Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895) was a British military officer, politician and scholar. He is best remembered for his groundbreaking work translating cuneiform tablets left by the ancient Assyrians. Once archaeologists were able to read ancient scripts like this, it revolutionized how researchers looked at ancient Middle Eastern cultures.
According to Santa Barbara professor emeritus of archeology Brian Fagan, Rawlinson was born in 1810 in Oxford to an accomplished horse breeder. He received an education in the classics and then became an officer in the British East India Company in 1827. Over the next 20 years, he rose through the military ranks as well as serving several postings as a diplomat in the Middle East. At the time, his rank afforded him a considerable amount of leisure time, which Rawlinson used to learn local languages. That learning naturally led him to research ancient Persian and Babylonian inscriptions.
At the time, Fagan says, scholars knew that several ancient writing systems had existed, because they possessed some surviving inscriptions. However, for the most part, they could not read the mysterious cuneiform text. In the 1830s, Rawlinson happened upon a massive rock monument at Behistun which contained triplicate notices of an ancient battle written in Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Babylonian was a mystery to 19th-century linguists, including Rawlinson, but the ancient Persian was at least similar to surviving Persian. Rawlinson set out to translate the Persian section of the Behistun monument, hoping that it would serve as a sort of key which he could then use to decipher the Babylonian text.
Behistun is a truly massive and stunning achievement, and the effort took years of part-time work on Rawlinson's part, climbing up and down the rock face to copy out the inscriptions by hand. Eventually, however, Fagan says he was able to publish a triumphant translation of the Babylonian for the Royal Asiatic Society.
Behistun made Rawlinson a major figure in archaeological and linguistic circles, but it was only the beginning of his career in Middle Eastern archaeology. Now recognized as one of the most important translators of ancient texts, Rawlinson went on to assist archaeologists excavating the ancient cities of Nineveh, Nimrud and Khorsabad, where a large number of intact clay tablets was unearthed and then translated. By the time Rawlinson retired in the 1850s and returned to England, he was considered a celebrity intellectual and was gifted with a knighthood by Queen Victoria I. He would go on to serve as a member of Parliament before dying in 1895.
Rawlinson was not, of course, the only amateur archaeologist to devote so many years to research in the Middle East. However, his career marked a vital transition in archaeology, from a period in which ancient writings were known to exist but were largely unreadable to a period where cuneiform inscriptions were one of the primary sources of evidence about ancient life in the region. In particular, his work at Behistun has been compared to the discovery of the much more famous Rosetta Stone in 1799, which enabled archaeologists to access ancient Egyptian inscriptions in the same way that Rawlinson opened the study of ancient Assyrian and Babylonian writings.