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REVIEWS AND MISCELLANIES.
ON THE ARROW-HEADED CHARACTERS OF NINEVEH
In the papers which have appeared in several preceding numbers of this Journal we endeavoured to prepare the way for a fuller elucidation, when the necessary types were ready, of the long unknown characters of Assyria ; concerning which there are almost as many different hypotheses as there are writers on the subject. These characters confessedly reach back to a period of antiquity more remote than any other existing records : the Hieroglyphics of Egypt alone have the least shadow of right to put in a claim for equal antiquity, and we shall demonstrate that the arrow-headed characters are astronomical records far older than the Egyptian inscriptions.
These characters have been termed cuneiform, nail-headed, or arrow-headed, from their supposed origin and form. These appellations do not correctly express the form, but no more correct expression at present occurs to us, and we therefore retain the term arrow-headed, as the best known of the three. The forms of these characters are remarkably fixed and exact, having undergone less change, during the long period which the existing monuments cover, than any other characters, whether alphabetic or hieroglyphic, in the shorter periods to which alone these latter characters extend.
Herodotus, the father of history, does not mention these characters, so far as we can find; though he specifies the hierogly. phic and sacerdotal writing of the Egyptians; and though he describes very fully Babylon itself, and the manners of its inhabitants, and records the several additions to its splendour, and its capture by Cyrus and destruction by Darius. The silence of Herodotus, and the certain fact of their being unknown to all succeeding writers, is a strong argument for concluding that these characters had been disused and forgotten before the time when Herodotus composed his history : and the abundant remains of these characters found on stones scattered over the whole region of Mesopotamia, and impressed upon the bricks which form the very foundations of the walls of Nineveh and Babylon, attest their long-continued use throughout the district, where the sons of Noah first settled, and founded the mighty empire of Assyria, the first of the Gentile monarchies.
It has been assumed without proof, by almost all writers, that these characters are alphabetic; and this fundamental mistake
VOL. VII.-NO. II.
has not only been an insuperable barrier to right investigation, but has led some to conclusions perfectly ludicrous and absurd, in order to explain well-known and undeniable peculiarities in all the Assyrian inscriptions. We will, therefore, prove the negative, before we come to the positive; we will shew what these inscriptions are not, previous to shewing what they are ; will demonstrate that they cannot be alphabetic characters, and then demonstrate that they are astronomical.
A mistake in Pliny has probably led the moderns to assume that these characters are alphabetic; a mistake more pardonable in Pliny than many of his other blunders, as he probably had not the opportunity of examining the inscriptions; but the opinion is quite unreasonable in any one who has seen a sufficient number to compare them, and is thus qualified for coming to a right conclusion. Pliny only refers to Epigenes, as testifying that at Babylon they had records of observations of the stars for a period of 480,000 years (lib. vii. c. 56): “ ex quo apparet æternus literarum usus :" 'whence may be inferred the eternal use of letters' among the Assyrians. But this conclusion rests wholly
' upon the assumptions that the years were solar revolutions, whereas they were diurnal; and that the record was kept in words, whereas it was kept in signs like our numeral and astronomical characters. And still less right had Cicero to condemn the Babylonians of folly, vanity, or impudence, on the same account: “Condemnemus hos aut stultitiæ, aut vanitatis, aut impudentiæ” (De Divin.); for the folly was his own, in computing Assyrian time by the Roman standard, and reckoning these anni, these circles, as celestial revolutions, instead of terrestrial. Records of 480,000 and 720,000 diurnal revolutions, equal to 1314 and 1971 years, they actually had; and these observations reached from B. c. 2233 to B. c. 262, when Berosus lived, as was shewn by Mr. Cullimore in a former number of this Journal.
With a prepossession on the mind that they are alphabetic, nearly all inquirers have come to the study of these characters; and, finding it impossible to make the inscriptions accord with the known and inseparable peculiarities of alphabetic writing, have turned inquiry into mere conjecture, or abandoned it altogether as hopeless, or even denied that these inscriptions ever had meaning, ever had design.
Some, with Dr. Hager, have supposed them to be “monograms, formed and combined by an arbitrary institution, and designed to express, not letters or syllables, but either whole sentences, or whole words” (p. 56). Others, with Hyde, have supposed them to be nothing more than architectural ornaments, having no meaning: “Me autem judice non sunt literæ, nec pro literis intendebantur; sed fuerunt solius ornatus causa in prima palatii extructione, merus lusus primi architecti.” And others, as Witte, go the full length of absurdity, and suppose them to be no inscriptions at all, but volcanic productions, the effects of physical causes, the work of fire! And all these absurdities arise from searching for an alphabet or a language in these inscriptions : finding none of the known properties of language, they left the inquiry, as if there could be no other mode of record but by letters and words.
The Rev. T. Maurice, in his Observations on the Ruins of Babylon and Persepolis, has made the nearest approach to the truth, where he says (p. 62), “ It is probable that those of Babylon, at least, allude to astronomical details, which they were accustomed to inscribe on bricks; or they may be a sort of calendar, whereon were noted the rising and setting of the principal stars, useful in the concerns of husbandry; or, lastly, they may contain the history of the founders of those stupendous structures.... But the question concerning the origin and antiquity of alphabetic writing, if the mysterious characters on these bricks can be thus denominated, is too important to admit of so hasty a decision...... I cannot, however, avoid owning myself very much inclined to join in opinion with Mr. Bryant, that so divine an art could not have its origin in the unassisted powers of the human mind.” In reference to some of the above-named conjectures, he observes, “It has excited in my mind no incon
, siderable degree of surprise, that so profound an Oriental scholar, as Dr. Hager has proved himself to be by his work on the Chinese characters and his publication on the Babylonian inscriptions, should have degraded the characters inscribed upon our bricks by representing them as merely records of the names and places of abode of the fabricators of them. ... Surely the elaborate and lengthened details in the same character ... utterly refute any hypothesis so humiliating .... Would an inscription of that nature have been permitted to deface the walls and the windows of the palace of the Khosroes ? the supposition is incredible” (p. 157).
The arrow-headed characters are not alphabetic, are not words or sentences, as will be evident on considering the essential properties of alphabetic writing, and the nature of all languages, compared with the various inscriptions brought from Nineveh, Babylon, and Persepolis ; inscriptions of distinct classes, but all equally characterized by an order and arrangement which could not possibly be alphabetic. The peculiarity of alphabetic writing is not expressed in saying merely that it conveys ideas by means of conventional forms, for this hieroglyphics also do; nor is it enough to say of letters that they represent to the eye sounds familiar to the ear, which may also be done, as by the Chinese, in having a separate character for every different word.