There has been an estimated half a million to two million cuniform tablets excavated in modern times. Only about 30,000-100,000 have been deciphered. The British Museum has the largest collection with 130,000 tablets. Most of the tablets in various collections have Not been deciphered or translated and there are only a few hundred qualified conformists in the world.
The Sumerian language has no known relation to any other language. Its decipherment was helped a great deal by the existence of a large word lists comparing the same words from various languages that were made by ancient Mesopotamian scribes, who would travel hundreds of miles to attend conferences with other scribes to produce these lists.
All the great Mesopotamian civilizations used cuneiform until it was abandoned in favor of the alphabetic script at some point after 100 BC. By the second century A.D. cuneiform had become extinct and all knowledge of how to read it was forgotten.
In the 17th century, western travelers to Persia told about the Old Persian inscriptions they saw. Engelbert Kämpfer put a name to this unknown script calling it Cuneiform, a word meaning wedge-shaped.
In the 18th century many new inscriptions were discovered and reliable copies were made by a man named Carsten Niebuhr. Many people had tried to decipher the texts since its discovery. One of the most important of these was the German school teacher George Grotentend. In 1802, he noticed a recurring pattern and correctly deciphered the words for kings. It wasn’t until about 45 years later (1846) that Niels Louis Westergaard’s and Edward Hincks had major breakthroughs. But only a small amount of the text could be understood.
The next significant leap in the deciphering of Mesopotamian cuneiform came from work on the Behistun Inscriptions in Persia. Carved in the reign of King Darius of Persia (522–486 BC), The inscription is approximately 49 feet (15 m) high by 82 feet (25 m) wide, and 328 feet (100 m) up a limestone cliff. This document was most crucial in the deciphering of a previously lost script. It contains three versions of the same text, written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Assyrian and Elamite.
The Behistun inscription is to cuneiform what the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In 1835 despite its inaccessibility, Sir Henry Rawlinson was able to scale the cliff and copy the Old Persian inscription. The first section of the copied text contained a list of Persian kings identical to that found in Herodotus, and by matching the names and the characters, Rawlinson was able to decipher the Old Persian script by 1838.
Then in 1850 Henry Rawlinson translated the Black Oblelisk, a black limestone obelisk inscribed with the military conquests of Shalmaneser lll (858-824 BC). Edward Hincks published his translation of the same text in 1851.
By 1851, Hincks and Rawlinson could read 200 Babylonian signs. They were soon joined by two other decipherers, scholar Julius Oppert, and William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1857, the four men met in London and took part in a famous experiment to test the accuracy of their deciphering. The translations produced by the four scholars were found to be in close agreement with one another. But Hincks’ and Rawlinson’s versions corresponded remarkably closely in many respects. The jury declared itself satisfied with the results that the texts were deciphered correctly.
There have been many others that deciphered and translated cuneiform and the ancient languages lost for thousands of years. Zecharia Sitchin was not the first.