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Archibald Sayce

The Rev. Archibald Henry Sayce (25 September 1845 – 4 February 1933), was a pioneer British Assyriologist and linguist, who held a chair as Professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford from 1891 to 1919.


  • Life 1
  • Commentary on works 2
  • Works 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Archibald Sayce was born in Shirehampton, Bristol, to a family of Shropshire descent. A delicate child who suffered from tuberculosis and got a late start, he soon caught up with a private tutor and was reading Homer in Greek at ten. He attended The Queen's College, Oxford, becoming a fellow in 1869.

In 1874 Sayce published a long paper, "The Astronomy and Astrology of the Babylonians" in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology vol. 3, part 1), with transcriptions and translations of the relevant cuneiform texts, that was one of the first articles to recognise and translate astronomical cuneiform texts.

In 1879 Rev. Sayce linked the reliefs near Magnesia on the Maeander in western Anatolia to those of the site at Yazilikaya in the Turkish plateau, and recognised that they belonged to an unidentified pre-Greek culture.

In 1876, he deciphered one of the hieroglyphics inscribed on stones at Hamath in Syria, by deducing that the profile of a man stood for "I". In 1880, he deciphered another hieroglyphic which he recognised as the governing prefix that identified divinity. He had suspected for some time that Boghazkoy was the capital of the Hittites because some hieroglyphic scripts found at Aleppo and Hamath in northern Syria were matched to the script on a monument at Boghazkoy.

In 1882, in a lecture to the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, he announced that the Hittites, far from being a small Canaanite tribe who dealt with the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel, were the people of a "lost Hittite empire," which Egyptian texts were then bringing to light. He and William Wright identified the ruins at Boghazkoy with Hattusa, the capital of a Hittite Empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to the banks of the Euphrates, centuries before the age of the Old Testament patriarchs.[1]

Sayce concluded that the Hittite hieroglyphic system was predominantly a syllabary, that is, its symbols stood for a phonetic syllable. There were too many different signs for a system that was alphabetical and yet there were too few for it to be a set of ideographs. That very sign standing for the divinity had appeared on the stones of Hamath and other places, always in the form of a prefix of an indecipherable group of hieroglyphics naming the deities. This led Sayce to conclude that by finding the name of one of these deities with the help of another language endowed with similar pronunciation, one might analyse the conversion of the aforesaid name in Hittite hieroglyphics. Also, he stated that the keys to be obtained through that process might in turn be applied to other parts of a Hittite inscription where the same sign were to occur.

Sayce dreamed of finding a bilingual Rosetta Stone. In 1880, he found a clue on a writing that spoke of an ancient silver disk discovered in Istanbul. It was a small-sized relic resembling a seal. In its centre, the figure of a warrior wearing a short robe, cape, helmet and upward-toe-capped boots (a Hittite apparel, no doubt) lay. The frieze around the warrior contained a cuneiform inscription in Hurrian dialect. Sayce supposed that the cuneiform inscription on the seal and the Hittite characters contained in its inner circle expressed one only meaning. Therefore, he was facing a bilingual text.

Working with a plaster impression, Sayce translated the cuneiform text of a seal "Tarritktimme, king of the country of Erme" (Walters Gallery, Baltimore). By late 1886, only seven signs had been deciphered out of the totality of signs belonging to the hieroglyphic system.

Later, after Sayce had turned his attention to Egyptology, archives were discovered at Hattusa that unlocked the language spoken there.

Lectures were his favourite vehicle for publication. He published in 1887 his Hibbert lectures on Babylonian religion; in 1902 his Gifford lectures on Egyptian and Babylonian religion; and in 1907 his Rhind lectures.

Rev. Sayce was working at El Kab in Egypt with Somers Clarke in the 1900s. In his seasonal winter digs in Egypt he always hired a well-furnished boat on the Nile to accommodate his travelling library, which also enabled him to offer tea to visiting Egyptologists like the young American James Henry Breasted and his wife.

Commentary on works

In his Treatise on the Gods, H. L. Mencken wrote:

The cosmogony of the Jews, as recorded in Genesis, was mainly borrowed from the Babylonians. According to A. H. Sayce, the creation myth that it embodies arose at Eridu, a town on the Persian Gulf. Here, he says in the Hastings' Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, "the land was constantly growing through disposition of silt, and the belief consequently arose that the earth had originated in the same way. The water of the great deep accordingly came to be regarded as the primordial element out of which the universe was generated. The deep was identified with the Persian Gulf, which was conceived as encircling the earth."


  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1872). An Assyrian grammar, for comparative purposes. Trübner. p. 188. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1877). An elementary grammar: with full syllabary and progressive reading book, of the Assyrian language, in the cuneiform type (2 ed.). Samuel Bagster and Sons. p. 131. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1877). Lectures upon the Assyrian language, and syllabary: delivered to the students of the archaic clases. Bagster. p. 157. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1875). Archaic classics. An elementary grammar; with full syllabary and progressive reading book, of the Assyrian language, in the cuneiform type. Samuel Bagster. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1877). An elementory grammar: with full syllabary and progressive reading book (2 ed.). S. Bagster and sons. p. 131. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1885). Assyria: its princes, priests, and people (ATLA monograph preservation program). Volume 7 of By-paths of Bible knowledge. Religious Tract Society. p. 165. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1893). Social life among the Assyrians and Babylonians (ATLA monograph preservation program). Volume 18 of By-paths of Bible knowledge. Religious Tract Society. p. 126. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Archibald Henry Sayce (1894). A primer of Assyriology (ATLA monograph preservation program). Fleming H. Revell. p. 127. Retrieved 5 July 2011. 
  • Assyrian Grammar for Comparative Purposes (1872)
  • Principles of Comparative Philology (1874)
  • The Chronology of the Bible connected with Contemporaneous Events in the History of Babylonians, Assyrians and Egyptians (1874)
  • Babylonian Literature (1877)
  • Introduction to the Science of Language (1879)
  • Monuments of the Hittites (1881)
  • The Ancient Empires of the East: Herodotos I-III. (1883)
  • Ancient Empires of the East (1884)
  • Fresh Light from the Ancient Monuments (1884)
  • Introduction to the Books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther (1885)
  • Assyria (1885)
  • Hibbert Lectures, 1887: Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1887)
  • The Hittites (1889)
  • The Life and Times of Isaiah (1889)
  • Races of the Old Testament (1891)
  • The Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments (1894)
  • Patriarchal Palestine (1895)
  • The Egypt of the Hebrews and Herodotus (1895)
  • A History of Classical Greek Literature Pt.1 & Pt.2 (1895)
  • Early History of the Hebrews (1897)
  • Israel and the Surrounding Nations (1898)
  • The Early History of the Hebrews 1899
  • Babylonians and Assyrians (1900)
  • The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (1902) The Gifford Lectures
  • Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1907)

He also contributed important articles to the 9th, 10th and 11th editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica.


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External links

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