Major (afterward Sir) Henry Rawlinson had gone out to India, in the service of the East India Company, while still a boy. There he had learned Persian and several of the Indian vernaculars. That was not the sort of training that had prepared Grotefend, Burnouf or Lassen, but it was the kind that the early travellers and copyists had enjoyed. In 1833 young Rawlinson went to Persia, to work with other British officers in the reorganization of the Persian army. While engaged in this service his attention was drawn to the ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions. In 1835 he copied with great care the texts at Hamadan, and began their decipherment. Of all the eager work which had been going on in Europe he knew little. It is no longer possible to ascertain when he gained his first information of Grotefend’s work, for Norris, the secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, has left us no record of when he began to send notices of the German’s work. Whenever it was, there seems to be no doubt that Rawlinson worked independently for a time. His method was strikingly like Grotefend’s. He had copied two trilingual inscriptions, and recognized at once that he had three languages before him. In 1839 (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, x. pp. 5, 6) he thus wrote of his method: “When I proceeded ... to compare and interline the two inscriptions (or rather the Persian columns of the two inscriptions, for, as the compartments exhibiting the inscription in the Persian language occupied the principal place in the tablets, and were engraved in the least complicated of the three classes of cuneiform writing, they were naturally first submitted to examination) I found that the characters coincided throughout, except in certain particular groups, and it was only reasonable to suppose that the grounds which were thus brought out and individualized must represent proper names. I further remarked that there were but three of these distinct groups in the two inscriptions; for the group which occupied the second place in one inscription, and which, from its position, suggested the idea of its representing the name of the father of the king who was there commemorated, corresponded with the group which occupied the first place in the other inscription, and thus not only served determinately to connect the two inscriptions together, but, assuming the groups to represent proper names, appeared also to indicate a genealogical succession. The natural inference was that in these three groups of characters I had obtained the proper names belonging to three consecutive generations of the Persian monarchy; and it so happened that the first three names of Hystaspes, Darius and Xerxes, which I applied at hazard to the three groups, according to the succession, proved to answer in all respects satisfactorily and were, in fact, the true identification.”
Rawlinson’s next work was the copying of the great inscription of Darius on the rocks at Behistun (q.v.). He had first seen it in 1835, and as it was high up on the rocky face, and apparently inaccessible, he had studied it by means of a field-glass. He was not able to copy the whole of the Persian text, but in 1837, when he was more skilled in the script, he secured more of it. In the next year he forwarded to the Royal Asiatic Society of London his translation of the first two paragraphs of the Persian text, containing the name, titles and genealogy of Darius. This was little less than a tour de force, for it must be remembered that this had been accomplished without the knowledge of other ancient languages which his European competitors had enjoyed. The translation, received in London on the 14th of March, made a sensation, and a transcript sent in April to the Asiatic Society of Paris secured him an honorary membership in that distinguished body. He was now known, and many made haste to send him copies of everything important which had been published in Europe. The works of Burnouf, Niebuhr, le Brun and Porter came to his hands, and with such assistance he made rapid progress, and in the winter of 1838-1839 his alphabet of ancient Persian was almost complete. In 1839 he was in Bagdad, his work written out and almost ready for publication. But he delayed, hoping for more light, and revising sign by sign with exhaustless patience. He expected to publish his preliminary memoir in the spring of 1840, when he was suddenly sent to Afghanistan as political agent at Kandahar. Here he was too busily engaged in war administration to attend to his favourite studies, which were not renewed until 1843 when he returned to Bagdad. There he received fresh copies and corrections of the Persepolis inscriptions which had been made by Westergaard, and later made a journey to Behistun to perfect his own copies of the texts which had formed the basis of his own first study. At last, after many delays and discouragements, he published, in 1846, in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, his memoir, or series of memoirs, on the ancient Persian inscriptions, in which for the first time he gave a nearly complete translation of the Persian text of Behistun. In this one publication Rawlinson attained imperishable fame in Oriental research. His work had been carried on under greater difficulties than those in the path of his European colleagues, but he had surpassed them all in the making of an intelligible and connected translation of a long inscription. He had indeed not done it without assistance from the work of Burnouf, Grotefend and Lassen, but when all allowance is made for these influences his fame is not diminished nor the extent of his services curtailed. His method was adopted before he knew of Lassen’s work. That two men of such different training and of such opposite types of mind should have lighted upon the same method, and by it have attained the same results, confirmed in the eyes of many the truth of the decipherment.
The work of the decipherment of the old Persian texts was now complete for all practical purposes. But in 1846 there appeared a paper read before the Royal Irish Academy by the Rev. Edward Hincks of Killyleagh, County Down, Ireland, whose keen criticisms of Lassen’s work, and original contributions to the definite settlement of syllabic values, may be regarded as closing the period of decipherment of Persian cuneiform writing.
The next problem in the study of cuneiform was the decipherment of the second language in each of the trilingual groups. The first essay in this difficult task was made in 1844 by Niels Louis Westergaard. His method was very similar to that used by Grotefend in the decipherment of Persian. He selected the names of Darius, Hystaspes, Persians and others, and compared them with their equivalents in the Persian texts. By this means he learned a number of signs, and sought by their use in other words to spell out syllables or words whose meanings were then ascertained by conjecture or by comparison. He estimated the number of characters at eighty-two or eighty-seven, and judged the writing to be partly alphabetic and partly syllabic. The language he called Median, and classified it in “the Scythian, rather than in the Japhetic family.” The results of Westergaard were subjected to incisive criticism by Hincks, who made a distinct gain in the problem. It next passed to the hands of de Saulcy, who was able to see further than either. But the matter moved with difficulty because the copied texts were not accurate. By the generosity of Sir Henry Rawlinson his superb copies of the Behistun text, second column, were placed in the hands of Mr Edwin Norris, who was able in 1852 to present a paper to the Royal Asiatic Society deciphering nearly all of it. Mordtmann followed him, naming the language Susian, which was met with general acceptance and was not displaced by the name Amardian, suggested by A. H. Sayce in two papers which otherwise made important contributions to the subject. With his contributions the problem of decipherment of Susian may be considered as closed. The latter workers could only be builders on foundations already laid.
The decipherment of the third of the three languages found at Persepolis and Behistun followed quickly on the success with Susian. The first worker was Isadore Löwenstern, who made out the words for “king” and “great” and the sign for the plural, but little more. The first really great advance was made by Hincks in 1846 and 1847. In these he determined successfully the values of several signs, settled the numerals, and was apparently on the high-road toward the translation of an entire Assyrian text. He was, however, too cautious to proceed so far, and the credit of first translating a short Assyrian text belongs to Longpérier, who in 1847 published the following as the translation of an entire text: “Glorious is Sargon, the great king, the (. . .) king, king of kings, king of the land of Assyria.”