1835-1844 - George Rawlinson
Field Work on the Behistun Inscriptions
On his arrival at Kirmanshah, in April 1835, Lieutenant Rawlinson was very favourably received by the Governor, Bahram Mirza, the Shah's brother, and after a short interval was placed practically in command of the whole body of troops stationed in the province. A general superintendence was given him over all military matters, such as arms, accoutrements, stores, drill, enrolling of troops, and the like; it was arranged that he should take his orders from no one but the Prince himself, and that the Persian soldiers of .all ranks should receive their orders from him. All was fairly satisfactory, except matters of finance. The Kirmanshah treasury was well nigh empty, and there seemed to be no means of replenishing it. Still, Lieutenant Rawlinson succeeded, by dint of great personal exertion, in raising three regiments from the Kurdish tribes of the neighbourhood, and in disciplining them. His rules of conduct at this time, as formulated by himself in one of his diaries, were the following: 'Create business for yourself. Lose no opportunity of making yourself useful, whatever may be the affair which may happen to present the chance. Grasp at everything, and never yield an inch. Above all, never stand upon trifles. Be careful of outward observances. Maintain a good establishment; keep good horses and showy ones; dress well; have good and handsome arms; in your conversation and intercourse with the natives, be sure to observe the customary etiquette.' By pursuing this line of action he succeeded in making himself generally acceptable to all classes, while he acquired an influence over all those with whom he came into contact very remarkable in a youth of five-and-twenty.
At the same time he was feeling his way towards that path in life and that position which he already intuitively felt to be the most attractive to him, and the most in harmony with the bent of his nature and his talents. At Kirmanshah he was in the heart of a region richer in antiquarian treasures than almost any other in Persia. In the immediate vicinity is the interesting site known as Takht-i-Bostan, which contains the most important remains of the Sassanian or Neo-Persian kingdom, while the Hamadan inscriptions are not far off; and, above all, there stands on the direct route to Hamadan, and at the distance of less than twenty miles from Kirmanshah, the remarkable rock of Behistun - in itself a grand natural object, and, in the providence of God, the great means by which the ancient Persian, Assyrian, and Babylonian languages have been recovered, and a chapter of the world's history, that had been almost wholly lost, once more made known to mankind. Lieutenant Rawlinson had not been a month at Kirmanshah before these antiquities began to exert their attraction upon him. His attention was drawn, first of all, to the magnificent sculptures at Takht-i-Bostan, which he carefully examined and described; but ere long the great mass of inscriptions on the rock of Behistun awoke a still keener interest, and the time which he could spare from his public duties was chiefly occupied, during the years 1835-37, in transcribing with the utmost care so much of the Great Inscription as he found at that time, with the appliances which he possessed, to be accessible, and in continuous endeavours to penetrate the mystery in which the whole subject of cuneiform decipherment was then wrapped, and to arrive at the phonological value, and thence at the true meaning, of the inscriptions. The work was carried on under literary difficulties, of which a full account will be given in a later chapter. It was also carried on under a certain amount of physical difficulty. The rock was bare, slippery, in places almost precipitous, and it needed a keen eye, a steady head, and a sure foot, to ascend and descend it, as Lieutenant Rawlinson did, three or four times a day for many days together, without the aid of rope or ladder - without any assistance, in fact, whatever. In later days, when completing his transcript of the whole body of inscriptions upon the rock, the investigator did not disdain the use of artificial appliances ; but his earlier researches during t-he years 1835-37 were made at some risk to life or limb - happily, however, he was a good cragsman.
It was now, in the winter of 1836-7, that he set himself resolutely to the task of copying accurately as much as was accessible to him of the Great Behistun Inscription of Darius Hystaspis, which has stood to cuneiform discovery very much in the same relation that the Rosetta Stone has occupied with respect to hieroglyphical decipherment. He succeeded in obtaining a nearly exact transcript of the entire first column of the Persian text, together with the opening paragraph of the second, ten paragraphs of the third column, and four of the detached inscriptions. He had already begun the labours which issued ultimately in absolute decipherment, and was bent on acquiring complete possession of the rich mine of material which the Great Inscription offered, and in which he saw a virgin field untouched by any other explorer, At the cost of much personal exertion and of some personal danger, though greatly pressed for time, he succeeded in completing the transcripts above mentioned, and in thus acquiring a, material on which he could confidently set to work, secure, at any rate, against being baffled in the researches by the want of sufficient data for forming conclusions.
It scarcely, perhaps, needed the Stimulus of MM. Dittel and Westergaard's discoveries [of Scythic/Median inscriptions] to cause Major Rawlinson to assume once more the rôle of an explorer, and to start for Behistun in the early summer of 1844, bent on extorting from the reluctant rock something more nearly approaching to a full account, than it had as yet given, of the treasures that were in its keeping. Mr. Hester and Captain Jones, R.N., accompanied him on this expedition.
The journey to Behistun was made by way of Kirmanshah without misadventure. Persia recognised in the explorer an old friend, and gave him a kindly greeting. At every turn he met with old acquaintances. The special object which he had in view on this occasion was to supplement his labours during his former visits in the years 1836 and 1837, by obtaining a complete transcript of the entire Persian inscription, or rather inscriptions, for besides the main engraving there are several small detached tablets; and to carry through the work in the most careful possible way. He was less concerned about the other versions - the Babylonian and the so-called ' Median' - but intended to pay them such attention as circumstances would allow. He knew the locality, and was therefore well aware that his task would be a difficult one, owing to the great height of the inscriptions (three hundred feet) above the level of the plain, and the precipitous character of the ascent to them. To climb the rock in order to arrive at the point where the engraving of characters upon the stone begins, is not indeed to be regarded as a dangerous feat, if the climber is a tolerably well-trained mountaineer; but it is trying both to the nerves and to the muscles of an ordinary traveller. These difficulties were, however, in. the main overcome, and by dint of a week's continuous work, the whole of the Persian, and the whole of the so-called Median, writing was successfully transcribed, as also were the whole of the detached Babylonian epigraphs. The Babylonian version of the Great Inscription was found to be absolutely inaccessible with the means at the explorer's disposal. It was therefore left unattempted, to await the time when a more nimble-footed cragsman, or a better climbing apparatus, should be brought against it.
Several very curious discoveries were made during the close inspection to which the entire rocky surface was necessarily subjected. In the first place it was seen that the entire surface had been carefully smoothed preparatory to the engraving of the inscriptions on it ; and when any portion proved to be unsound, it had been cut away, and fragments of a better quality, embedded in molten lead, had been inserted, with a neatness and precision that rendered a very careful scrubbing necessary in order to detect the artifice. Again, holes and fissures which perforated the rock had been filled up with good material; and a polish had been given to the whole structure which could only have been accomplished by mechanical means. Further, it was evident to those who, in Company with Major Rawlinson, scrutinised the execution of the work, that, after the engraving of the rock had been accomplished, a coating of silicious varnish had been laid on, to give a clearness of outline to each individual letter, and to protect the surface front the action of the elements. The varnish was of infinitely greater hardness than the limestone beneath it. It had been washed down in several places by the trickling of water for three-and-twenty centuries; and it lay in flakes upon the foot-ledge like thin layers of lava. It adhered in some portions of the tablets to the broken surface, and still showed with sufficient distinctness the forms of the characters, although the rock beneath was entirely honeycombed and destroyed. It was only indeed in great fissures, caused by the out-bursting of natural springs, and in the lower part of the smoothed surface, where artificial mutilation is suspected, that the varnish had entirely disappeared.
The inaccessibility of the sculptures and inscriptions was apparently intentional. Though the iconoclasm of Islam can scarcely have been anticipated, yet the barbarous habit of Egyptian monarchs to deface or obliterate the monuments of their predecessors may have been known, or possibly a mere natural instinct may have suggested to the author of the monument that he was provoking the jealousy of later ages - at any rate, it is clear that great pains were taken to ensure the isolation of the work and make a near approach to it a matter of difficulty. A scaffolding must unquestionably have been erected for the convenience of the workmen employed in its execution; and, when their task was accomplished, this was no doubt removed. Excepting by means of ladders, the sculptures would then have been absolutely inaccessible, unless there were secret staircases, known to the guardians, of which there is at present no appearance.
After a week's stay in the immediate vicinity of this extraordinary and most elaborate monument, the travellers set out on their return.
Rawlinson, George [Brother of Henry C. Rawlinson]
A Memoir of Major-General Sir Henry C. Rawlinson