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Edward Hincks

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Edward Hincks (August 19, 1792 - December 3, 1866), Irish Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform.

The eldest son of a distinguished Protestant minister, Edward Hincks was born in Cork on 19 August 1792. He was educated at home by his father and later at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1811, when he was just nineteen. In 1825, after taking orders in the Church of Ireland, he was appointed rector of Killyleagh in County Down, an office he was to hold for the remaining forty-one years of his life.

The undemanding nature of his clerical duties left him with more than enough time to pursue his interest in ancient languages. His first love was for the hieroglyphic writing of ancient Egypt. By 1823 the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion had succeeded in deciphering this enigmatic script, but Hincks made a number of telling discoveries of his own which established him as a leading light in the field of ancient philology.

In the 1830s he turned his attention to Old Persian cuneiform, a form of writing that the emperors of Persia had used for monumental inscriptions in their own language. Working independently of the leading Orientalist of the day Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, Hincks deduced the essentially syllabic nature of this script and correctly deduced the values of the Persian vowels.

The Rev Hincks’ greatest achievement, however, was the decipherment of the ancient language and writing of Babylon and Assyria: Akkadian cuneiform. But his attention might never have been drawn to the relatively new field of Assyriology had it not been for a lucky find in 1842.

In that year the archaeologist Paul Émile Botta uncovered the remains of the ancient city of Niniveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Among the priceless treasures unearthed by Botta and his successors was the famous library of Assurbanipal, a royal archive containing tens of thousands of baked clay tablets. These tablets were inscribed in a strange illegible form of writing known as cuneiform. Three men were to play a decisive role in the decipherment of this script: Hincks, Rawlinson and a young German-born scholar called Jules Oppert.

Hincks correctly deduced that cuneiform writing had been invented by one of the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia (a people later identified by Oppert as the Sumerians), who then bequeathed it to later states such as Babylon, Assyria and Elam.

By 1850 Hincks had come to a number of important conclusions regarding the nature of Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform. He believed that the script was essentially syllabic, comprising open syllables (eg "ab" or "ki") as well as more complex closed syllables (eg "mur"). He also discovered that cuneiform characters were "polyphonic," by which he meant that a single sign could have several different readings depending on the context in which it occurred.

By now Hincks had recognized a large number of determinatives and had correctly established their readings. But not everyone was convinced by the claims being made by the Irishman and his distinguished colleagues. Some philologists even suggested that they were simply inventing multiple readings of the signs to suit their own translations.

In 1857 the versatile English Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot suggested that an undeciphered cuneiform text be given to several different Assyriologists to translate. If, working independently of one another, they came up with reasonably similar translations, it would surely dispel the doubts surrounding their claims.

As it happened, Talbot and the "holy trinity of cuneiform" – Hincks, Rawlinson and Oppert – were in London in 1857. Edwin Norris, secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gave each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts was empanelled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy.

In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars were found to be in close agreement with one another. There were of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot had made a number of mistakes, and Oppert’s translation contained a few doubtful passages due to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks’ and Rawlinson’s versions were virtually identical. The jury declared itself satisfied, and the decipherment of cuneiform was adjudged a fait accompli.

The Reverend Edward Hincks devoted the remaining years of his life to the study of cuneiform and made further significant contributions to its decipherment. He died at his rectory in Killyleagh on 3 December 1866 at the age of 74. He was survived by a wife and four daughters.

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