Georg Friedrich Grotefend

Portrait: Georg Friedrich Grotefend
Georg Friedrich Grotefend, lithograph by C. Kiesel based on a painting by Johann Friedrich Winckelmann, around 1840
Historisches Museum Hannover

Georg Friedrich Grotefend

Decipherer of unknown worlds of script

But now, Mr. Grotefend, graduate at the school of Göttingen, who may not be an orientalist but who is versed in the (art of) deciphering, has presented to the K. Soc. d. W. an initial sample of his decipherments ... .

Oluf Gerhard Tychsen to Carsten Niebuhr, October 13, 1802

The grammar school teacher Georg Friedrich Grotefend was a highly-enthusiastic solver of riddles. In his search for a “universal writing system” he succeeded, in 1802, in deciphering 13 characters of the Persian cuneiform script which up to that point had not been understood for centuries.

A wager made with a friend was said to have been his impetus: Grotefend maintained that one could determine the meaning of an unfamiliar writing system without the use of aids or any prior knowledge of the textual content. An inscription in a limestone cliff by King Darius I (549-486 BCE) located in Behistun in modern-day Iraq and made in the Ancient Persian, Elamic and Babylonian languages, served as proof of his theory. By comparing familiar royal Persian names with the inscribed symbols, he was able to identify the 13 characters in the rock. Over the course of the 19th century the cuneiform script was entirely deciphered.