My brother-in-law, Dan Heitkamp, bought the following object at an estate sale in Seattle:
Although I immediately recognized the writing as basically cuneiform and could even read some of the signs (e.g., DINGIR ["god, deity"]), other signs looked suspicious (e.g., the first one in the second row, which did not appear to be cuneiform). Another thing that bothered me was that, though most of the signs were obviously meant to represent cuneiform, they didn't seem to have been incised with a stylus, a method of writing that I have several times seen demonstrated. Furthermore, the sheer improbability of obtaining a genuine cuneiform tablet at an estate sale, plus the fact that this wasn't even the sort of tablet with which I was familiar, led me to doubt the authenticity of the artifact. The regularity with which forgeries are encountered in the Chinese antiquities market also led me to doubt the authenticity of the object. Nonetheless, I offered to take the piece of hardened clay back to Philadelphia and have my colleagues in the tablet room at the University of Pennsylvania Museum take a look at it.
Much to my astonishment, as soon as Philip Jones and Jamie Novotny examined the artifact, they immediately determined that it was genuine. They could read most of it without difficulty, and after about ten minutes, they had completely and definitively deciphered all of the signs, and after ten more minutes, they were able to fill in all of the missing signs.
One of the things that makes cuneiform studies so hard is that later stages of the script frequently employ earlier, archaic forms and usages, with Sumerian and Akkadian getting mixed in with Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian. That is what threw me for a loop with the first graph in the second row, since it was an intentionally archaicized form.
Another aspect of reading cuneiform that seems mind-bogglingly difficult (at least to me as a specialist in Chinese writing) is that the signs have names that are often completely different from the sounds that they transcribe. Here are the names of the signs on the brick (prefixed lower case letters should be though of as superscripts, numbers as subscripts):
1. dAG-NIG2.D[U ] dAG = DINGIR as semantic classifier + AG
2. E2-SAG-I[L2 ]
3. ŠA2 d[ ]
And here is the transcription:
2. E2-sag-i[l2 ]
3. Ša d[ ]
Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, provisioner
(of) Esagila and Egida, foremost heir
of Nabopolasser king of Babylon
I must say that it was quite a thrill to hold in my hand part of a brick that was baked during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar of Biblical fame, about whom I had read as a little boy in Sunday School. Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned c. 605 BCE – 562 BC, was king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Esagila was the temple to the supreme god Marduk.
Erle Leichty, emeritus professor of Akkadian, who was also in the tablet room while Philip and Jamie were examing the brick, brought out a large stamp of the sort that was used to make the inscription, so that explained why the signs looked like cuneiform without actually having been written with a stylus.
Through the writing that was stamped upon it, that clump of hardened clay transported me back in time 2,600 years, enabling me to experience the faith of Nebuchadnezzar, who built the grand temple to the god Marduk. But without the expertise of dedicated scholars like Philip, Jamie, and Erle, the signs on that fragmentary brick would remain forever mute.
[Any errors in this post are mine, and not those of my expert colleagues in the Penn Museum. Thanks to Ori Tavor for taking the photograph.]