At the end of the 18th century, cuneiform script was a complete mystery to European historians. The first to report news of a strange writing carved in temples and clay tablets was the Venetian ambassador Giosafat Barbaro, who had been in Persepolis in 1474. Later, in 1598, Robert Shirley found the monumental inscription of Behistun, whose Persian part wasn’t completely deciphered until 1838 by Henry Rawlinson.

Using this material, he and other scholars managed to decipher cuneiform script by the late 1850s, marking the beginning of modern Assyriology.

But before all that, the peoples who had used cuneiform writing—Sumerians, Akkadians, or Hittites—didn’t even have a name that identified them in historiography.

Detail of the Behistun Inscription
Detail of the Behistun Inscription. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The first steps in studying these ancient and unknown civilizations would begin in the last decades of the 18th century. The cause of all this was a journey by a simple botanist, who had previously been a farmer and a peasant.

His name was André Michaux, and he owned a farm in Satory, near Versailles. When he was 24 years old, he became a widower, left the farm to his brother, and began studying botany with Louis Guillaume Le Monnier, the royal physician and botanist. Nine years later, having obtained his license, he began to receive assignments on expeditions outside of France.

One of these took him to Persia in 1782 to collect rare and new plant specimens, accompanying the French consul Jean-François Rousseau. The trip didn’t start too well, as he was robbed of all his luggage near Basra, except for the books.

Ruins of Ctesiphon in 1932
Ruins of Ctesiphon in 1932. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In Persia, he spent two years exploring the coasts of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. It seems he even treated the Shah himself for some health complications, earning his favor, though there are no documented proofs of this. It’s likely a legend based on his interest in the medicinal properties of Persian plants.

Once, while visiting a friend who was a doctor in Baghdad, they went to some ancient ruins near the city of Semiramis (now Taq Kasra). There, Michaux found a strange black stone. It had a series of odd carvings on its upper part and what seemed like a type of strange writing on its lower part. As he noted in his journal, he kept it and took it with him for three and a half years, in 1786, when he returned to France with a large herbarium and a wealth of plant seeds that earned him the title of Royal Botanist.

He sold it to the French Museum of Antiquities in 1800 for about 1,200 francs, which stored it in the National Library. Historians across Europe had never seen anything like it, and news of its discovery spread like wildfire through the continent’s scientific societies. Because the fact was that this stone was the first complete written testimony of the existence of the ancient Mesopotamian culture to reach Europe.

Engraving of the Michaux Stone in an 1854 publication.
Engraving of the Michaux Stone in an 1854 publication. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It was a kudurru (a property record), and the ruins where it was found were those of the ancient Ctesiphon, south of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris, dating back to the 12th century B.C. But it would still take 57 years until the cuneiform script was deciphered to know what the stone said and what it was for.

Rawlinson was the first to propose a transcription of the stele in 1861, but a complete translation came from Jules Oppert in 1895. The inscription begins:

The field in the city of Abna Nebo on the banks of the Tigris River, located on the estate of the man Killi, in the form of an elongated rectangle. 180 measures is the length of its east side, facing the high mound of raised earth. And 180 measures along its west side, oriented toward the estate of the man Tunatzu. And 90 measures is the length of its north side, facing Killi’s estate. And 90 measures is the length of its south side, also facing Killi’s estate. Elisut-ussur, son of Killi, has given this field forever to his daughter, who now lives in the city of Kar-Sargina and is the wife of the man Khiga-ship-Marduk, son of In-beth-shagathu-siirashbit. And Khiga-ship-Marduk, son of In-beth-shagathu-zirashbit. In perpetual memory of her, he has carved the horrible images of the great gods and goddesses on this stone tablet.

The Michaux Stone, now at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris
The Michaux Stone, now at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

It is written in Akkadian, in Babylonian dialect with cuneiform signs and archaic spelling. It is a contract for the donation of land from a father to his daughter, with a series of curses at the end in case of violation of the stele or challenge to the donation. The land in question is located in the village of Kar-Nabu, northeast of Babylon, and spans 162 hectares.

And it continues with the curses:

If anyone in the future, among the brothers or descendants of the house of Killi; any of his men or women, male servants or maidservants, whether young or…orders the destruction of this sculpture and ruins these writings, breaks any part of this sculpture, whether injuring the Divinity or changing the number of writing lines, or alters the sculpture and makes new ones; or says that the shape of the field hasn’t been faithfully represented so that it’s not an elongated rectangle; or deliberately raises this inscription so high that it’s rendered useless; or makes a new one and places it prominently while neglecting this one; or throws it into the river; or smashes it to pieces; or squares it for use as a building stone, or burns it in the fire; or scrapes its surface and writes something else on it; or places it in a dark corner; let the great deities Anu, Siu, Bita, and Mulch cut him down like a man felling a tree. Let them carry away the tombs of his ancestors and loot his lineage’s possessions! Let Marduk, the great Lord, pursue him with unbreakable shackles! Let the Sun, the great Ruler of Heaven and Earth, deliver him to his enemies, a slave condemned to hard labor! Let Sauna, the goddess of flowing streams, release the copious waters from heaven and ruin the corn crops in his fields! Let Ishtar, queen of heaven and earth, who sits on her throne in the Treasure of ‘god and king,’ bow him down to the very ground!

The kudurru itself is 46 centimeters tall and 20 centimeters wide and weighs 22 kilograms. It’s dated between 1099 and 1082 B.C., during the reign of Marduk-nadin-ahhe in Babylon. On its front and back, it contains 95 lines written in four columns, crowned by two registers containing 21 iconographic symbols representing mythical animals, divine attributes, and stars.

Though it was initially thought that these stones could be a type of boundary marker placed in the fields, the fact is that all the ones found came from temples, suggesting they were kept there while the interested party was given a clay copy.

Regarding Michaux, Louis XVI sent him in 1785 to the United States to find new plants that could be useful in medicine, construction, and agriculture. For ten years, he sent boxes of plants and seeds to France, while introducing new species to America. On his return, the ship he was on wrecked, but he managed to survive and save most of the specimens he had brought with him.

In 1800, he embarked on the Nicolas Baudin expedition to Australia, but he abandoned it midway, in Mauritius, then went to Madagascar, drawn by its exotic flora. There he died in 1802 from tropical fever, never knowing what was written on the famous stone that today bears his name.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 22, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Cómo un botánico francés llevó a Europa el primer testimonio escrito completo de la civilización mesopotámica


Orient Cunéiforme | Jules Oppert, Le caillou de Michaux | H.Fox Talbot, Translation of Some Assyrian Inscriptions | Wikipedia

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