Kevin J. Cathcart is Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Languages, University College Dublin, and the editor of The Letters of Peter le Page Renouf (4 vols, UCD Press, 2002-4)
Edward Hincks (1792-1866), the Irish Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform, was born in Cork and spent forty years of his life at Killyleagh, Co. Down, where he was the Church of Ireland Rector. He was educated at Middleton College, Co. Cork and Trinity College, Dublin, where he was an exceptionally gifted student. With the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean Francois Champollion in 1822, Hincks became one of that first group of scholars to contribute to the elucidation of the language, chronology and religion of ancient Egypt. But his most notable achievement was the decipherment of Akkadian, the language of Babylonia and Assyria, and its complicated cuneiform writing system. Between 1846 and 1852, Hincks published a series of highly significant papers by which he established for himself a reputation of the first order as a decipherer. Most of the letters in these volumes have not been previously published. Much of the correspondence relates to nineteenth-century archaeological and linguistic discoveries, but there are also letters concerned with ecclesiastical affairs, the Famine and the Hincks family.The letters in volume 1 cover the period from the 1820s when Hincks was a young clergyman and scholar, applying himself assiduously to his family and parish duties, and vigorously pursuing his study of the ancient Egyptian language, to the years 1846-9 during which he announced his epoch-making discoveries in the decipherment of Akkadian and its cuneiform writing system. There are dozens of letters from friends and colleagues, which include exchanges on a variety of subjects and offer a fascinating picture of scholarly and intellectual activity, as well as of the political and ecclesiastical events of the time. Hincks' unique research never diverted him from his religious and civic responsibilities, especially during times of crisis like the Famine. Amongst Hincks' correspondents were Samuel Birch, Franz Bopp, Friedrich Georg Grotefend, William Rowan Hamilton, Christian Lassen, Austen Henry Layard, Edwin Norris, George Cecil Renouard, and Peter le Page Renouf. Volumes 2 and 3 will be published in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
Introduction by Kevin J. Cathcart
Appendix Marriage Settlement of The Reverend Edward Hincks with Miss Jane Boyd
"Man sagt nicht zu viel, wenn man ihn [Hincks] den eigentlichen Entzifferer der dritten Keilschriftgattung nennt."
"One is not saying too much, if one calls Hincks the true decipherer of Assyrian-Babylonian cuneiform."
"Hincks was a scholar of international significance in the nineteenth century. He was an expert on ancient Assyria and deciphered the Mesopotamian cuneiform script ... an assiduous letter writer and in this volume of letters from his youth he corresponded with friends and colleagues on ancient Egypt and his other concerns ... The clean, classical typography is equalled in the overall design and quality of binding."
"The letters in this volume date largely from his years in Killyleagh and it was from his rural fastness that Hincks developed his international reputation as an oriental scholar. Letters were sent to and received from scholars in Ireland, England and continental Europe. Among the Irish correspondents were the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, the antiquary Isaac Cullimore and the Cork numismatist Richard Sainthill. There was correspondence with the editors of the Literary Gazette, the Athenaeum and the English Review as well as with English scholars such as the philologist George Cecil Renouard, Samuel Birch in the British Museum and the Coptic scholar Henry Tattam. From the continent cam communications … from the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend, from Conrad Leemans in Leyden and from the Norwegian indologist Christian Lassen. The editor of this collection who is Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Languages in University College Dublin, has gathered these letters from libraries and archives in Belfast, Berlin, Dublin, London, Oxford, Paris and Yale, has carefully edited them and has added interesting illustrations to accompany some of the more unusual texts.
Most of the letters are concerned with Hincks’s studies of the ancient Egyptian language and his discoveries in the decipherment of Akkadian, the language of Babylonia and Assyria. But there is also Irish material: letters on Trinity College matters, on the Great Famine and on ecclesiastical affairs, in addition to letters to his daughters. But it is mostly the academic letters which catch the imagination for they emphasis – of such emphasis is needed – that in the 19th century, it was the letter which was the principal mode of communication. In an age when travel was difficult and electronic communication all but unknown, correspondence provided the vehicle for working out ideas among likeminded people and academic journals the medium for subsequently publishing them.
It is reassuring in an age when digitisation has reached almost cult status in archives, that there are still scholars who are able and willing to prepare printed editions of manuscript material and publishers who will take on such projects. This book exemplifies all the virtues of a printed edition: text which has been transcribed and is therefore easy to read; a succinct introduction which sets the scene; careful notes which explain and amplify the text; an index which opens up access to the contents and a bibliography to stimulate further reading. What more could anyone want?"
Dr Raymond Refausse
Department Church Body Library
"That Edward Hincks was a man of true genius to whom the basic decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform script and language should now be credited, is no longer in doubt. From much of his correspondence, deposited in the Griffith Institute in Oxford by his grandson, together with other letters tracked down in various institutions in London, Dublin, Paris and Berlin, a picture emerges of extraordinary mental energy and dedication in this Irish clergyman, with no lessening of drive and application as he grew older, a man who not only engaged with Egyptian hieroglyphs, Old Persian, Urartian and Akkadian cuneiform scripts and the languages they conveyed, but also found time for his parish duties … It still astonishes Assyriologists that he was able to work out both the polyphonic and the logographic nature of Akkadian cuneiform script as well as making great strides in understanding the language.
We must hope that Cathcart’s painstaking work, worthy of its admirable subject, will be used by future scholars who look into those exciting days of discovery, the struggles of decipherment, and the race for recognition."
Stephanie Dalley, University of Oxford
Journal of Semitic Studies
54 (2) 2009