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Next, with respect to the Cuneiform Character. When I first went to reside in London, in 1829, I often visited the British Museum. It was the most instructive and interesting of all the public institutions which I haft yet seen. I eagerly seized every opportunity I could spare to spend as many hours as possible in wandering through its extensive galleries, especially those which contained the Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek antiquities. By careful and repeated examination of the objects arranged in them, I acquired many ideas that afforded me subjects for thought and reflection.
Amongst these objects, I was specially impressed and interested with the so-called "Arrow-head" or "Cuneiform Inscriptions" in the Assyrian Department. These remarkable inscriptions were on large tablets of burnt clay. They formed the chief portion of the then comparatively limited collection of Assyrian antiquities in the British Museum.
I was so fortunate as to have my conjectures confirmed with respect to the exact form of the instrument by which these remarkable characters are produced, observing, in what appeared to be a hastily-formed inscription on the edge of a large brick, that the inscriber had apparently used rather more pressure on his stylus than was requisite. In consequence of which, the end of it had been so deeply depressed into the soft clay as to leave an exact counterpart of its size and form. I secured a cast of this over-deep impression of the stylus, from which Fig. 3 is taken, after a photograph.
In order further to illustrate the simple mode of producing inscriptions on tablets of clay, I give in Fig. 4 a tablet inscription produced by means of the stylus which is seen laid over the tablet.
The next illustration(Fig.5) is intended to convey an idea of the manner in which the stylus was held and applied to the surface of the clay when a cuneiform inscription was being produced. The upper, flat, or third side of the stylus enabled the inscriber to keep it in correct relative position in respect to the tablet, yielding at the same time a convenient flat surface upon which to rest the end of his finger when indenting the angular end into the clay.
This is abundantly proved by those marvellously perfect burnt clay tablets, covered with exquisitely minute and perfect inscriptions, which, after having remained hid in mounds of rubbish for thousands of years, among the ruins of the Assyrian cities, are brought to light as fresh and perfect as on the day on which they were executed. These tablets now excite the wonder and admiration of all who are able to appreciate the beauty of the inscriptions, as well as of those who are speculatively curious as to the origin of written language. This attempt to explain the probable origin of the cuneiform character may to some appear fanciful. But whether or not, it is certain that this simple and impressive character can be readily produced by the primitive means which I have ventured to suggest. I give a cuneiform inscription (Fig. 7), which I have produced by simply employing the corner angle of an ordinary brick as the stylus for indenting the inscription on the tablet of soft clay. This might have been extended to any length, in longer as well as minuter impressions.
When examining some early Greek inscriptions in marble, in the British Museum, in the year 1837, I was much interested to observe the appearance of a cuneiform element in the limbs of several Greek letters, especially in the terminals, as illustrated in Fig. 8, each limb of the letter being in itself a perfect cuneiform; and as such the terminal of each limb is at right angles to the axis, and not as now (in our modern capital letters) parallel to the line of inscription.
In a lecture which I gave at the Royal Institution in London, in 1839, and in another at the British Association at Cheltenham, in 1856, I referred to this presence of the cuneiform element in the Greek letters, illustrating the subject by actual casts from the inscriptions themselves. At Cheltenham the question gave rise to a most animated and interesting discussion, in which Dr. Whewell and Sir Thomas Phillips (the great antiquarian) took a prominent part. I understood that Sir Thomas Phillips assigned that the intermixture of cuneiform with the Greek alphabet proceeded from the Samaritans, who were originally an Assyrian colony. I find that many Greek inscriptions exhibit the cuneiform element in nearly all the letters composing them. This is a subject well worthy of the attention of our antiquarian Greek scholars, as pointing to an intimate intercourse with the Assyrians at some remote age. The distinctive character of the cuneiform in the Greek inscriptional letters could not have arisen from chance. Some intercommunication with the Assyrians must have taken place.
This subject is all the more interesting, as the cuneiform element appears to have passed from the Greek inscriptional letters into those of the Romans, and from thence into our own capital letters. This affords a very remarkable instance of the "survival" of a form, which, however naturally due to the plastic material in connection with which it originated, nevertheless led to its use for ages after the circumstances which led to its adoption had passed away. This tendency in mankind to cling to shapes and forms through mere traditional influences is widely observable, especially in connection with architectural forms, arrangements, and decorative details. It offers a subject of great interest to those who have a natural aptitude to investigate what I may term the etymology of form, a subject of the most attractive nature, especially to those who enjoy thinking and reflecting upon what they have specially observed.
Before concluding this subject I may mention that the Assyrians employed a cylindrical roller-seal in order to produce impressions in a wholesale way. This is exemplified in the above engraving. The mechanical principles inherent in this beautifully simple form of roller-seal, indicate a high order of ingenuity, well worthy of the originators of the arrow-headed character. In fact it is the prototype not only of the modern system of calico-printing but of the Waiter Printing Press, by which the Times and many other newspapers are now printed -- a remarkable instance of the survival or restoration of a very old method of impression.
This is the end of James Nasmyth's autobiography.
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