07 August 2010
Two fossilised horse bones with cuneiform inscriptions have been found in China, carved with extracts from the Cyrus the Great Cylinder. They were initially dismissed as fakes because of the improbability of ancient Persian texts turning up in Beijing. But following new research, British Museum (BM) specialist Irving Finkel is now convinced of their authenticity.
This discovery looks set to transform our knowledge about what is arguably the most important surviving cuneiform text, written in the world’s earliest script. Dating from 539BC, the Cyrus Cylinder was ceremonially buried in the walls of Babylon. Its text celebrates the achievements of Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian empire. The clay cylinder was excavated by BM archaeologists in 1879 and sent to London, where it is one of the museum’s most important antiquities.
The texts found in China inexplicably have fewer than one in every 20 of the Cyrus text’s cuneiform signs transcribed, although they are in the correct order. The two inscribed bones were donated to the Palace Museum in Beijing in 1985 by Xue Shenwei, an elderly Chinese traditional doctor who died later that year. He said that he had learned about the pair of inscriptions in 1928. He bought the first bone in 1935 and the second in 1940, and named the sellers. Xue acquired them because he thought they were written in an unknown ancient script, presumably from China. In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, he buried the bones for protection, digging them up later. Chinese scholars who have pursued the story believe that Xue’s account is credible.
In 1983 Xue offered the bones to the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City, which collects inscriptions. It was then that specialists told him they were written in cuneiform. It was not until two years later, when Xue donated the objects, that specialist Wu Yuhong realised that the text of the first bone came from the Cyrus proclamation (the text of the second was not identified).
Cyrus the Great Cylinder, hailed as the world's first charter of the human rights.
Irving Finkel with a rubbing of the ancient Chinese bones (Click to enlarge)
Until this year it was generally assumed that the Cyrus Cylinder was a unique object, created for ceremonial burial, and that the text had not been disseminated. Then in January two fragments of an inscribed clay tablet in the BM’s collection were found to contain part of the proclamation, suggesting that it might have been widely copied. Finkel returned to the pair of Chinese bones, to reconsider whether they might be authentic. He realised that the text on the second bone was also from the Cyrus proclamation (which had been missed in 1985), and requested more information from Beijing.
Chinese Assyriologist Yushu Gong went to the Palace Museum store to examine the bones, and also arranged a new rubbing of the inscription (done with black wax on paper), which provides a much better image of the text than existing photographs. Yushu took these to London, for a workshop that was held at the BM on 23-24 June.
Are the bones fakes?
The obvious question is whether the inscriptions are fakes—although they would be bizarre objects to fake. Why would a faker use fossilised horse bone, a material never used before for this purpose? If the bones had indeed been acquired by Xue by 1940, it would not have been easy for a Chinese forger to have gained access to the Cyrus text, which only became widely known later in the 20th century. Why would a faker have carved only one in 20 of the characters, which meant that it took years before the Cyrus text was identified? And why would a faker have sold the bones in China, where there has been virtually no market for non-Chinese antiquities?
The clinching factor for Finkel is that the partial text on the bones differs slightly from that on the Cyrus Cylinder, although it is correct in linguistic terms. Cuneiform changed over the centuries, and the signs on the bones are in a less evolved form than that of the cylinder. The individual wedge-like strokes of the signs are also different and have a slightly v-shaped top, a form that was not used in Babylon, but was used by scribes in Persia.
"The text used by the copier on the bones was not the Cyrus Cylinder, but another version, probably originally written in Persia, rather than Babylon," Finkel believes. It could have been a version carved on stone, written with ink on leather, or inscribed on a clay tablet. Most likely the original object was sent during the reign of Cyrus to the far east of his empire, in the west of present-day China.
Scholars at the workshop had little time to digest the new evidence, and inevitably there was some scepticism. But Finkel concludes that the evidence is "completely compelling". He is convinced that the bones have been copied from an authentic version of the Cyrus proclamation, although it is unclear at what point in the past 2,500 years the copying was done.
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