Laughter is the Best Medicine

Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing – with Irving Finkel

[MUSIC PLAYING] [APPLAUSE] All right, already, already. OK. Thank you very much for
that subtle and delicate introduction. It’s much appreciated. All right. Well, the first thing I’ve got
to tell you is the misnomer under which we
are all labouring, because ancient writing has
nothing to do with codes. Because codes 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 end up bamboozled in lunatic
asylums, but 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
as 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 have never actually seen a cuneiform tablet. How this can be in 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 as 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 collection put together. It’s rather
embarrassing, because it doesn’t belong to us, but. It is written from left
to right in ruled lines. And the 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 designs. So once you’ve learned that,
you can write anything. So this tablet was
written by a very high-quality literary scribe. You can see the front is
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. So, this is made
of clay, and that was the first writing system
used in ancient Mesopotamia. And it’s a jolly good
thing they did use clay, because all the tablets
in the British Museum will outlast all the books
and papers in the British Library for certain. And every single piece of
nonsense recorded on a computer will be long gone, and
we will be the winners. Now, I show you that
tablet not in order to sell the book which is
a tempting pile of witches in the hall outside in which
our chairperson has already alluded to twice that just
happens to be on this slide. But the point is that
that is the replica of the Babylonian idea of what
the Ark and the Flood story look 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 a code. So the part that
we have to start in the educational
business with a map. This is the most insulting and
baby-like map I could find. And once it shows
you where Egypt is, which is that brown
blob down on the left, I’m going to be
talking about stuff from the blue blob in the
middle, which is kind of Iraq. Which when I started out
as an assyriologist, 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 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 used clay which was freely
available in a God-given way, because the banks of the
Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which provide the Mesopotamian
name invented by the Greeks. It was perfect for forming
writing tablets without bits in it, which would
take sharp impressions and dry perfectly in the sun. And that’s what they did. They started with clay. And 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 reeds 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 tool which
would last you for ages. So it was a very simple
matter and very fortunate that that’s what happened. So this is not going to be
an exam or a test or anything depressing like that. There are two points about this. 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 history. Now, 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
word of 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 or most average
school children do when they’re 17, which used to
draw a little blob for a head with an I in 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
pictograph of an ear of barley. And below that,
there is a pictograph 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 their
format, the requirement to document Inland
Revenue kind of matters. They wanted to measure
wages in and out. They wanted totals
that added up, so that 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
in the 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 realised that
you don’t just use it for this mundane purpose. But it had this brain-opening
quality, and real writing began and so forth. So those are the
first kind of signs. They’re 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 at
the left-hand column, those are relatively
simple to understand pictographs of the first kind. I’ll give you a clue. The three helmet
pieces are a mountain. The one below that, which
is three helmet pieces and a triangle with
a slit up the middle is a foreign slave girl. Get the idea? That’s the sort of thing. And 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 a
bionic piece of paper with a continuous line. And that fell out
of use, and they used the cut reed to
reduce these curvy form, natural figures as
you see on the left into sharp, angular
things which consist of separate strokes
of the stylus. So there’s the
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. 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 the 3,000-year
period of development. If you see one end of
the other together, you would have no
idea, probably, that they were connected. But the same phenomenon
applies with Egyptian, because hieroglyphic
and demotic, unless you knew what
came in-between, you’d never think
they were connected. But they are in the same
measure, derivatives, from a drawing point of view. 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 sound of the language
with its words and grammar and all the components
which somebody else can put on the record player– [RECORD PLAYER IMITATION] –and retrieve the
words when they read it. This is a miraculous matter. And the shift from pictographic
use to writing sounds was the only real
giant leap man has ever made, apart from the development
of the electric guitar in about 1952. So the squat-complacent
priest on the left with the fat belly
and the smug look is a Sumerian of the
Third Millennium. He spoke one of the
languages, which is recorded in cuneiform writing. He’s all 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, of which Assyrian and Babylonian are
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 school had to learn to read the
classics in 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 conundrums
about Sumerian grammar. I have many times
whispered in his ear asking for some kind of clarity, 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 hold the tablet
in your left hand. You write with the stylus
in your right hand. And there’s no way of
doing it apart from that. And what is an interesting
philosophical issue 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 is very, very little superior
to what the Sumerians were doing in 3400 BC. That’s to say you need
a small number of signs. And in the modern world,
say you have 12 signs. Do your stupid
bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh-bluh. If you have 12
characters, nine of them mean “like,” 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 study of assyriology does not support that in
any measure whatsoever. Now, this is what
became of that script when it was a fully developed
and flexible, beautiful thing. Firstly, it was written
by calligraphers that the pictograph [INAUDIBLE]
developed into the most sophisticated fluent cuneiform. This is written by, probably,
one of the best scribes in the country who
worked for Ashurbanipal. He worked in his library. This is part of the
Gilgamesh tablet. And the writing is
absolutely a joy to read. And you can see that the
man who wrote that 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 a few
centuries, simple pictographs– when you say a
bottle of milk, no, to the milkman in order to write
proper literature in this kind of thing– it made a huge leap. And then we had literacy. So, now we get the hard
bit, how cuneiform works. I’m going to show you
about three things, and then you will
get a lollipop. So one principle
is that you have one Sumerian sign for one word. OK? That’s perfectly
straightforward. And it’s intelligible
because, since they began as pictographs,
that’s how they began. A drawing of an apple
meant apple, and so forth. So the deepest, oldest
level is one sign for one word which is
Sumerian, because that’s the first language. Now when you’re a
learned scribe writing this tablet for
Ashurbanipal, you had an interesting technique at
your disposal, rather snooty, rather smart. But when you’re writing
Babylonian, if you wish to, you can write a given word
in Sumerian with one sign, like in the very
old-fashioned way, which the learned reader would
then put into his own tongue. So in Sumerian, the
word for king is lugal. So if we are an old
scribe reading Sumerian and we see that sign
there, oh, we say, lugal. 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 lugal 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 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 two Ses with the obliques through the middle. You say $2. And since it’s 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. Two, then there is
simple 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 naruum which means river, kaalbuum which means dog, and
Haammurabi who is the King. So to write those
three words, you have to have a “na”
and a “ru” and an “um.” And the syllabic
spelling system was like cutting a sausage
with a bread knife. You have– [CUTTING SOUNDS] a one-syllable sign
for each component, and you squash the sausage
back into a single word. So the bulk of texts written
in the Babylonian or Syrian tongue, not the Sumerian
ones, are written syllabically in that fashion. You just have to learn
about 1,000 signs to be comfortable about it. That made up to you
straightforward. And I see, at the
bottom, there’s another clue for
the modern reader, how to spell the word museum
with “mu,” “zi,” and “um.” Then, we have this question
of rebus writing, also part of the idea. You are familiar
with the principle, for example, the lower
two little pictures, can be read rebus writing. And what is it again? Wasp? No, um– Belief. Belief. Yes, exactly. Go to the top of the class. So the people who use
those imbecilic phones do this kind of thing all the
time in their imbecilic way. So we have, “B4. That goes 4 U 2. My name is K8,” is for
them normal writing. So they were transported
back into ancient Sumer in about 3200 BC
which, in my opinion, is a rather wholesome idea. They would feel
perfectly at home at the other end
of the chronology. So the rebus writing system is
a very important component too, because you can see,
in the first line, that the word sheh,
the syllable sheh, is actually the Sumerian
word for barley. So if you’re a
Sumerian person, you can draw the little sprig of
barley and pronounce it “sheh” to mean barley. Of course, that
stands to reason. But you can also
use the same sign when it doesn’t mean anything
to do with barley as a component syllable in a longer word. So for example, if
you have sheh with ga afterwards, which means
good or benevolent, you can write the sheh with the
barley sign which has nothing to do with what you’re saying. And then we have
these other things, which will also apply
in the next class with the next teacher on the
syllabus who will probably be referring to these amendable
matters like determinatives and complements and
things like that. They’re very handy. They are one of the few
things in cuneiform writing which are there to
make life easier. When you start the process,
which will take you between 6 and 10 years
before you get anywhere, you are very grateful
for any help you can get. And the determinatives
are one of them. 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 15. The Egyptians have
about 12,000 of them. And the determinatives
work in such a way that if you’re going
to write the word tree, you can write before
it the word wood, 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 plonk
the determinative in front of a certain kind of
noun, it’s often very handy. And to go with that, we
have what we call phonetic complements. So let’s say we’re reading
this Akkadian text together, and we have the
sign lugal, which is the Sumerian word for king. Sometimes, they
put “rum” after it to show that you
take the lugal sign and you read an equivalent
of the ending “rum.” In this case, sharrum, 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 a
cuneiform inscription 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 left a little bit of a helpful thing. It’s rather heartwarming. Miserable bastards, they were. Now we get to what we call,
professionally, the snags. Snag one. All right. Remember, we started
off with the idea that you can write one
word with one sign. Right? That’s perfectly
straightforward. One sign can have
several different sounds. OK, I’ll let you
just think about that nightmarish situation. So for example, the
white sign there is the sign ka, which has
the primary meaning mouth. But when you write ka
in a Sumerian sentence, it can mean mouth. Gosh, I can’t read this in here. Oh, you can read it, can’t you? Yeah. Good. It can mean mouth, word,
speech, nose, or tooth. That sign can stand
for those words. But in Sumerian, ka is mouth,
inim is word, gu is speech, kir is nose, and zu 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 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 ka with ir afterwards, then you know that you
don’t read it “ka.” You have to read it the
“kir” meaning, which is nose, 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 Sumerian, the businesses of leaping
off a high building headfirst onto the concrete is massively
appealing on a daily basis. And this snag business
is one of the factors. This is snag two. Are you still with me? One sound can be written
with several different signs. Ha-ha-ha, what a joke. It’s true. For more than 3,000 years,
it didn’t trouble anybody. Some historians have
hazarded that might be why they died out. So if we take as a specimen
the syllable GU, which in this day and age really
only applies to sticky yoghurt things in the supermarket, there
are about 17 different signs, all of which can
be pronounced GU. And we label them in a
systematic way, GU1, GU2, GU3, GU4, and so forth and so forth. So the reasons why
that is truly far too complicated a matter
to pursue now. You’ll just have to believe
me, because you just have to believe everything I
say because that’s why I’m here and this is the
Royal Institution, so that’s perfectly reasonable. But it is quite
astonishing when you first discover this, especially
in view of snag three. 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
tick 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 at the bottom. I’ll explain in a minute. But generally
speaking, it’s a sea of continuous things like that. And this is what happens
when you read cuneiform. This is your first
cuneiform sign. So you look at it. And being exceptionally
intellectually gifted, you go– [MOTOR SOUND] –through all its possible uses. Then you look at the
next one and go– [MOTOR SOUND] –with all its possible uses,
and then you find a match. So it’s very unusual
to get the wrong match. It’s possible, but
it’s very unlikely. So you have, out
of a whole line, two 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
at the beginning? And I tell you, this
is a gloomy 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, though, there are 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 enough
equal spaced signs to fill a line from
beginning to end. So if that horrible
situation occurs, they leave the
gap in the middle. And that’s very unusual. What else have we got? Decipherment. Oh, yeah, that’s
what we’re here for. I’m terribly sorry. I forgot all about that. Yes, well, the thing is
we’ve demolished the idea. I hope, satisfactorily, that
we’re not talking about codes. You’ll be talking
about writing systems. That’s the first thing. So what we are dealing
with is real decipherment. In other words, you have
an unknown writing system and you have to make sense
of it one way or another. Now sometimes, it’s
not so complicated. For example, with Linear
B, which was 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 cuneiform or
hieroglyphic material where you don’t really know what
the language behind it is. You haven’t got
any clues at all. And I maintain well to my
dying day, which is probably going to be next week, that
cuneiform 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 and no clue what the
language might be, no relevance to go
on, you could run it through all the
computers in the world. And all you would
get is gobbledygook or possibly gigglygob, but
you’d never get meaning. So this trilingual was a
crucial, crucial thing. And King Darius, the Persian
at this mountainous rock at the place called
Behistun in eastern Persia, wrote a proud description about
how he squashed the rebellion– there’s a picture of all the
people being squashed up there under Ahura Mazda– and a long narrative which
was written in the Babylonian language, our
cuneiform from Iraq, in Old Persian cuneiform– which
was Old Persian cuneiform from the Old Persian
meaning Old Persian– and, of course, the
Elamite language which is even more
barbaric than Sumerian. And it became evident that
these lengthy inscriptions far above the plain were
equivalents of one another. So this is where the Indiana
Rawlinson came into his own. Hold on. Let me just show you
Indiana Rawlinson. There’s Indiana Rawlinson. Now, you know better than
me, especially in this august institution, how often it is
in the world that the discovery of things and the invention of
things is usually accredited to the wrong person. This is a fixed 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. Now Rawlinson worked– I got a bit out of speed here. Before I go really rude about
Rawlinson, let’s go back here. This is the rock in
question of Behistun. So this is a scheme. You see that, on
the left, you’ve got the text in Babylonian, on
the lower right, Old Persian, and the Elamite on
those two places. So Babylonian is Semitic. Old Persian was, of course,
known because Persian was a living language. And Elamite, nobody
really cared about. So this is the first line of
the inscription in those three languages. So it was some considerable
and miraculous thing to decipher the
Old Persian anyway, because it’s written in a
kind of simplified cuneiform. And it wasn’t Rawlinson
who did that, really. This man, Grotefend, was the
first scholar in about 1820 to look at these bits of
cuneiform in Old Persian and crack them. He did it on a kind of
rational basis about the names. So he started everything off. Sorry, I shouldn’t
be doing this. With this marvellous text
brought back by Rawlinson, they had the whole thing in
the three different languages. And on the basis of what
had already been deciphered, Rawlinson really
cracked the Old Persian and published a translation. So that was a very
impressive feat. So you can imagine, once they
realised that this one text involved, if you look here, this
is the Old Persian inscription. And they knew that this
was to do what King Darius. And his name in Old Persian
is something that Dariush. And when they deciphered
this simple script, they realised this was
Da-ree-uh-mush spelling out the name of the Persian King. And it says, as you
can see, “I am Darius, the great king, king of
kings, the King of Persia, the King of countries,
the son of Hystapses, the grandson of Arsames,
the Achaemenid.” So there’s quite a
lot of information in that first sentence
and quite a lot of names and some repetition. And once they knew
this was Darius, then it was very, very likely
that this line and this line were going to be spelling
Dariush. as well. So once they opened up the
whole of the Old Persian– it was a very clever
thing to do the Persian– but once they had
done that, there was the really big job
of using that to pry open the text of the Akkadian. And they did it with
the starting point of spelling the names. And after that, they suddenly
found in the yellow text, so to speak, some words
that were submitted, like the word naruum for river. And everybody jumped
30 feet in the air because, once they
knew that this language when they got a bit
of a glimpse of how it was being spelled
while Semitic, then they were well away. Because if Arabic grammars
and vocabularies and Hebrew and Syriac and Aramaic,
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. It was a major,
wonderful achievement. So as I said, Grotefend
did a great job on the first of Old Persian. And then we have this Rawlinson. Now when he had done
the Persian thing, he then published a very learned
article about the occasion. And it was almost
entirely wrong. And I’m going to jump
backwards and forwards a bit, because the person who really
deciphered the Babylonian on the back of the Old
Persian was this crusty and unappetizing looking
individual called Reverend Edward Hincks, who
should have been memorialised in this building as
much as any other human being because he was one
of these amazing persons. He was a clergyman in
Killyleagh 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 would get
hold of the publications, he immersed himself in his
study when all the girls had gone to bed, seeing whether
he could beat Champillion or the great Thomas Young,
who’s outside in the hall, to the post. Now this is the
beauty of this matter because Hincks, puzzling over
the hieroglyphs and scribbling on his notepad, had an idea
that maybe this cuneiform stuff might give him a clue
about hieroglyphs. It might be interesting and
possibly instructive to have a look at it. So he had a look at it,
and he deciphered it. He was the person who realised
that the signs were polyvalent. He was the first
person who twigged it, and he did it with a great deal
of intellectual brilliance. And Rawlinson hated his guts. So Hincks 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 Layard. And he could read a lot
of stuff very quickly. And when he went home, the
Trustees kept his papers. This should be a moment
of appalled silence. So when he was safely out
of the way in Killyleagh, Rawlinson got to work. And he published a
revised understanding of the Behistun Inscription,
which was entirely due to Hincks’s understanding. Now, the two small points about
this whole deciphering business and what it brings out
in low human beings. When Rawlinson–
there, there he is– was asked, as an old man,
how he deciphered cuneiform writing in 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 aggrandizing to himself the progress made by
brains, by Reverend Hincks. So, he has gone down in history
as the Father of Assyriology. Well, it’s really
annoying to all of us. I’d just like to say that
in these two photographs, they show Rawlinson as
a fresh-faced young man with the transcriptions
of the Behistun Inscription on the
table in front of him, looking eagerly into the
semi-future knowing greatness is awaiting him. The photograph on the right
is three weeks later when– [LAUGHTER] So there you are. That’s what happened now. Hello? Now there’s
something else I have to tell you about this
deciphering business. 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 dons, who
had reigned supreme about classical knowledge for
generation upon generation, were forced to take on
board the barbaric findings of these mountebanks. They objected very
strongly indeed to having to give
any credit whatsoever to this idea of the
decipherment or change the things they
had been teaching unchanging for the
last 400 years. So you can understand,
perhaps, why their professions felt threatened. And in the end, the
Royal Asiatic Society decided to bring an
end to this brouhaha. So they got that [INAUDIBLE],,
the third cylinder in the middle, to be
copied by a lithographer. And what they did was they– under sealed
wrapping, I am sure– distributed the cuneiform
text to Edward Hincks at the top in the first track. Below him, a rather
interesting person who has to be on stage here. Who invented photography? Henry Fox Talbot. Thank you very much. I’ll definitely
give you a lollipop. That is Fox Talbot. That guy he looks like he’s
betting on horse races. He looks ever so dangerous. But that was the genius Fox
Talbot who worked with light. He worked with physics. He worked with the
sphere of objects. And he was a major
contributor at this time. Hincks also was interested in
physics and the study of light and, also, our home
genius as well. It’s a rather
interesting parallel. Anyway, so there was
Hincks and Jules Oppert, who was a French– or Belgian– scholar in France who was in the
forefront of the decipherment, and a picture of
Rawlinson trying to look like somebody else. And 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 worthies sat around a 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
job, for one thing. And of course, a philosophical
mathematician might say, they all four made
the same mistake. But that’s really
neither here nor there. So I will conclude by imprinting
this name, Edward Hincks, on your mind. That’s where he
was born, in Cork. And he died in Killyleagh. And he’s got two of
those round discs. So in my opinion,
the world is littered with unacknowledged geniuses. But Hincks is really,
definitely one of them. And I took all my
family once when we were on 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 plaque. It was outside on the wall, at
ankle level, heavily overgrown, and, I think, utilised
by local dogs. So the only people in Northern
Ireland, the only living things in Northern Ireland, who
regularly offer obeisance at the shrine of Hincks
are these hounds. And presumably,
they’re she-hounds. So when I wrote this book– I don’t want to
mention it again. It’s a bit embarrassing
to keep labouring. I mean, it’s, as I
said, quite coincidental that there are some outside. And if anybody
wanted one signed, it’s the same price, so. I’ll just mention that. But the thing is– in that book, I wrote something
about the poor Reverend Edward and said that this is the name. I couldn’t think of
a more intense way of explaining how important
these decipherers are that there should be on a
magnet, a fridge magnet, with Hincks on every
fridge in Europe. And I toss this idea into
the world as, of course, we do in our profession. And after the book had
been out for a year, I had a letter from somebody in
the administration of the post office in Northern
Ireland saying, we’ve decided we’re
going to bring out a step with Edward
Hincks on it, having read what you wrote about him. So a small injustice has been
addressed, so there you are. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]

100 thoughts on “Cracking Ancient Codes: Cuneiform Writing – with Irving Finkel

  1. If you liked this talk then there's more Irving on the internet! Check out the British Museum's channel, we really liked this video on ancient demons –

  2. Irv: you are my new boyfriend! I am completely drawn in by your beautiful accent and fantastic wit! Look at all the fabulous videos I look forward to!! ❤❤❤✌⭕❌⭕❌

  3. Just a quick addition…I feel like this is Christmas morning, having just discovered you, Irving! So much learning and FUN! ❤

  4. Who is this Albert Pike 2.0?? Professor Dumbledore?? He belongs to an order I am sure.. but seems to be legit teaching the facts

  5. The truly frightening part is so much of this applies to the language of Japanese: a writing system cribbed from another language (Chinese), syllabic writing, kanji with multiple readings depending on context, and sounds can be written with several different signs (kana). I feel like I have a good conceptual grasp of how this old writing system worked lol.

  6. I love that Dr? Finkel starts by saying that understanding or reading ancient scriptures doesnt have anything to do with "cracking code" and the title is…xD

  7. Quite unfortunately, we really do not know as much about the Sumerians as we should. They remain too mysterious. Every time I see one of their blue-eyed idols, I realise that something is quite terribly wrong about everything we think we know about them.

  8. So, can someone tell me why the smart guys like Irving here, with intelligence , knowledge and a sense of humour are not running the country ?

  9. There are so many similarities to Japanese and Chinese. To westerners this is all strange but the concepts might be more familiar to a person in Asia.

  10. The bridge between 2 languages creating an idea that would become letters? If I understood that right, thats really interesting.

  11. Irving Finkel, huh. Fantastic lecture, I really wish I had someone this passionate and charismatic when I was going through school or university. As someone with little to no interest in Cuneiform, but a general interest in ancient history, I found this pretty fascinating. It takes a lot to draw people in to subjects they normally wouldn't watch, especially on the internet, keep it up!

  12. Hes like Gandalf the white, Socrates, and something from Harry Potter all combined in one…….I approve 😂😂😂😊😊😊

  13. It will be interesting when machine learning can take over translation of symbols.
    Maybe people will be able to do that on their mobiles too ;P

  14. Love your humor as well as your educational teaching !👍🌹 as in our complicated language of so called English referring to words sounding alike with different meaning ! 🧐

  15. What I was thinking about is the 10 dimensions . Having them connected to one that has the keys to all 10 . For some reason ? Thier on off switch thier commo lines and thier borrowed material. Our material is 3 rd dimension . I hear the 5th dimension wants us to move up to thier dimension or is coming here during some event . This is way off the Mark here huh.. I think I'll go back in my mind and listen to this conversation..

  16. I see ancients must be dimensional situations .. our ancient ones entirely disapeared leaving us to think thier must been a civallization before them. I think this encoding is because they didn't leave a trace not even spec of dust of the planet..maybe it was to lock up the other dimensions or deciding not ?

  17. I have discovered a dictionary that allows me to read and write in Viking age runes known as Elder Futhark as an ideogram. Please look at, 'The Log of the Kensington Runestone' on 'You Tube', for an introduction to my discovery. This show has been seen in over 37 countries to date. People have been sending me inscriptions from their locals and I have found I can read a number of them. Stories from over six centuries ago are now readable. Email ([email protected]) for a copy of my report. Do you want to read the runes in your area ?

  18. I will tell you what is artificial and that is the scientism that has told humanity we live on a spinning ball flying through space, that is a lie that is what that is.

  19. Very Entertaining Delivery!
    I study Tarot Cards. Have for years. What he describes in the manner of reading symbols with multiple meanings and implications is very familiar to me. Each card is layered with symbols and connecting these with the cards beside them to form a gestalt is the essential art of reading them. Fascinating to learn that humans have been utilizing this aspect of their brains for so long…

  20. The picture of the tablets I'm looking at the left one has a Templar cross in it why obviously it's not Aramaic it's a Templar code they have totally Miss translated or making up BS to tell you what they want you to believe cuz why would a Templar cross be on an air make tablet take yourself out of that one

  21. “God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto
    men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness
    of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is
    to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind, and provide all the means by
    which they can be established.”

    Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 79)

  22. Thank you very much. I understood a few of the English words and one or two of the phrases. Overall however it was most enlightening. I think I know why I didn't study language now.

  23. I would think that the pictograms are so simple not because of a lack of skill; rather a desire to convey a lot of information in as short a timescale as possible due to the anticipation of a coming cataclysm. They were carving in stone after all, this was way before flash drives. Or was it?

  24. But of course we know that no writing exists prior to about 3,000BC – that's the date of the flood in Genesis 6-7.

  25. Gotta love a passive aggressive Lecturer that thinks he's a comedian. Thank the Lord I never had him as his style would have been humorous for about 2 mins.

  26. This is the second YouTube video I've watched with Irving Finkel as the narrator/presenter. He is a greatly entertaining speaker.

  27. He draws a lot of parallels between ancient writers of cuneiform and modern people using emotes on their phones; the former he has nothing but praise for, the latter are 'imbeciles'.
    Intellectual snobbery at its finest.

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