[Cache from http://chronicle.com/free/v48/i11/11a01401.htm; please use this canonical URL/source if possible.]

Chronicle of Higher Education. From the issue dated November 9, 2001


Project Aims to Make Cuneiform Collections Available to Researchers Worldwide


More than 5,000 years ago, the very first information revolution occurred when some unknown research team in Mesopotamia found a way to download and store language through a killer application called "writing." Business transactions or royal decrees could be recorded by pressing the end of a reed into moist pieces of clay, which the desert climate then baked hard.

This strange new technology spread across the planet over the next millennium or so. But its origins had been long forgotten by the early 18th century. That was when a German scholar coined the term "cuneiform," meaning "wedge-shaped," to describe the puzzling inscriptions, which look something like the imprints left by chickens dancing in mud.

Coming up with that catchy piece of jargon proved much easier than actually reading the tablets. By the late 19th century, however, scholars could translate The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest recorded piece of literary narrative. They discovered cunei-form texts about the creation of the world that bore a close resemblance to passages in the Hebrew Book of Genesis -- as did tales of a great flood that wiped out civilization. In 1901, archaeologists found The Code of Hammurabi, the world's first law book. And countless documents survive that were prepared by the accountants of ancient Babylon.

Too Many Hard Copies

Today, the field of Assyriology is going high-tech. And not a minute too soon. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, a joint venture of the University of California at Los Angeles and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin, will provide scholars with access to an enormous database of cuneiform inscriptions. With more than 200,000 tablets scattered throughout museums in several countries (not counting the steady flow of black-market items trickling out of Iraq and onto eBay), the world's 400 professional Assyriologists have been struggling to keep from being buried alive by primary documents. The online library promises to be the single-largest, most organized, and best cataloged repository of cuneiform inscriptions in the world, according to its director, Robert K. Englund, a professor of Near Eastern languages and culture at UCLA.

The project has been under way since 1998. Last year, it received a grant of $650,000 from the National Science Foundation, as part of the Digital Libraries Initiative that the foundation is conducting in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Four thousand tablets from the Near East Museum, in Berlin, can now be viewed at the CDLI Web site. Large collections in St. Petersburg and Vienna have already been digitalized and are now being prepared for uploading.

In mid-October, Assyriologists from France, Germany, Israel, Russia, and Spain joined colleagues in the United States at a CDLI workshop conducted on the island of Santa Catalina, just off the coast of Los Angeles. Besides discussing technical questions involved in creating and cataloging digital images, participants agreed to create an online journal for scholarship on cuneiform.

"We'll have 60,000 texts online within the next couple of years, mostly from the third millennium," says Mr. Englund. At present, CDLI is concentrating on tablets from the period between 3200 and 2000 BC, when cuneiform first took shape. "There are another 60,000 documents from the third millennium we hope to include, and eventually we'll have material from all periods," he says. The writing system was in use for more than 3,000 years.

Digitizing any given cuneiform document involves creating six different images, says Mr. Englund. "We have to record the front and back of the tablet, as well as the sides," he explains, "because the writing is not always limited to one surface. The edges were often used to make notations about the content of a document, rather like the spine of a book."

"With many of the collections, it's almost an industrial process," says Madeleine A. Fitzgerald, who joined CDLI earlier this year as a postdoctoral research associate. "Sometimes the poor condition of an artifact requires the use of high-grade digital-camera work." But such cases are the exception, Ms. Fitzgerald says. "Most of the time, we can just put the tablet in a flatbed scanner. The cheap ones work really well. We don't know why that is. But it's fortunate, because it means we can afford to work on a lot of collections at once."

Yale University has agreed to have its holdings digitized, as has the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Princeton University is now considering the possibility. And collections held by individuals and smaller institutions are also being scanned. Ms. Fitzgerald notes that the project was recently able to incorporate material held at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, in San Jose, Calif., a small but impressive collection of tablets gathered by a society devoted to studies of the occult.

Ancient Mysteries, Modern Copyright

"There has been a long and rather unpleasant tradition in Assyriology that museums have jealously protected the rights to the objects housed in their collections," says Mr. Englund. "We have dealt with that as best we can. We sign over the copyright of digital images we have produced to the home institutions [which own the tablets], and in exchange for that receive academic fair use for those images."

Scholars involved in CDLI suggest that their work could have a profound effect on future generations of Assyriologists. Over the past two centuries, tablets excavated by archeologists have dispersed far and wide. There is no standard catalog or comprehensive edition of cuneiform texts, making research a challenge, at best.

"Let us say you have an idea to study, perhaps, the administrative structure of a city, or the writings from a certain era," explains Marcel Sigrist, a professor at the École Biblique et École Archéologique Français, in Jerusalem. "In my own case, every summer for 20 years I have gone to the British Museum to do research. And then for another part of the summer, I go work [with cuneiform collections] in Chicago or in New Haven.

"Besides the artifacts themselves, there are 40,000 tablets that have been published. But they are spread around in so many books and journals that simply to find them is exhausting. Wherever you are, you would always miss something." With the cuneiform database, he points out, scholars will be able to conduct far more thorough research than ever before.

Besides creating a readily searchable library, CDLI will offer glossaries useful for cuneiform inscriptions. Most tablets are written in either Sumerian or Akkadian, but cuneiform was also used to record transactions in other languages of the ancient Near East. Cuneiform experts will no doubt appreciate having such cribs readily available online.

But as Peter Damerow, a historian of science at the Max Planck Institute, says, "Our goals are much wider. We want to provide tools for people in other disciplines to be able to understand cuneiform. If you work on the history of science, for example, there is material from the third millennium that is invaluable for understanding the development of the concept of number."

Broadening Horizons

Researchers in anthropology, political science, and economic history might also benefit from the study of cuneiform documents now scattered in collections around the world. "In ethnography," says Mr. Englund, "there is the question of how small tribal units were transformed into the supra-tribal organization, with the appearance of the state. That process is better documented in Mesopotamia than anywhere else on earth."

"One of our major goals [with CDLI]," he adds, "is to make possible meaningful discussions, not just among Assyriologists, but with members of other disciplines. Cuneiform researchers need to have the data from the texts we look at 'bounce back' from the concepts developed by people in other areas."

This isn't simply a matter of broadening the intellectual horizons of specialists in a small field, however. "In the university today," he points out, "Assyriologists have to show that our work can be of value to other disciplines. Quite frankly, this is a matter of survival."

Section: Research & Publishing
Page: A14