can use the one for the other is that clear to everybody splendid to then there is simple
14:52
syllabic writing because when you have all those signs which are pictures most of the words in the pictures are short words that stands to reason and so you can draw a sign which has a short value just for the sound to spell something else for example you see there the words now room which means River caliber which means dog and family Robbie Hill is the key so to write those three words you
15:22
have to have an AA rule and an ohm and the syllabic spelling system was like cutting a sausage with a bread knife you have one syllable sign for each component and you squash the sausage back into a single word so the bulk of text written in the babylonian or assyrian tongue not the sumerian ones are written synthetically in that fashion you just have to learn about a thousand signs to be comfortable about
15:54
it that made up to you straight forward and i see at the bottom is another clue for the modern reader how to spell the word museum with mu z and boom then we have this question of rebus writing also part of the idea you familiar with the the principle for example the the lower two little pictures can be read and rebus writing and what is it again and
16:26
what belief yes exactly go to the top of the clock so the people who use those in to silicones do this kind of thing all the time in their imbecilic way so we had before that goes for you too my name is kate is for them normal writing so say we're transported back into ancient Sumer in about 3200 BC which in my opinion is a rather wholesome idea they would feel personally at home that the
16:59
other end of the chronology so the rebus writing system is a very important component too because you can see the first line that the word share the syllable share is actually the Cimmerian word for barley so if you're a Sumerian person you can draw the little sprig of barley and pronounce its share to mean barley of course that sense reason but you can also use the same sign when it doesn't
17:31
mean anything to do with barley as a component syllable in a longer word so for example if you have shared with gar afterwards which means good or benevolent you can write the share with the barley sign which is nothing to do with what you're saying and then we have these other things which will also apply in the next class when next teacher on the syllabus will probably be referring to these lamentable matters like determinatives and compliments and things like that they're very handy they are one of the
18:03
few things in cuneiform writing which are there to make life easier when you start the process which will take you between six and ten years before you get anywhere you are very grateful for any help you can get and the determinatives are wanted and so for example they have little signs for wood and stone and plant and God and River and leather and things like that we have about fifteen the Egyptians have about twelve thousand of them and the determinate is working in such a way that you're going to write the word tree you can write before it the word wood
18:34
which gives the eye of the reader a kind of clue because sometimes you can't be quite certain of the reading until you have such a help so if you plunk the determinative in front of a certain kind of now and it's often very handy and to go with that we have what we call phonetic compliments so let's say we're reading this and Akkadian texts together and we have to sign Lu Gao which is the Sumerian word for King sometimes they put room after
19:05
it to show that you take the legal sign and you read an equivalent the engine-room in this case shall room as we had before as a kind of clue and this is very handy indeed and it's a very disconcerting and interesting experience when you're reading in canary form inscriptions when once in a while you're confused and worried and there is something on the tablet which shows that the guy who wrote it a little bit of helpful things rather heartwarming miserable bastard now we
19:39
get what we call professionally the snags em snag one right remember we started off with the idea you can write one word with one sign right that's perfectly straightforward one sign can have several different sounds okay I'll let you just think about that nightmarish situation so for example the white sign there is the signs which has the primary meaning mouth but when you write car in the Cimmerian sentence
20:11
it can mean mouth and really severe word oh you can read yeah good it can mean mouths word speech nose or tooth that sign can stand for those words but in Cimmerian car is mouth in his word gu is speech care is nose and zoo is tooth so this means that when you have that sign in a sentence it has the capacity to mean any one of those words
20:43
unless you have some kind of clue to help you and that is why it is so important to have these phonetic complements and other things which establishes so for example if you write with earring afterwards then you know that you don't read it car you have to read it the cure meaning which is known so you don't confuse your nose with your teeth which is never to be recommended so the interesting thing is I won't dwell on this melodramatic matter in case sensitive people feel faint but when you start learning
21:14
Cimmerian the business of leaping of a high building head first onto the concrete is massively appealing on a daily basis and this snagged business is one of the factors this is snag to are you still with me one sound can be written with several different signs oh haha what a joke it's true for more than three thousand years it didn't trouble anybody some historians have had the that might be why they died out so if we
21:46
take as a specimen the syllable GU which in this day and age really only applies to sticky yogurt things in the supermarket there are about 17 different signs all of which can be pronounced goo and we label them in a systematic way goo 1 blue 2 2 3 4 and so forth and so forth so the reasons why that is true is far too complicated for matter - first few now you'll just have to believe me because you just have to believe everything I say because that's why I'm here this is the Royal Institution so that's perfectly reasonable but it is
22:18
quite astonishing when you first discover this especially in view of snag 3 so this is that same thing where there's no gaps between the words so that really is a devilish matter when the Persians develop cuneiform they put a little kick between the words so that you never have this agony but here you have a whole sea of them there is a gap in the middle and in the bottom I'll explain in a minute but generally speaking it's a sea of continuous things
22:49
like that and this is what happens when you reconnect all this is your first cuneiform sign so you look at it and being exceptionally intellectually gifted you go through all its possible uses then you look at the next one and go with all its possible uses and then you find a match so it's very unusual to get the wrong match it's possible that's very unlikely so you have out of a whole line two
23:20
things that go together which helps when you look at the third one because you can see should it go on the end of this or should it be the beginning and I tell you this is there couldn't be matter even for a natural optimist like myself but I can do it now on one leg one eye and I feel very complacent about it now if you look here there are and gaps in the middle of this beautiful tablet now the reason is this cuneiform writing was right justified invariably especially in literature and once in a while you have a line where there aren't
23:52
enough equal space signs to fill the line from beginning to end so if horrible situation occurs they live the gap in the middle that's very unusual what else have we got decisive oh yeah that's what we're here for I carry this sorry got real about that yes well the thing is um we've just demolished the idea I hope satisfactorily that we're not talking about codes we'll be talking about writing system that's the first thing so what we are dealing with is real decipherment in other words we have an unknown writing system and you have to
24:24
make sense of it one way or another now sometimes it's not so complicated for example with linear B which is always likely to be Greek and turned out to be Greek and nobody fainted except the people who did it that is not so complicated what is really desperately complicated is when you have a canary format also hieroglyphic materials well you don't really know what the language behind the is you haven't got any clues at all and I maintain will to my dying day which is probably very next week but that canary
24:58
would never ever have been deciphered if we didn't have this trilingual and hieroglyphs without a bilingual that they do have is probably the same thing although not quite so desperate but when you imagine that you have a thing like that with no gaps between the words I no clue what the language might be no relatives to go on you could run it through all the computers in the world and all you will get is gobbledygook or possibly Legally God but you'd never get me so this trilingual was a crucial
25:29
crucial thing and King Darius the person at this mountainous rock at the place called a history in Eastern Eastern Persia and wrote a proud and description about how he squashed the rebellion this piece of all the people being squashed up there under a curry Mazda and a long narrative which was written in Babylonian language our cuneiform from Iraq in old Persian cuneiform which was old Persian cuneiform from the old
26:01
person meaning old person and of course the elamite language which is even more barbaric since Mirian and it became evident that these lengthy inscriptions far above plain were equivalence of one another so this is where the indiana rowlandson and came into his own hold on let me just show you Indiana B organism there's Indiana Bullington now you know
26:33
the better than me especially in this August institution how often it is in the world that the discovery of things and the expansion of things is usually accredited at the wrong person this is the ficks law of the universe it is certainly applicable here Rawlinson was really good at mountain climbing so he got this wild Kurdish boy and they climbed up the side and they had ladders and they made paper squeezes of the three columns of writing and brought them back to England and laid the foundation for our understanding today
27:05
now rulings mean and what I've got a bit out of speed here before I go really rude about rural innocent let's go back here this is the rocking question at bay history so this is a ski you see on the left you've got the text in Babylonian on the lower right old Persian and the Elam icon those two places so Babylonian is Semitic old person was of course known because person with a living language annealer might nobody really cared about so this is the first line of the inscription in those three languages
27:38
so it was some considerable and miraculous thing to decipher the Old Persian anyway because it's written in the kind of simplified cuneiform and it wasn't rulings on who did that really this van Greta fend was the first scholar in the 18th in the nineteen in about 1820 to look at these bits of cuneiform in old Persian and cracked them he did it on a kind of rational basis about the names so he started everything off and then
28:10
with this marvelous than sorry I shouldn't be doing this with this marvelous text brought back by audience they had the whole thing in the three different languages and on the basis of what had already been deciphered Rahl isn't really cracked the old person and published a translation that was a very impressive feat so you can imagine once they realized that there's one text involved if you look here and this is
28:45
the this is the Oh personally inscription and they knew that this was to do with King Darius and his naming oh there's new something that diary are whoosh and when they deciphered this simple script they realized this was dobry er moosh spelling out the name of the Persian King and it says as you can see I am derives the great key in King of Kings the king of Persia the king of countries the son of his taxis the grandson of Artemis the key minute so it's quite a lot of information in that search
29:15
engines and quite a lot of names and some repetition and once they knew this was derailleurs and then it was very very likely that this line and this line we're going to be spelling dari our wish as well so once they'd opened up the whole of the Old Persian it was a very clever thing to do the Persian but once they've done that there was the really big job of using that to prise open the text of the Akkadian and they did it with the starting point of spelling the
29:47
names and after that they've suddenly found in the yellow text so to speak some words that were submitted like the word Naru for Rivard everybody jumped 30 feet in the air because once they knew that this language where they got a bit of a glimpse of how it was being spelled was semitic then they were well away because it's Arabic grandma's and vocab Aries and Hebrew and Syriac and Aramaic or all the vocabulary of all the Semitic languages was piled in on it to try and sort out words that made sense and eventually they did it was a major
30:17
wonderful achievement so as I said great offend them did a great job on the first whole person and then we have this one instance now when he done the Persian thing he then published a very low need or not about the occasion and it was almost entirely wrong and I'm gonna jump backwards and forwards a bit because the person who really deciphered the babylonian on the back of the old person
30:48
was this crusty and unappetizing looking individual called but Reverend Edward hints who should have been memorialized in this building is actually any other human being because he was one of these amazing persons he was a clergyman in Kilauea in Northern Ireland he had a parish he had five daughters so he was quite busy and he wanted to decipher hieroglyphs before anybody else whenever he'd get hold of the publications he immersed himself in his study when all
31:20
the girls had gone to bed seeing whether he could beat from paly off or the great Thomas young he was outside in the hall to the post now this is the beauty of this matter because Hinks puzzling over the hieroglyphs in the scribbling on his notepad had any idea that maybe this cuneiforms stuff might give him a clue about hieroglyphs it might be interesting and possibly instructive to
31:50
have a look at it so he had a look at it and he deciphered it he was the person who realized that the signs were polyvalent he was the first person who tweaked it and he did it with a great deal of intellectual brilliance and brought in some hated his guts so this Hinks was employed by the trustees of the British Museum for a year in London to work on the new inscriptions that were being brought back by Laird and um
32:21
he could read a lot of stuff very quickly and when he went home the trustees this would be moments of porn silence so when he was safely out of the way in Kilauea rowlandson got to work and he published a revised understanding of the bay history what was entirely dude understanding now two small points about this whole deciphering business and what it brings out in low human beings when
32:55
ruling their area it was asked as an old man how he deciphered kanae from writing the babylonian thing he said he couldn't remember in the meanwhile he dined out very extensively on this heroic thing dwelling on the ladder and the press and all the rest of it but a grand rising to himself the progress made by brains by Reverend King so he's going down in
33:29
history as the father of a theory ology well it's very annoying to all of this then I just like to say that these two photographs they showed an audience is a fresh-faced young man with the transcription of a history inscription on the table in front of him looking evilly into the semi future knowing greatness awaking human the photograph on the right is three weeks later when so there you are so that's what happened now now there's something else I have to
34:02
tell you about this deciphering busy you see the people who knew they knew jolly well that they deciphered it and they were beginning to publish translations of stuff Assyrian accounts and Babylonian things and there were one or two of the provincial universities in Britain like Oxford and Cambridge where the dongs who reigned supreme about classical knowledge for generation upon generation were forced to take on both the barbaric findings of these
34:32
mountebanks they objected very strongly indeed to having to give any credit whatsoever to this idea of the decipherment or change the things they've been teaching unchanging for the last 400 years so you can understand perhaps why their professions self threatened and in the end the Royal Asiatic Society decided to bring it into this and brouhaha so they got that farm and even the third cylinder in the middle to be copied by a leaf aquifer and what they did was they
35:02
under sealed wrapping I am sure distributed the cuneiform text Edward Hinks at the top in the first track below him a rather interesting person who has to be on stage here and who invented photography thank you very much I'll definitely give you a lollipop that is fox talbot that and guy had a place on him and betting on horse races is
35:35
ever so dangerous but that was the genius fox talbot who worked with light he worked with physics he worked with display of objects and he was a major contributor at this time he also was interested in physics in the study of light and also home genius as well it's a rather interesting parallel anyway so there was Hinks and him and his rule a pair who was a French or Belgian scholar in France who was in the forefront of the detachment and a picture of rule
36:07
insin trying to look like somebody else and what what they did was they had three months to come up with their best reading of this thing without any interference from anybody else and then the Archbishop of Canterbury and other were these sat around the table to appraise their translations and they decided that the decipherment was a fait accompli and that from now on those who were entrenched in their old ways had to rethink their futures so this is a very important cylinder I feel I owe it my
36:38
job for one thing and of course let's offer philosophical mathematics you might say they all four made the same mistake but that's really no so I will conclude by impeding this name Edward Hinks on your mind that's where he was born in Cork and he died in Kilauea and he's got two of those round disks so in my opinion and the world is littered with unacknowledged geniuses but hints is really definitely one of them and I taught all my family once for me with
37:11
the other side of Northern Ireland to look for this rectory where we found it and I thought gosh there ought to be a blue plaque this is disgraceful and in fact there was a blue block it was outside on the wall at uncle level heavily overgrown and I think utilized by local dogs so the only people in Northern Iowa the only living things in Northern Ireland who regularly offer obeisance at the shrine of Hinks are these hounds and presumably there she hounds so when I wrote this book I
37:41
didn't want to mention it again it's a bit embarrassment to keep lady bringing it's as I said quite transcendental that they are some outside and if anybody wanted one signed it's it's the same price so I just mention that but the thing is in that book I wrote something about the poor Reverend Edward and said that this was the name I couldn't think of a more intense way of explaining how important these deciphers are that they shall be a magnet a fridge magnet with
38:11
inks on every fridge in Europe and I tossed this idea into the world as of course we we do andum after book could be out for you I had a letter V somebody in the administration of the post office in Northern Ireland saying but we've decided we're going to bring out a stuff with Edward hints on having read what you wrote about you so a small injustice has been addressed so there you are thank you very much
38:39
[Applause]

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