THE ORIENTAL SCIENTIFIC MOVEMENT AND AMERICAN DISCOVERIES

 

The decipherment of cuneiform inscriptions, and the study of Assyrian remains up to 1840—Ancient Iran and the Avesta—The survey of India and the study of Hindustani—The exploration and measurement of the Himalaya mountains—The Arabian Peninsula—Syria and Palestine—Central Asia and Alexander von Humboldt—Pike at the sources of the Mississippi, Arkansas, and Red River—Major Long's two expeditions—General Cass—Schoolcraft at the sources of the Mississippi—The exploration of New Mexico—Archæological expeditions in Central America—Scientific expeditions in Brazil—Spix and Martin—Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied—D'Orbigny and American man.

Although the discoveries which we are now to relate are not strictly speaking geographical, they nevertheless throw such a new light on several early civilizations, and have done so much to extend the domain of history and ideas, that we are compelled to dedicate a few words to them.

The reading of cuneiform inscriptions, and the decipherment of hieroglyphics are events so important in their results, they reveal to us so vast a number of facts hitherto unknown, or distorted in the more or less marvellous narratives of the ancient historians Diodorus, Ctesias, and Herodotus, that it is impossible to pass over scientific discoveries of such value in silence.

Thanks to them, we form an intimate acquaintance with a whole world, with an extremely advanced civilization, with manners, habits, and customs differing essentially from our own. How strange it seems to hold in our hands the accounts of the steward of some great lord or governor of a province, or to read such romances as those of Setna and the Two Brothers, or stories such as that of the Predestined Prince.

Those buildings of vast proportions, those superb temples, magnificent hypogæa, and sculptured obelisks, were once nothing more to us than sumptuous monuments, but now that the inscriptions upon them have been read, they relate to us the life of the kings who built them, and the circumstances of their erection.

How many names of races not mentioned by Greek historians, how many towns now lost, how many of the smallest details of the religion, art, and daily life, as well as of the political and military events of the past, are revealed to us by the hieroglyphic and cuneiform inscriptions.

Not only do we now see into the daily life of these ancient peoples, of whom we had formerly but a very superficial knowledge, but we get an idea even of their literature. The day is perhaps not far distant when we shall know as much of the life of the Egyptians in the eighteenth century before Christ as that of our forefathers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of our own era.

Carsten Niebuhr was the first to make and bring to Europe an exact and complete copy of inscriptions at Persepolis in an unknown character. Many attempts had been made to explain them, but all had been vain, until in 1802 Grotefend, the learned Hanoverian philologist, succeeded, by an inspiration of genius, in solving the mystery in which they were enveloped.

Truly these cuneiform characters were strange and difficult to decipher! Imagine a collection of nails variously arranged, and forming groups horizontally placed. What did these groups signify? Did they represent sounds and articulations, or, like the letters of our alphabet, complete words? Had they the ideographic value of Chinese written characters? What was the language hidden in them? These were the problems to be solved! It appeared probable that the inscriptions brought from Persepolis were written in the language of the ancient Persians, but Rask, Bopp, and Lassen had not yet studied the Iranian idioms and proved their affinity with Sanskrit.

It would be beyond our province to give an account of the ingenious deductions, the skilful guesses, and the patient groping through which Grotefend finally achieved the recognition of an alphabetic system of writing, and succeeded in separating from certain groups of words what he believed to be the names of Darius and Xerxes, thus attaining a knowledge of several letters, by means of which he made out other words. It is enough for us to say that the key was found by him, and to others was left the task of completing and perfecting his work.

More than thirty years passed by, however, before any notable progress was made in these studies. It was our learned fellow-countryman Eugène Burnouf who gave them a decided impulse. Turning to account his knowledge of Sanskrit and Zend, he found that the language of the inscriptions of Persepolis was but a Zend dialect used in Bactriana, which was still spoken in the sixth century B.C., and in which the books of Zoroaster were written. Burnouf's pamphlet bears date 1836. At the same period Lassen, a German scholar of Bonn, came to the same conclusion on the same grounds.