Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and teh Lost Languages of Babylon

by Lesley Adkins

Rating: ★★★★

An engaging and thorough biography of Henry Rawlinson, with a particular focus on the contributions made by him and others in deciphering the cuneiform writing system once used throughout ancient Mesopotamia. Adkins is gifted a brilliant and well-documented subject, and handles him appropriately, with large portions of every chapter being made up of artfully-inserted quotations from journals, letters, and old publications. Having both private and public writing to supplement the narrative of Rawlinson's recorded movements and achievements, the reader gets a more intimate sense of the man -- the insecurities of his private self-assessments, the sometimes calculated bravado, the cautious tone of his scholarship, and his occasional failures to rise above pride.

The book was less directly instructive on the topic of cuneiform than I had hoped. In review, I think I have actually picked up a fair amount, but it is in the main part from tidbits scattered throughout the biography slotting into prior reading. Adkins focuses on the scholarly history of the subject slightly more than the subject itself, so you will find a great deal about the disputes between Hincks and Rawlinson as to who had priority in discovering an important piece of a puzzle, and far less about the development itself. This is perfectly fine -- the book isn't a primer on cuneiform -- but makes some of the academic drama a little harder to follow. It does not help matters that many of the names given to the languages expressed in various cuneiform scripts were wrong, so the quotes refer to an array of languages that it is hard to keep straight in your head (quick, was Rawlinson's erroneous guess at 'Scythic' actually what we now call Akkadian, or was it the other language that they at one time called Akkadian (Sumerian), and which of those is also what they refer to as Elamite?).

There are several elements of Rawlinson's life that are worth commenting on. First, the strange and sad fact that on being shipped off to a foreign country when quite young, Rawlinson was understandably melancholy about being separated from his large family, and wrote to them frequently, but for over a year not one of them bothered to return his post. As a Brit who counts the time between speaking to my family in months, this still seemed pretty cold, and was never really explained -- were they all that sick of him? Was this calculated to help him focus on his new career? The effect on Rawlinson was at any rate easy to see. Second, I was struck by how much of a scholarly life Rawlinson was able to lead while serving in the military; it was a significant enabler for him, not only putting him on the ground by significant sites, but also allowing a surprising amount of free time for expeditions. The Empire was, it seemed, very much a place for adventurers of all kinds. Third, the regrettable rivalry between Rawlinson and Hincks was given a fair amount of focus, and it was disappointing to hear that this was never overcome. Rawlinson and Hincks were at their best cordial toward each other in acknowledging accomplishments, and at their worst petty and paranoid, with Rawlinson hoarding primary materials to his own advantage and Hincks moaning bitterly about every slight, however accidental. I had hoped that, at least when it came to the matter of Hincks finding funding to continue his studies, Rawlinson might magnanimously help out his peer, whom he if nothing else surely acknowledged as one of the most accomplished philologists tackling the problem -- but no, Rawlinson let jealousy and pride get the better of him, and actively worked against Hincks from his pinnacle in the public eye and the regard of institutions like the British Museum.

The scholarly environment of the period was one of the most interesting features to see in action. Journals publishing incomplete articles, chapters of books that take so long to prepare that the language outlined in Chapter 1 might be heavily revised by the time Chapter 7 is published, the effect of communication delays from Iraq on the perception of academic priority -- all of it rather weird and wonderful. There is however a much stronger sense that the people involved in the conversation really are experts, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact many of them were self-trained and fitting the work around other concerns.

This was on the whole enjoyable reading, and I would probably follow it up with more. As an archaeologist, Adkins seems worth reading on other archaeological history -- I note her Keys of Egypt is on a similar topic.