Cuneiform means “wedged shaped” in Latin. This refers to ancient writings that had a wedged shaped appearance. The writing is usually made with a wedge stylus on soft clay tablets. Baking the tablets preserves them.
A number of different ancient languages are written in cuneiform. The most widely used language was Akkadian. Cuneiform is also chiseled on to stones and rocks. One famous carving on a cliff three hundred feet up is the Rock of Behistun in ancient Persia, now modern day Iran southwest of Tehran.
The man most responsible for the decipherment of cuneiform is Henry Rawlinson. Henry started to work for the East India Company in 1827 at the age of seventeen where he learned Indian languages and Persian.
In 1835 he was sent to Persia as a military adviser. Near the city of Kermanshah he found two inscriptions on rocks which he figured out the names of Darius and Xerxes.
He then started to copy the inscriptions on the Rock of Behistun some three hundred feet up on very shaky wooden ladders. In 1849 he completed his book Memoir on the Persian Version of the Behistun Inscriptions.
There were two other unknown ancient languages on the Rock of Behistun that said the same thing in Old Persian so Rawlinson turn his attention to their decipherment. In 1855 he published a book with notes and translation of the second language named Elamite.
Finally Rawlinson turned to the last language Babylonian cuneiform, or today called Akkadian. Edward Hincks, a Anglican clergyman had devoted himself to the decipherment of Akkadian. By 1847 he published a list of their signs and meanings.
With the writings of Rawlinson and Hincks the Akkadian language was deciphered. Hincks was right in observing the signs stand for syllables. The final test came in 1857 when four scholars, Rawlinson, Hincks, Henry Talbot, and Jules Oppert independently translated the same script and came up with virtually the same translation.