Georg Friedrich Grotefend

From New World Encyclopedia

Georg Friedrich Grotefend (June 9, 1775 – December 15, 1853), was a German teacher, archaeologist, and linguist. He made important discoveries regarding the translation of the Old Persian language. Grotefend succeeded in partially deciphering the ancient Persian cuneiform script, providing the foundation for later work to succeed and provide a complete translation of the signs. Although all knowledge of the script had been long lost, Grotefend was able to translate ten signs from a text of inscriptions found in Persepolis copied by Carsten Niebuhr, based on his recognition of repeated patterns in the inscriptions. Grotefend's work, although incomplete, was an important contribution to our understanding of these ancient texts, through which we can learn the history of such significant cultures as that of Persia (now Iran), allowing humankind to come to greater understanding of our past and develop a future together as one family, in which the diversity of cultures is well appreciated and respected.


Georg Friedrich Grotefend was born on June 9, 1775 in Munden, Hanover (today's Germany). His father, Johann Christian Grotefend, was the head of the shoemakers guild in Hannoversch-Münden. Grotefend was partly educated in his native town and partly in Ilfeld, where he remained until his twentieth birthday.

In 1795, he entered the University of Göttingen to study theology and philology. There he became a friend of Christian Gottlob Heyne, Thomas Christian Tychsen, and Arnold Hermann Ludwig Heeren. Heyne's recommendation procured for him an assistant mastership in the Göttingen gymnasium in 1797. While there, he published his work De Pasigraphia sive Scriptura Universali (1799), which led to his appointment in 1803 as pro-rector of the gymnasium of Frankfurt, and shortly afterwards as rector there.

At the same time Grotefend started to work on the transcription of the Persian cuneiform script. He published his results in a series of papers in the early 1800s.

He continued his career mostly working on Latin and Italian language, though he also paid attention to his own language, as shown by his Anfangsgründe der Deutschen Poesie, published in 1815, and his founding of a society for investigating the German language in 1817. In 1821, he became director of the gymnasium at Hanover, a post which he retained until his retirement in 1849.

From 1823 to 1824, his revised edition of Wenck's Latin Grammar, appeared in two volumes, followed by a smaller grammar for the use of schools in 1826; in 1835 to 1838 a systematic attempt to explain the fragmentary remains of the Umbrian dialect, entitled Rudimenta Linguae Umbricae ex Inscriptionibus Antiquis Enodata (in eight parts); and in 1839 a work of similar character upon Oscan language (Rudimenta Linguae Oscae). In the same year, he published an important essay on the coins of Bactria, under the name of Die Münzen der Griechischen, Parthischen und Indoskythischen Könige von Baktrien und den Ländern am Indus.

He soon returned to his favorite subject, however, and brought out a work in five parts, Zur Geographie und Geschichte von Alt-Italien (1840-1842). Previously, in 1836, he had written a preface to Wagenfeld's translation of the spurious Sanchoniathon of Philo of Byblos, which was alleged to have been discovered in the preceding year in the Portuguese convent of Santa Maria de Merinhão.

He retired in 1849 and died on December 15, 1853, in Hannover, Hanover (today’s Germany).


Although Grotefend did most of his work on Italian, Latin, and German languages, it was his work on Old Persian that made him famous. The cuneiform inscriptions of Persia had for some time been attracting attention in Europe; exact copies of them had been published by the elder Carsten Niebuhr, who had lost his eyesight over the task.

It was Niebuhr who brought the copies of inscriptions to Europe, which he found during the explorations of the ruins of the 2,000-year-old palace of the Persian kings in Persepolis, in 1756. The inscriptions were written in three different languages, Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Grotefend took on the task of deciphering the first language, Persian.

Interestingly enough, Grotefend arrived at this task by chance. He made a bet with his friend Rafaello Fiorillo, who claimed that it was impossible to read a language about which nothing is known, neither form nor content. Grotefend believed otherwise, and they made the bet. The choice of language upon which the test was to be made fell on cuneiform script.

Previously, Grotefend's friend, Oluf Gerhard Tychsen, believed that he had ascertained that the characters in the column (of what turned out to be Persian) were alphabetic. At that point Grotefend took up the matter. His first discovery was communicated to the Royal Society of Göttingen in 1800, and reviewed by Tychsen two years later. Grotefend's discoveries may be summarized as follows:

  1. that the Persian inscriptions contain three different forms of cuneiform writing, so that deciphering of the one would give the key to translation of the others
  2. that the characters of the Persian column are alphabetic and not syllabic
  3. that they must be read from left to right
  4. that the alphabet consists of forty letters, including signs for long and short vowels
  5. that the Persepolitan inscriptions are written in Zend (which, however, is not the case), and must be ascribed to the age of the Achaemenid princes.

The process through which Grotefend arrived at his conclusions is a prominent illustration of genius. He was able to pick out repetitive phrases, which were used to honor Persian kings. He then compared those letters with the kings' names, which he knew from Greek historical texts. Step by step he discovered ten letters. The first word he translated was Darayavahusch : chschayathiya (translates as king Darius).

In 1815, he gave an account of his discoveries in Heeren's work on ancient history, and in 1837 published his Neue Beiträge zur Erläuterung der Persepolitanischen Keilschrift. Three years later appeared his Neue Beiträge zur Erläuterung der Babylonischen Keilschrift.


Grotefend laid the initial foundation for the deciphering of Old Persian cuneiform script. He was able to identify ten of the letters. What remained was to work out the results of Grotefend's discovery, a task performed by Eugène Burnouf, Christian Lassen, and Henry Rawlinson. It took an additional 45 years to decipher the rest of the letters. Finally, however, the key that opened the history of this significant historical culture was completed, and humankind has benefited greatly from unlocking the hidden, forgotten knowledge. Grotefend's work laid the foundation for this.

Major Works

  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1799. De Pasigraphia sive Scriptura Universali. Gottingae: Dieterich.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1815. Anfangsgründe der Deutschen Poesie.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1824. Latin Grammar (2 vols.).
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1838. Rudimenta Linguae Umbricae ex Inscriptionibus Antiquis Enodata (8 parts). Hannover: Libraria Aulica Hahnii.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1837. Neue Beiträge zur Erläuterung der Persepolitanischen Keilschrift. Hannover: Verlage der Hahn'schen Hofbuchhandlung.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1839. Die Münzen der Griechischen, Parthischen und Indoskythischen Könige von Baktrien und den Ländern am Indus.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1839. Rudimenta Linguae Oscae. Hannover: Libraria Aulica Hahnii.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1840. Neue Beiträge zur Erläuterung der Babylonischen Keilschrift. Hannover: Hahn.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1842. Zur Geographie und Geschichte von Alt-Italien. Hannover: Hahn.
  • Grotefend, Georg Friedrich. 1845. Remarks on the Wedge Inscription recently Discovered on the Upper Euphrates. Madden and Malcolm

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Curtis, J., and N. Tallis. 2005. Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia. University of California Press. ISBN 0520247310
  • Trigger, Bruce G. 2006. A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521840767
  • Wiesehofer, Josef. 2001. Ancient Persia. I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1860646751

External links

All links retrieved May 26, 2017.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.