Author: Marie Young (Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)

In the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations uncovered hundreds of thousands of clay tablets written in one of the oldest Semitic languages: Akkadian. Akkadian is written in what is called “cuneiform” script. The name of this type of writing comes from the Latin cuneus (i.e. wedge), referring to each sign being “wedge-shaped” (see T. Obrador’s introduction in this same blog). Cuneiform was used to write in several languages across the Near East until the first century AD. After it was later abandoned, only the Bible and classical authors remained as testimonies of cuneiform writing’s existence. Even if they mentioned the ancient cities of Babylon and Nineveh, or Babylonian physicians and astronomers, they never specifically referred to the aspect of the languages and writing of the Mesopotamians. Cast into oblivion, Akkadian cuneiform was yet to be rediscovered and deciphered.

1. The European explorers looking for Babylon

In the seventeenth century, European explorers’ interest in ancient Mesopotamian civilisations started to grow.

Map of the Ancient Near East in the seventeenth century AD. Nicolas Sanson, cartographer.

In 1621, Pietro della Valle, an Italian explorer, travelled to the Persian empire, looking to find the ancient toponyms cited in the Bible. He identified the original site of ancient Babylon and brought back to Italy the first bricks inscribed with “unknown characters”.

Portrait of Pietro della Valle (1586-1652)

Della Valle also found royal inscriptions in Persepolis and copied them for the first time in modern history. He had a good intuition: his assumption was that the reading direction of these mysterious signs was analogous to the Latin alphabet, which is written and read from left to right. Following his experience, the ancient cultures of the East started to pique the curiosity of scholars the world over. A long period of discoveries was about to begin. Click here to read more about the discovery of cuneiform in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Michaux Stone

After Pietro della Valle’s excursions, further inscribed objects were brought to Europe. In 1784 André Michaux (1746-1802), a French botanist and explorer, embarked on a trip to Persia, seeking new plant species for the garden of the French king, Louis XVI. He discovered a curious stele in Iraq, in the South of the ancient city of Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire. In 1786, this artefact entered the royal collection of coins, gems, and antiquities — le Cabinet des Médailles — where it aroused curiosity and admiration. A complete presentation of this object and its history can be found on a website of the French ministry of culture:

Michaux Stone, Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. The images of the gods above the text protect Ms. Dur-Šarrukinaia’itu from any expropriation of her land. The stele commemorates her father’s donation of a field for her wedding.

Though there were several attempts at translating the text engraved on the Michaux Stone, these were mostly fanciful. Due to a lack of comparable objects, the writing system featured on the stele long remained a mystery, and the Michaux Stone was seen as a unique curiosity in Europe. It has since become apparent that the stele dates back to the reign of the Babylonian king Marduk-nadin-ahhe (1100-1083 BCE). It is a land grant stone commemorating a father’s gift of land to his daughter. In Akkadian, this type of object is called kudurru.

Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, a professor of Semitic languages, testified of the first attempts to decipher cuneiform in the beginning of the nineteenth century in an article of the Magasin encyclopédique (1803, Millin, tome 5, p. 450ff.). In 1803, he sharply criticised a first uncertain translation of the Michaux stone’s cuneiform inscription.

Excerpt of a first fanciful translation of the Michaux Stone by Anton August Heinrich Lichtenstein:
Heaven’s army only gives us vinegar to provide us with the remedies that bring us healing. Though it often pulls so many faithful friends apart, it then reunites them forever.

Modern understanding of the text has now considerably improved, and a 3D modelling of the Michaux Stone, with translation of the mains sections, can be seen on a website of the French Ministry of Culture.

2. The decipherment of Akkadian and the Persepolis Inscriptions

While André Michaux was bringing his sibylline stone back to France, other European travellers continued to discover more archaeological objects. Danish mathematician and voyager Carsten Niebuhr, the only surviving member of an expedition crew headed for Arabia and decimated by an epidemic, found cuneiform inscriptions in the ancient royal city of Persepolis in 1763, thus completing the work that Pietro della Valle had begun a century before him.

Carsten Niebuhr (1733-1815)

His research was fundamental to the history of cuneiform decipherment. Indeed, he was the first person to distinguish in the Persepolis inscriptions different signs corresponding to three distinct systems, writing down three languages, all read from left to right. Different languages written on a same monument were often separated by parallel columns. One of the writings was alphabetical and composed of about forty signs.

Illustration from Carsten Niebuhr’s book: Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegender Ländern (Travel Writing from Arabia and other neighbouring lands) Amsterdam, 1779.

After him, a German scholar Georg Friedrich Grotefend was the first to attempt to translate the alphabetical language of Niebuhr’s inscriptions. He took on the challenge he had set with a friend to “find the meaning of written documents whose alphabet and language was initially totally unknown.” Armed with genius and patience, Grotefend, then a high school teaching assistant in Göttingen, Germany, who was less than thirty years old, succeeded in unlocking the secrets of Old Persian. He assumed that the language that looked alphabetical was the ancestor of Persian, and his idea was proven right. In 1802, he then translated two short “Persepolitan” inscriptions that Carsten Niebuhr had found a few years earlier, and which praised the names of two great Achaemenid kings made famous by Herodotus. It is the identification of these proper nouns, those of Darius and Xerxes, well-known Persian kings fought by the Greek armies and made popular in Europe thanks to Herodotus’s accounts, that allowed Grotefend to accomplish his extraordinary feat.

Click here for more information.

Georg Friedrich Grotefend (1775-1853)

3. The discovery of cuneiform texts in the age of empires

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, an army officer in the British East India Company, took up the torch of Georg F. Grotefend and turned this decipherment into a legendary story. The English soldier and diplomat arrived in the Near East in 1827, where he was quickly noticed for his excellent mastery of Persian and sent to coach the Shah’s military troops.

Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895)

It was during this time that he discovered a remarkable cliff at Mount Behistun in the Kirmanshah Province, close to the border between Iran and Iraq. This colossal multilingual rock inscription celebrates the feats of the Achaemenid king Darius I (521-486 BCE).

In 1835, his passion drove him to take considerable risks to copy these inscriptions. Hanging by a cord 70 metres above the ground, he managed to make a papier-mâché imprint of the text from the rock, enabling him to study it closely.

The Behistun Inscription in Old Persian cuneiform. Copy of H.C. Rawlinson”I’m Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king of Persia, the king of peoples, the son of Vištâspa, the grandson of Arsamès, the Achaemenid.”

His work served as a gateway into the previously uniform block of cuneiform. On the rock relief were three versions of the same inscription, written in three different cuneiform languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. It was the “Rosetta stone of cuneiform”.

Henry C. Rawlinson started to study the Old Persian version of the inscription. He was able to decipher the entire Old Persian cuneiform alphabet, thus completing the work initiated by G. F. Grotefend.

As early as 1851, he proposed a translation and transcription into Latin characters of the third column of the Behistun Inscription of Darius I: the Akkadian version of one hundred and twelve lines. Aside from this, he also had to grapple with numerous new objects arriving from all over the Near East as the rate of archaeological discoveries in the region was accelerating.

Photo of the Cliff bearing the Behistun Inscription, Iran. (source: Wikimedia)
Illustration of two philologists reading an inscription on a cave relief. E. Flandin and P. Coste were two French painters and architects who made a trip to Persia. They published their drawings in their travel writing: Voyage en Perse, 1843.

4. The archaeological competition between European empires

The archaeological race was raging between European powers. The first translations of Old Persian documents created a desire to find other remains of these exotic cultures from the past. Archaeologists were exhuming more and more texts written in what seemed to be the same language as that of the third column of the Behistun Inscription. Philologists were rushing from all sides to unravel its mysteries.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Paul-Emile Botta, the first French consul in Mosul, discovered the city of Sargon II (721-705 BCE) in Khorsabad, Northern Iraq. The French diplomat initially thought that it was the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Many of the objects unearthed during his excavations were inscribed. The Louvre exhibited them in the first collection of oriental antiquities in Europe, which opened on the 1st of May 1847. In 1849-50, Austen Henry Layard, an English archaeologist, managed to finally locate the true Nineveh, to the great displeasure of the French, and found thousands of tablets in the city’s ruins. Many of them came from the first ever known royal library in the history of humanity: the one built by Assurbanipal (669-627 BCE), one of the last kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.  

Austen H. Layard (1817-1894) in Kuyunjik (the Tell of Nineveh). Drawing by Solomon Caesar Malan (1812–1894), 1850.

After the texts arrived at the British Museum, Henry C. Rawlinson started focusing on their study. His successful experiences encouraged him to take part in a “test case”, now recognised in history as marking the official creation of Oriental philology.

Paul-Emile Botta (1802-1870) published Monument de Ninive in 1849 and 1850. He presented the discoveries made in Khorsabad, which he wrongly identified as the city of Nineveh. In fact, he had already, but unknowingly, done excavations in Nineveh a few years prior. He brought back to Paris some inscribed bricks from his discoveries in Nineveh, but cuneiform had not yet been deciphered. It was therefore impossible for him to know that the bricks he found were referencing the famous palace of Sennacherib or the temple built by Assurbanipal in the Neo-Assyrian capital.

5. The adventure of 1857 and the birth of Assyriology

In 1857, the Royal Asiatic Society of London submitted an unpublished text to the best Assyriologists of the time who boasted being able to read Assyrian. The aim of this test case was to prove that Akkadian cuneiform had truly been deciphered.

Participants had to send their translations to the learned society in sealed envelopes. The text was an inscription of Tiglath-Pileser I (1113-1074 BCE) discovered a few years earlier in Assur by the prominent archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam.

The Prism of Tiglath-Pileser I (British Museum No. BM 91033). Covering eight faces over eight hundred and nine lines, the inscription is a historical account of the military and civil achievements of the king. “I wrote on my monumental and clay inscriptions my heroic victories, my successful battles, (and) the suppression of the enemies, foes of the god Assur, that the gods Anu and Adad granted me. I deposited (them) in the temple of the gods Anu and Adad, the great gods, my lords, forever. In addition, the monumental inscriptions of Shamshi-Adad my forefather I anointed with oil, made sacrifices, returned them to their places.”(Translation by A.K. Grayson, Col. viii, 39-49)

William Henry Fox Talbot, an English polymath, was the first to send his translation to the Royal Asiatic Society. He was followed by Henry C. Rawlinson, Jules Oppert, a Franco-German scholar, and Edward Hincks, an Irish preacher. Geniuses from all over Europe took part in this intellectual competition.

The test was a real success. Except for a few divergences, all the translations concurred. After more than half a century of persistence, and with the help of great talent, the immense secret that the Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions had guarded for two thousand years was finally revealed.

Found to be related to Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic, the language of this inscription is now known as Akkadian, but was initially described as Assyrian, in memory of the Mesopotamian rulers known in the Bible, and of the former royal capital of Assur.

Click here for more information about the history of cuneiform decipherment.

The first assyriologists of the Royal Asiatic Society’s experience. From left to right: Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895), Jules Oppert (1825-1905), William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Edward Hincks (1792-1866)

6. The Akkadian language

Further research later showed that Akkadian dating from the beginning of the second millennium BCE was divided into two dialects spoken in Mesopotamia: Assyrian in the North and Babylonian in the South. The Kingdom of Akkad, spanning from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, was the first known empire in the Near East during the third millennium BCE. Akkadian, a Semitic language, was its official tongue, and the city of Akkad its capital. Founded by King Sargon I (2334-2279 BCE), this kingdom was yet to be uncovered by archaeological excavations at the time.

In the second half of the third millennium BCE, Akkadian started to be the most commonly used language in the written documentation of the Ancient Near East. One of its dialectal forms, the Babylonian dialect, different to the Assyrian dialect, was especially widespread during the second millennium BCE.

Several thousand texts written in it are known to exist, and archaeologists are still discovering new texts today.

Documents on every topic were written in the Akkadian Babylonian dialect: literature, divination, medicine, astronomy, royal inscriptions, legal documents, economic texts, letters, geographical maps, mathematics, proverbs… There is a rich corpus, and a long training is required to enjoy all of its aspects.

The Babylonian Akkadian language became the lingua franca of the Ancient Near East in the second millennium BCE, and was even used in diplomacy and trade. By the fourteenth century BCE, even the pharaoh’s administration was using it. In the ancient city of Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, around three hundred and eighty letters were unearthed. They constituted the diplomatic correspondence of the pharaoh Amenhotep III (1388-1351 BCE) and his son Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) with the other great powers of the region: Assyria, Babylonia, the Hittite Empire, Mitanni, Cyprus, as well as all the kingdoms in the Canaan land. 

But Akkadian started to decline during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Around the ninth century BCE, Aramaic, with its alphabetic system, was growing more prominent, and was supplanting Akkadian cuneiform on clay. It became the official language of the Persian Empire after 539 BCE. After the conquest of Alexander the Great and the installations of Greek monarchies in the region, Akkadian was used only by the temples’ administration, priests and scholars. They did, however, speak Greek or Aramaic at home. The last known Akkadian cuneiform texts date from the first century CE, and are astronomical documents. The practicality of the numerological system of Akkadian cuneiform made it a precious tool for the study of astronomy. After the first century CE, it is possible that Akkadian was still being used on skin or papyrus, but no such document has been discovered so far. Akkadian cuneiform was used as a written language for more than three thousand years, which explains its variety. It was in use for longer than the Latin alphabet has been around!

A Cuneiform scribe holding a clay-tablet in his left, the stylus in his right hand and an Aramaic scribe writing on a roll of leather. They are writing the spoil made by Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 BCE)’s campaigns in Southern Iraq (ca. 728 BCE). Relief from the Central Palace of Nimrud (British Museum No. 1848,1104.5).

Akkadian cuneiform was written from the top to the bottom of clay tablets, and from left to right, like the Latin alphabet. Since clay tablets are three-dimensional objects, scribes had to incise the signs into the clay, instead of merely tracing them. They did not only write on the face and reverse of clay tablets, but could write on the edges too.

Clay tablet from the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin (Object Number: VAT 335). It comes from Tell el-Amarna. Labaya, a ruler of southern Canaan sent it to the pharaoh Akhenaten. The scribes used all the surface of the clay tablet to write their letters. The red arrow indicates the direction of reading. (CDLI : P271197)

Cuneiform was mostly written on clay, but could also be written on metal, stone, and even wax.

Gold tablet from Khorsabad shaped as a clay tablet, and commemorating the foundation of the city of Khorsabad by Sargon II (721-705 BCE).  Photo: 2011 RMN – Grand Palais / Franck Raux, Museum Number: AO 19933
Akkadian cuneiform royal inscription under the body of this protective genius. Photo: Marie Young

Akkadian scribes adapted Sumerian cuneiform to their language, and used for it a multi-system, meaning that a sign could either represent:

1) a Sumerian logogram: a sign (grapheme) representing an entire word

2) a syllable

3) a phonetic complement: a sign that helps the scribe understand the nature of the word before or after it, and can disambiguate word characters. An example is the “st” of 1st “first”, which avoids ambiguity with “1” standing for the word “one”.

The relation between syllable and Sumerian logogram depends on the type of text. The Assyrian traders of the second millennium BCE mostly used phonetic values, where a sign represents a syllable, whereas the use of logograms was more common in medical texts or divination.

A peculiarity of Akkadian cuneiform is that signs can be polyphonic, meaning that they have several phonetic values.

For example, the sound -sha- can be written with either the “ša” 𒊭 sign or the “gar” sign 𒃻. In the same way, the “ri” sign 𒊑 can be read as “ri” or “tal”.

The sign “an” 𒀭, used to write the word “god”, can also refer to the god Anu and, consequently, can be used to write the sound “an”. Because it could also be read like the DINGIR logogram in Sumerian, also used to write “god”, it was then attributed the phonetic value of “il”, from that logogram into Akkadian: ilum.

Like all Semitic languages, Akkadian words had mostly three-consonant roots. But some roots could have four consonants. Adding vowels between the consonants allowed for the formation of nouns, verbs or adjectives as well as their declinations and conjugations. There are many similarities between the roots of Akkadian words and that of Hebrew or Arabic words. Verb conjugation differed depending on the grammatical person (first, second, or third; plural, singular, or dual), whether it is masculine, feminine or dual, and whether the action has been completed or not. Akkadian scribes would write sentences starting with the subject and ending with the verb, with all the complements traditionally placed in between, thereby adapting the grammatical structure of Sumerian to Akkadian.

Below is an example of an Akkadian sentence from the code of Hammurabi (1792-1752 BCE), one of the first law codes written in history. Its scribe deliberately used archaic signs from the time of Sargon I, king of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE).

The stele of the Hammurabi code is in the Louvre Museum. It is 2.25 m tall and inscribed with 282 laws. It was discovered in 1901 in the city of Susa by French archaeologists. The king of Elam, Šutruk-Nahhunte brought the stele to Susa, after he plundered the city of Babylon in the twelfth century BCE. (picture: 2009 RMN- Grand Palais / Franck Raux

The following Akkadian paragraph is found under the 128th law:

Line 35 :

    šum  –  ma a  –    wi       –    lum

Šumma: if

Awilum: a man

Line 36:

                 aš      –           ša             –        tam

Aššatam: a wife

Line 37:

                    i    –    hu      –        uz        –        ma

iḫuzma: took (third person singular preterite = past tense)

ma: and (if)

Line 38:

                 ri   –      ik   –      sa    –   ti     –      ša

riksātīša: a contract

Line 39:

                  la                iš     –        ku   –             un

serves to negate the verb: he didn’t

iškun: verb: draft (third person singular preterite)

Line 40:

        MUNUS               ši           –              i

MUNUS: Akkadian used the Sumerian logogram MUNUS to write the Akkadian word woman: sinništum

MUNUS šī: sinništum šī : this woman

Line 41:

                 u2            –        ul       aš –    ša    –      at

Ul aššat: it is a nominal sentence: ul serves to negate the substantive after it: aššatu, the wife.

She is not a wife.

To sum up:

Šumma awīlum aššatam īḫuzma riksātīša lā iškun, sinništum šī ul aššat

If a man espoused a woman, and didn’t draft a contract, this woman isn’t (his) wife.

This small extract shows the importance of the writing and drawing of contracts in Sumero-Akkadian culture. You could not marry in Babylonia without writing a contract!

To learn how to write your own clay tablet, watch this film of Irving Finkel, curator of the Ancient Near East Department at the British Museum:

After the discovery of Akkadian and initial studies on the language, scholars understood that the hundreds of thousands of documents excavated in the Near East during the nineteenth century had more surprises in store. In 1850, Edward Hinks was the first to propose the hypothesis of a non-Semitic origin of Akkadian cuneiform, which was then confirmed by further studies. The language that Akkadian had originated from was initially called “Scythic” or, confusingly, “Akkadian”, before the name of Sumerian was later accepted. As an isolated language, its decipherment was a challenge for linguists. Although the “cascading decipherment” of the Ancient Near Eastern languages continued along a path full of obstacles, the new literary, religious, and economic texts discovered in Sumerian made its decipherment possible.


Jean Bottéro 1997, “Les déchiffrements “en cascade” dans le Proche-Orient ancient entre 1800 et 1930” in Mésopotamie, L’écriture, la raison et les dieux, Gallimard, pp. 109-129.

Xavier Faivre, “Voyageurs et Archéologues”, in Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel (eds), Histoires de déchiffrements: Les écritures du Proche-Orient à l’Egée, Paris, Errance, pp. 15-33.

Irving Finkel and Jonathan Taylor, 2015, Cuneiform, London, The British Museum Press.

Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel, 2009, “Jules Oppert et le syllabaire akkadien”, in Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel (eds), Histoires de déchiffrements : Les écritures du Proche-Orient à l’Egée, Paris, Errance, pp. 81-94.

Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel, 2007, Les écritures cunéiformes et leur déchiffrement, de Broccard, Paris.

Andrea Seri 2010, “Adaptation of Cuneiform to Write Akkadian”, in Christopher Woods (ed.), Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond. OIMP 32, Chicago, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, pp. 85-98.

Michael P. Streck, 2007, “Akkadisch”, in Sprachen des Alten Orients, M. P. Streck (ed), Darmstadt, Wiss. Buchges, pp. 44-73.

Aline Tenu 2009, “Les déchiffreurs britanniques du syllabaire akkadien”, in Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel (eds), Histoires de déchiffrements : Les écritures du Proche-Orient à l’Egée, Paris, Errance, pp. 95-110.


Tools to learn Akkadian:

John Huehnergard, A grammar of Akkadian, Winoka Lake, Eisenbrauns, 2011.

Michael P. Streck, Altbabylonisches Lehrbuch, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2014.

M. Worthington, Complete Babylonian, London, Teach Yourself, 2010.

Cite this article as: M. Young, “The rediscovery of ancient Akkadian”, in N. Moncunill (ed.), Cracking lost scripts, 06/01/2022,

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
lostscripts (January 6, 2022). THE REDISCOVERY OF ANCIENT AKKADIAN. Cracking lost scripts. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from

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