Maximilian Räthel (Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany) “Georg Friedrich Grotefend and the Decipherment of Cuneiform”


For contemporary scholars of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, the learning of cuneiform languages and signs is an integral part of their studies and will accompany them throughout their academic life. But only a few people know that without the work of the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend at the beginning of the 19th century, the decipherment of the cuneiform signs would not be possible today.

In fact, Grotefend never planned the decryption of the cuneiform signs to be a ground-breaking effort; rather, the reason for his efforts was just a bet he had with a friend about whether it would be possible to decipher a completely unknown system of syllabic signs on its own terms. Therefore, Grotefend took the opportunity and, after some weeks, was able to read the names of several kings along with their titles as they were presented in the Old-Persian inscriptions found at Persepolis. Actually, Grotefend did not realize the importance of his discovery and thus never published it in a broader sense. In fact, he went on to work as a school teacher and lecturer at the university. Just a small group of people in Göttingen were aware of his achievement while elsewhere it slowly sunk into oblivion. It was not until some decades after his death at the end of the 19th century that copies of his manuscript were re-discovered and finally published for a broader mass of scholars and researchers, ultimately making Grotefend the father of cuneiform-decipherment.

By describing and analysing the ways in which Grotefend tried and was able to decipher the Old-Persian cuneiform signs, the aim of this paper is to show that these philological methods are still used today by people engaged with the decryption of coded signs and messages. Furthermore, the impact Grotefend’s discovery has until today will be discussed.