Archaeology: A Secret History – BBC Four
Episode 2 “The Search for Civilisation”
During excavations in Mesopotamia in the 1850s, thousands of photographs were taken of cuneiform tablets which had been found there. The inscriptions were written in a mysterious language which nobody yet understood. The photographs were distributed all over Europe, and all of its finest scholars quickly got to work, in a race to try and decipher this mysterious code.
The French-German scholar Julius Oppert (together with other 19th century Assyriologists) made decisive contributions to the decipherment of cuneiform inscriptions. In 1855, he published Écriture Anarienne, advancing the theory that the language spoken originally in Assyria belonged to the Ural-Altaic group (non-Semitic) and he classified it as Casdo-Scythian. In 1869 he renamed it Sumerian language -based on the known title “King of Sumer and Akkad”, reasoning that if Akkad signified the Semitic portion of the kingdom, Sumer might describe the non-Semitic annex-. He also asserted that the entire system of cuneiform writing was Sumerian in origin
Sumerian is generally regarded as a language isolate (a language that has no known historical or linguistic relationship to any other language family) and is the oldest written language in existence. Sumerian was spoken in Sumer, in southern Mesopotamia, from perhaps the 4th millennium BC and it flourished during the 3rd millennium BC. Sumerian was replaced as a spoken language by Semitic Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) but continued in written usage almost to the end of the life of the Akkadian language, around the beginning of the Christian era.
Some of the very first pictures of cuneiform tablets took during excavations in Mesopotamia in the 1850s
French National Archives, Paris, France