Conspicuously placed in the great hall of Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum is a wonderful piece of sculpture known as the Rosetta Stone. I doubt if any other piece in the entire exhibit attracts so much attention from the casual visitor as this slab of black basalt on its telescope-like pedestal. The hall itself, despite its profusion of strangely sculptured treasures, is never crowded, but before this stone you may almost always find some one standing, gazing with more or less of discernment at the strange characters that are graven neatly across its upturned, glass-protected face. A glance at this graven surface suffices to show that three sets of inscriptions are recorded there. The upper one, occupying about one-fourth of the surface, is a pictured scroll, made up of chains of those strange outlines of serpents, hawks, lions, and so on, which are recognized, even by the least initiated, as hieroglyphics. The middle inscription, made up of lines, angles, and half-pictures, one might surmise to be a sort of abbreviated or short-hand hieroglyphic. The third or lower inscription is Greek—obviously a thing of words. If the screeds above be also made of words, only the elect have any way of proving the fact.

Fortunately, however, even the least scholarly observer is left in no doubt as to the real import of the thing he sees, for an obliging English label tells us that these three inscriptions are renderings of the same message, and that this message is a "decree of the priests of Memphis conferring divine honors on Ptolemy V. (Epiphenes), King of Egypt, B.C. 195." The label goes on to state that the upper inscription (of which, unfortunately, only part of the last dozen lines or so remains, the slab being broken) is in "the Egyptian language, in hieroglyphics, or writing of the priests"; the second inscription "in the same language is in Demotic, or the writing of the people"; and the third "the Greek language and character." Following this is a brief biography of the Rosetta Stone itself, as follows: "The stone was found by the French in 1798 among the ruins of Fort Saint Julien, near the Rosetta mouth of the Nile. It passed into the hands of the British by the treaty of Alexandria, and was deposited in the British Museum in the year 1801." There is a whole volume of history in that brief inscription—and a bitter sting thrown in, if the reader chance to be a Frenchman. Yet the facts involved could scarcely be suggested more modestly. They are recorded much more bluntly in a graven inscription on the side of the stone, which reads: "Captured in Egypt by the British Army, 1801." No Frenchman could read those words without a veritable sinking of the heart.

The value of the Rosetta Stone depended on the fact that it gave promise, even when casually inspected, of furnishing a key to the centuries-old mystery of the hieroglyphics. For two thousand years the secret of these strange markings had been forgotten. Nowhere in the world—quite as little in Egypt as elsewhere—had any man the slightest clew to their meaning; there were those who even doubted whether these droll picturings really had any specific meaning, questioning whether they were not rather vague symbols of esoteric religious import and nothing more. And it was the Rosetta Stone that gave the answer to these doubters and restored to the world a lost language and a forgotten literature.

The trustees of the museum recognized at once that the problem of the Rosetta Stone was one on which the scientists of the world might well exhaust their ingenuity, and promptly published to the world a carefully lithographed copy of the entire inscription, so that foreign scholarship had equal opportunity with the British to try at the riddle. It was an Englishman, however, who first gained a clew to the solution. This was none other than the extraordinary Dr. Thomas Young, the demonstrator of the vibratory nature of light.

Young's specific discoveries were these: (1) That many of the pictures of the hieroglyphics stand for the names of the objects actually delineated; (2) that other pictures are sometimes only symbolic; (3) that plural numbers are represented by repetition; (4) that numerals are represented by dashes; (5) that hieroglyphics may read either from the right or from the left, but always from the direction in which the animal and human figures face; (6) that proper names are surrounded by a graven oval ring, making what he called a cartouche; (7) that the cartouches of the preserved portion of the Rosetta Stone stand for the name of Ptolemy alone; (8) that the presence of a female figure after such cartouches in other inscriptions always denotes the female sex; (9) that within the cartouches the hieroglyphic symbols have a positively phonetic value, either alphabetic or syllabic; and (10) that several different characters may have the same phonetic value.

Just what these phonetic values are Young pointed out in the case of fourteen characters representing nine sounds, six of which are accepted to-day as correctly representing the letters to which he ascribed them, and the three others as being correct regarding their essential or consonant element. It is clear, therefore, that he was on the right track thus far, and on the very verge of complete discovery. But, unfortunately, he failed to take the next step, which would have been to realize that the same phonetic values which were given to the alphabetic characters within the cartouches were often ascribed to them also when used in the general text of an inscription; in other words, that the use of an alphabet was not confined to proper names. This was the great secret which Young missed and which his French successor, Jean Francois Champollion, working on the foundation that Young had laid, was enabled to ferret out.

Young's initial studies of the Rosetta Stone were made in 1814; his later publication bore date of 1819. Champollion's first announcement of results came in 1822; his second and more important one in 1824. By this time, through study of the cartouches of other inscriptions, Champollion had made out almost the complete alphabet, and the "riddle of the Sphinx" was practically solved. He proved that the Egyptians had developed a relatively complete alphabet (mostly neglecting the vowels, as early Semitic alphabets did also) centuries before the Phoenicians were heard of in history. What relation this alphabet bore to the Phoenician we shall have occasion to ask in another connection; for the moment it suffices to know that those strange pictures of the Egyptian scroll are really letters.

Even this statement, however, must be in a measure modified. These pictures are letters and something more. Some of them are purely alphabetical in character and some are symbolic in another way. Some characters represent syllables. Others stand sometimes as mere representatives of sounds, and again, in a more extended sense, as representations of things, such as all hieroglyphics doubtless were in the beginning. In a word, this is an alphabet, but not a perfected alphabet, such as modern nations are accustomed to; hence the enormous complications and difficulties it presented to the early investigators.

Champollion did not live to clear up all these mysteries. His work was taken up and extended by his pupil Rossellini, and in particular by Dr. Richard Lepsius in Germany, followed by M. Bernouf, and by Samuel Birch of the British Museum, and more recently by such well-known Egyptologists as MM. Maspero and Mariette and Chabas, in France, Dr. Brugsch, in Germany, and Dr. E. Wallis Budge, the present head of the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum. But the task of later investigators has been largely one of exhumation and translation of records rather than of finding methods.


The most casual wanderer in the British Museum can hardly fail to notice two pairs of massive sculptures, in the one case winged bulls, in the other winged lions, both human-headed, which guard the entrance to the Egyptian hall, close to the Rosetta Stone. Each pair of these weird creatures once guarded an entrance to the palace of a king in the famous city of Nineveh. As one stands before them his mind is carried back over some twenty-seven intervening centuries, to the days when the "Cedar of Lebanon" was "fair in his greatness" and the scourge of Israel.

The very Sculptures before us, for example, were perhaps seen by Jonah when he made that famous voyage to Nineveh some seven or eight hundred years B.C. A little later the Babylonian and the Mede revolted against Assyrian tyranny and descended upon the fair city of Nineveh, and almost literally levelled it to the ground. But these great sculptures, among other things, escaped destruction, and at once hidden and preserved by the accumulating debris of the centuries, they stood there age after age, their very existence quite forgotten. When Xenophon marched past their site with the ill-starred expedition of the ten thousand, in the year 400 B.C., he saw only a mound which seemed to mark the site of some ancient ruin; but the Greek did not suspect that he looked upon the site of that city which only two centuries before had been the mistress of the world.

So ephemeral is fame! And yet the moral scarcely holds in the sequel; for we of to-day, in this new, undreamed-of Western world, behold these mementos of Assyrian greatness fresh from their twenty-five hundred years of entombment, and with them records which restore to us the history of that long-forgotten people in such detail as it was not known to any previous generation since the fall of Nineveh. For two thousand five hundred years no one saw these treasures or knew that they existed. One hundred generations of men came and went without once pronouncing the name of kings Shalmaneser or Asumazirpal or Asurbanipal. And to-day, after these centuries of oblivion, these names are restored to history, and, thanks to the character of their monuments, are assured a permanency of fame that can almost defy time itself. It would be nothing strange, but rather in keeping with their previous mutations of fortune, if the names of Asurnazirpal and Asurbanipal should be familiar as household words to future generations that have forgotten the existence of an Alexander, a Caesar, and a Napoleon. For when Macaulay's prospective New Zealander explores the ruins of the British Museum the records of the ancient Assyrians will presumably still be there unscathed, to tell their story as they have told it to our generation, though every manuscript and printed book may have gone the way of fragile textures.

But the past of the Assyrian sculptures is quite necromantic enough without conjuring for them a necromantic future. The story of their restoration is like a brilliant romance of history. Prior to the middle of this century the inquiring student could learn in an hour or so all that was known in fact and in fable of the renowned city of Nineveh. He had but to read a few chapters of the Bible and a few pages of Diodorus to exhaust the important literature on the subject. If he turned also to the pages of Herodotus and Xenophon, of Justin and Aelian, these served chiefly to confirm the suspicion that the Greeks themselves knew almost nothing more of the history of their famed Oriental forerunners. The current fables told of a first King Ninus and his wonderful queen Semiramis; of Sennacherib the conqueror; of the effeminate Sardanapalus, who neglected the warlike ways of his ancestors but perished gloriously at the last, with Nineveh itself, in a self-imposed holocaust. And that was all. How much of this was history, how much myth, no man could say; and for all any one suspected to the contrary, no man could ever know. And to-day the contemporary records of the city are before us in such profusion as no other nation of antiquity, save Egypt alone, can at all rival. Whole libraries of Assyrian books are at hand that were written in the seventh century before our era. These, be it understood, are the original books themselves, not copies. The author of that remote time appeals to us directly, hand to eye, without intermediary transcriber. And there is not a line of any Hebrew or Greek manuscript of a like age that has been preserved to us; there is little enough that can match these ancient books by a thousand years. When one reads Moses or Isaiah, Homer, Hesiod, or Herodotus, he is but following the transcription—often unquestionably faulty and probably never in all parts perfect—of successive copyists of later generations. The oldest known copy of the Bible, for example, dates probably from the fourth century A.D., a thousand years or more after the last Assyrian records were made and read and buried and forgotten.

There was at least one king of Assyria—namely, Asurbanipal, whose palace boasted a library of some ten thousand volumes—a library, if you please, in which the books were numbered and shelved systematically, and classified and cared for by an official librarian. If you would see some of the documents of this marvellous library you have but to step past the winged lions of Asurnazirpal and enter the Assyrian hall just around the corner from the Rosetta Stone. Indeed, the great slabs of stone from which the lions themselves are carved are in a sense books, inasmuch as there are written records inscribed on their surface. A glance reveals the strange characters in which these records are written, graven neatly in straight lines across the stone, and looking to casual inspection like nothing so much as random flights of arrow-heads. The resemblance is so striking that this is sometimes called the arrow-head character, though it is more generally known as the wedge or cuneiform character. The inscriptions on the flanks of the lions are, however, only makeshift books. But the veritable books are no farther away than the next room beyond the hall of Asurnazirpal. They occupy part of a series of cases placed down the centre of this room. Perhaps it is not too much to speak of this collection as the most extraordinary set of documents of all the rare treasures of the British Museum, for it includes not books alone, but public and private letters, business announcements, marriage contracts—in a word, all the species of written records that enter into the every-day life of an intelligent and cultured community.

But by what miracle have such documents been preserved through all these centuries? A glance makes the secret evident. It is simply a case of time-defying materials. Each one of these Assyrian documents appears to be, and in reality is, nothing more or less than an inscribed fragment of brick, having much the color and texture of a weathered terra-cotta tile of modern manufacture. These slabs are usually oval or oblong in shape, and from two or three to six or eight inches in length and an inch or so in thickness. Each of them was originally a portion of brick-clay, on which the scribe indented the flights of arrowheads with some sharp-cornered instrument, after which the document was made permanent by baking. They are somewhat fragile, of course, as all bricks are, and many of them have been more or less crumbled in the destruction of the palace at Nineveh; but to the ravages of mere time they are as nearly invulnerable as almost anything in nature. Hence it is that these records of a remote civilization have been preserved to us, while the similar records of such later civilizations as the Grecian have utterly perished, much as the flint implements of the cave-dweller come to us unchanged, while the iron implements of a far more recent age have crumbled away.


After all, then, granted the choice of materials, there is nothing so very extraordinary in the mere fact of preservation of these ancient records. To be sure, it is vastly to the credit of nineteenth-century enterprise to have searched them out and brought them back to light. But the real marvel in connection with them is the fact that nineteenth-century scholarship should have given us, not the material documents themselves, but a knowledge of their actual contents. The flight of arrow-heads on wall or slab or tiny brick have surely a meaning; but how shall we guess that meaning? These must be words; but what words? The hieroglyphics of the Egyptians were mysterious enough in all conscience; yet, after all, their symbols have a certain suggestiveness, whereas there is nothing that seems to promise a mental leverage in the unbroken succession of these cuneiform dashes. Yet the Assyrian scholar of to-day can interpret these strange records almost as readily and as surely as the classical scholar interprets a Greek manuscript. And this evidences one of the greatest triumphs of nineteenth-century scholarship, for within almost two thousand years no man has lived, prior to our century, to whom these strange inscriptions would not have been as meaningless as they are to the most casual stroller who looks on them with vague wonderment here in the museum to-day. For the Assyrian language, like the Egyptian, was veritably a dead language; not, like Greek and Latin, merely passed from practical every-day use to the closet of the scholar, but utterly and absolutely forgotten by all the world. Such being the case, it is nothing less than marvellous that it should have been restored.

It is but fair to add that this restoration probably never would have been effected, with Assyrian or with Egyptian, had the language in dying left no cognate successor; for the powers of modern linguistry, though great, are not actually miraculous. But, fortunately, a language once developed is not blotted out in toto; it merely outlives its usefulness and is gradually supplanted, its successor retaining many traces of its origin. So, just as Latin, for example, has its living representatives in Italian and the other Romance tongues, the language of Assyria is represented by cognate Semitic languages. As it chances, however, these have been of aid rather in the later stages of Assyrian study than at the very outset; and the first clew to the message of the cuneiform writing came through a slightly different channel.

Curiously enough, it was a trilingual inscription that gave the clew, as in the case of the Rosetta Stone, though with very striking difference withal. The trilingual inscription now in question, instead of being a small, portable monument, covers the surface of a massive bluff at Behistun in western Persia. Moreover, all three of its inscriptions are in cuneiform characters, and all three are in languages that at the beginning of our century were absolutely unknown. This inscription itself, as a striking monument of unknown import, had been seen by successive generations. Tradition ascribed it, as we learn from Ctesias, through Diodorus, to the fabled Assyrian queen Semiramis. Tradition was quite at fault in this; but it is only recently that knowledge has availed to set it right. The inscription, as is now known, was really written about the year 515 B.C., at the instance of Darius I., King of Persia, some of whose deeds it recounts in the three chief languages of his widely scattered subjects.

The man who at actual risk of life and limb copied this wonderful inscription, and through interpreting it became the veritable "father of Assyriology," was the English general Sir Henry Rawlinson. His feat was another British triumph over the same rivals who had competed for the Rosetta Stone; for some French explorers had been sent by their government, some years earlier, expressly to copy this strange record, and had reported that it was impossible to reach the inscription. But British courage did not find it so, and in 1835 Rawlinson scaled the dangerous height and made a paper cast of about half the inscription. Diplomatic duties called him away from the task for some years, but in 1848 he returned to it and completed the copy of all parts of the inscription that have escaped the ravages of time. And now the material was in hand for a new science, which General Rawlinson himself soon, assisted by a host of others, proceeded to elaborate.

The key to the value of this unique inscription lies in the fact that its third language is ancient Persian. It appears that the ancient Persians had adopted the cuneiform character from their western neighbors, the Assyrians, but in so doing had made one of those essential modifications and improvements which are scarcely possible to accomplish except in the transition from one race to another. Instead of building with the arrow-head a multitude of syllabic characters, including many homophones, as had been and continued to be the custom with the Assyrians, the Persians selected a few of these characters and ascribed to them phonetic values that were almost purely alphabetic. In a word, while retaining the wedge as the basal stroke of their script, they developed an alphabet, making the last wonderful analysis of phonetic sounds which even to this day has escaped the Chinese, which the Egyptians had only partially effected, and which the Phoenicians were accredited by the Greeks with having introduced to the Western world. In addition to this all-essential step, the Persians had introduced the minor but highly convenient custom of separating the words of a sentence from one another by a particular mark, differing in this regard not only from the Assyrians and Egyptians, but from the early Greek scribes as well.

Thanks to these simplifications, the old Persian language had been practically restored about the beginning of the nineteenth century, through the efforts of the German Grotefend, and further advances in it were made just at this time by Renouf, in France, and by Lassen, in Germany, as well as by Rawlinson himself, who largely solved the problem of the Persian alphabet independently. So the Persian portion of the Behistun inscription could be at least partially deciphered. This in itself, however, would have been no very great aid towards the restoration of the languages of the other portions had it not chanced, fortunately, that the inscription is sprinkled with proper names. Now proper names, generally speaking, are not translated from one language to another, but transliterated as nearly as the genius of the language will permit. It was the fact that the Greek word Ptolemaics was transliterated on the Rosetta Stone that gave the first clew to the sounds of the Egyptian characters. Had the upper part of the Rosetta Stone been preserved, on which, originally, there were several other names, Young would not have halted where he did in his decipherment.

But fortune, which had been at once so kind and so tantalizing in the case of the Rosetta Stone, had dealt more gently with the Behistun inscriptions; for no fewer than ninety proper names were preserved in the Persian portion and duplicated, in another character, in the Assyrian inscription. A study of these gave a clew to the sounds of the Assyrian characters. The decipherment of this character, however, even with this aid, proved enormously difficult, for it was soon evident that here it was no longer a question of a nearly perfect alphabet of a few characters, but of a syllabary of several hundred characters, including many homophones, or different forms for representing the same sound. But with the Persian translation for a guide on the one hand, and the Semitic languages, to which family the Assyrian belonged, on the other, the appalling task was gradually accomplished, the leading investigators being General Rawlinson, Professor Hincks, and Mr. Fox-Talbot, in England, Professor Jules Oppert, in Paris, and Professor Julian Schrader, in Germany, though a host of other scholars soon entered the field.

This great linguistic feat was accomplished about the middle of the nineteenth century. But so great a feat was it that many scholars of the highest standing, including Joseph Erneste Renan, in France, and Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, in England, declined at first to accept the results, contending that the Assyriologists had merely deceived themselves by creating an arbitrary language. The matter was put to a test in 1855 at the suggestion of Mr. Fox-Talbot, when four scholars, one being Mr. Talbot himself and the others General Rawlinson, Professor Hincks, and Professor Oppert, laid before the Royal Asiatic Society their independent interpretations of a hitherto untranslated Assyrian text. A committee of the society, including England's greatest historian of the century, George Grote, broke the seals of the four translations, and reported that they found them unequivocally in accord as regards their main purport, and even surprisingly uniform as regards the phraseology of certain passages—in short, as closely similar as translations from the obscure texts of any difficult language ever are. This decision gave the work of the Assyriologists official status, and the reliability of their method has never since been in question. Henceforth Assyriology was an established science.




[1] Robert Boyle, Philosophical Works (3 vols.). London, 1738.


[1] For a complete account of the controversy called the "Water Controversy," see The Life of the Hon. Henry Cavendish, by George Wilson, M.D., F.R.S.E. London, 1850.

[2] Henry Cavendish, in Phil. Trans. for 1784, P. 119.

[3] Lives of the Philosophers of the Time of George III., by Henry, Lord Brougham, F.R.S., p. 106. London, 1855.

[4] Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air, by Joseph Priestley (3 vols.). Birmingham, 790, vol. II, pp. 103-107.

[5] Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, by Joseph Priestley, lecture IV., pp. 18, ig. J. Johnson, London, 1794.

[6] Translated from Scheele's Om Brunsten, eller Magnesia, och dess Egenakaper. Stockholm, 1774, and published as Alembic Club Reprints, No. 13, 1897, p. 6.

[7] According to some writers this was discovered by Berzelius.

[8] Histoire de la Chimie, par Ferdinand Hoefer. Paris, 1869, Vol. CL, p. 289.

[9] Elements of Chemistry, by Anton Laurent Lavoisier, translated by Robert Kerr, p. 8. London and Edinburgh, 1790.

[10] Ibid., pp. 414-416.


[1] Sir Humphry Davy, in Phil. Trans., Vol. VIII.


[1] Baas, History of Medicine, p. 692.

[2] Based on Thomas H. Huxley's Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1870.

[3] Essays on Digestion, by James Carson. London, 1834, p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] John Hunter, On the Digestion of the Stomach after Death, first edition, pp. 183-188.

[6] Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, pp. 448-453. London, 1799.


[1] Baron de Cuvier's Theory of the Earth. New York, 1818, p. 123.

[2] On the Organs and Mode of Fecundation of Orchidex and Asclepiadea, by Robert Brown, Esq., in Miscellaneous Botanical Works. London, 1866, Vol. I., pp. 511-514.

[3] Justin Liebig, Animal Chemistry. London, 1843, p. 17f.


[1] "Essay on the Metamorphoses of Plants," by Goethe, translated for the present work from Grundriss einer Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, by Friederich Dannemann (2 vols.). Leipzig, 1896, Vol. I., p. 194.

[2] The Temple of Nature, or The Origin of Society, by Erasmus Darwin, edition published in 1807, p. 35.

[3] Baron de Cuvier, Theory of the Earth. New York, 1818, p.74. (This was the introduction to Cuvier's great work.)

[4] Robert Chambers, Explanations: a sequel to Vestiges of Creation. London, Churchill, 1845, pp. 148-153.


[1] Condensed from Dr. Boerhaave's Academical Lectures on the Theory of Physic. London, 1751, pp. 77, 78. Boerhaave's lectures were published as Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis Morbis, Leyden, 1709. On this book Van Swieten wrote commentaries filling five volumes. Another very celebrated work of Boerhaave is his Institutiones et Experimenta Chemic, Paris, 1724, the germs of this being given as a lecture on his appointment to the chair of chemistry in the University of Leyden in 1718.

[2] An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variola Vaccine, etc., by Edward Jenner, M.D., F.R.S., etc. London, 1799, pp. 2-7. He wrote several other papers, most of which were communications to the Royal Society. His last publication was, On the Influence of Artificial Eruptions in Certain Diseases (London, 1822), a subject to which he had given much time and study.


[1] In the introduction to Corvisart's translation of Avenbrugger's work. Paris, 1808.

[2] Laennec, Traite d'Auscultation Mediate. Paris, 1819. This was Laennec's chief work, and was soon translated into several different languages. Before publishing this he had written also, Propositions sur la doctrine midicale d'Hippocrate, Paris, 1804, and Memoires sur les vers visiculaires, in the same year.

[3] Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air and its Respiration, by Humphry Davy. London, 1800, pp. 479-556.

[4] Ibid.

[5] For accounts of the discovery of anaesthesia, see Report of the Board of Trustees of the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, 1888. Also, The Ether Controversy: Vindication of the Hospital Reports of 1848, by N. L Bowditch, Boston, 1848. An excellent account is given in Littell's Living Age, for March, 1848, written by R. H. Dana, Jr. There are also two Congressional Reports on the question of the discovery of etherization, one for 1848, the other for 11852.

[6] Simpson made public this discovery of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform in a paper read before the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Edinburgh, in March, 1847, about three months after he had first seen a surgical operation performed upon a patient to whom ether had been administered.

[7] Louis Pasteur, Studies on Fermentation. London, 1870.

[8] Louis Pasteur, in Comptes Rendus des Sciences de L'Academie des Sciences, vol. XCII., 1881, pp. 429-435.


[1] Bell's communications were made to the Royal Society, but his studies and his discoveries in the field of anatomy of the nervous system were collected and published, in 1824, as An Exposition of the Natural System of Nerves of the Human Body: being a Republication of the Papers delivered to the Royal Society on the Subject of the Nerves.

[2] Marshall Hall, M.D., F.R.S.L., On the Reflex Functions of the Medulla Oblongata and the Medulla Spinalis, in Phil. Trans. of Royal Soc., vol. XXXIII., 1833.