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Cuneiform Goes Digital: UCLA Scholar Sheds Light on Cultural History of Ancient Iraq

News Release Date: April 28, 2004


The Lyman Award
  · Robert K. Englund biography and website poster
(*PDF file)

  · Learn more about the Lyman Award

Research Triangle Park, N.C.—A scholar who is using one of the newest forms of communication to preserve some of the world's oldest writing is the recipient of the 2004 Richard W. Lyman Award, presented by the National Humanities Center to recognize the innovative use of information technology in humanistic scholarship and teaching.

Robert Englund, a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures of the University of California, Los Angeles, will accept the award during a ceremony at the New York Public Library on May 25.

As principal investigator of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (http://cdli.ucla.edu/), Englund leads an international group of Assyriologists, museum curators, and historians of science whose mission is to make available through the Internet the form and content of cuneiform tablets dating from the beginning of writing, circa 3350 B.C., until the end of cuneiform more than three millennia later.

"One of humankind's oldest writing systems comes to life in the newest technologies of communication and interpretation in Professor Englund's CDLI project," said James J. O'Donnell, provost of Georgetown University and chair of the panel of scholars that selected Englund. "He combines scholarly eminence with innovative technique in the service of learning—and in the service of all who care deeply about where we come from in our cultures."

Cuneiform emerged from ancient Babylonia, the southern part of today's Iraq. The earliest writers—merchants, poets, sons soliciting fathers for additional funds—used styli to impress the wedge-like signs of this script onto the surface of clay tablets. The tablets hardened almost immediately in the dry and hot climate of that part of the world—they couldn't be reused and they couldn't be easily broken.

Surviving tablets contain some of the world's earliest examples of literature and law, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Sumerian and Akkadian around 1800 B.C., and the Code of Hammurabi, written about the same time. Many of the tablets Englund studies, however, document the more mundane details of day-to-day existence in a long-dead society.

"There is a nice story, in Sumerian, from around 1800 B.C. that relates the tribulations of a youngster attending school in a city in the middle of ancient Iraq," Englund notes. "He explains to his father how well he had been doing with his cuneiform lessons, the many lists of mathematical tables and so on that he had learned, but noted that none of that would bring him success if his father did not reward his teacher with appropriate gifts."

Other tablets detail the accounting practices of the time—the amount of barley harvested by farmers, the beer and grain used to compensate workers—and provide a glimpse of the human lives behind these accounts, such as the story of a cattle herder who died without paying taxes he owed in the form of butter oil and cheese, resulting in the enslavement of his children to state-owned households. The many tens of thousands of receipts, bills of lading, and sales contracts from the same period offer an uncensored account of how a civilization at the beginning of recorded history dealt with its own citizens and with those of neighboring cultures.

After resting in the ruins of ancient Babylonian cities for thousands of years, cuneiform tablets began a diaspora in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As archaeologists discovered and excavated sites such as Ninevah and Assur in the north, and Uruk and Nippur in the south, they carried many of the tablets and other treasures off to the great museums of Europe and America.

Although a preliminary decipherment of cuneiform had taken place at the turn of the 19th century, the stories incised on these clay tablets were really unlocked beginning in the 1850s, when a British Army officer, Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, discovered the key to cuneiform writing. Rawlinson found a lengthy inscription carved in three languages on a cliff between Babylonia and Persia. He and others were able to decipher one of the writing systems and the language it represents, Old Persian, leading to the decipherment of the much more difficult Akkadian cuneiform.

Translations of major works such as the Gilgamesh epic, which includes a version of the biblical flood story, and the Code of Hammurabi followed. However, it was not until Englund's team began work on its digital library for ancient Iraq that scholars without a huge travel budget could hope to compare and contrast texts.

"While the rest of the field was standing around wondering how to solve the problem of hundreds of thousands of texts languishing unpublished in museums and remaining largely intractable even when published, it was Englund's daring and innovative approach to the global task of cuneiform digitization that led the way forward," said Steve Tinney, a colleague of Englund who directs the Sumerian Dictionary Project at the University of Pennsylvania. "Englund's importance is not only that he brings vigor and rigor to the task, but that he is able to form relationships with museums and colleagues the world over, which get CDLI unprecedented access to basements and store-cupboards."

The sacking last year of the National Museum in Baghdad focused international interest on the precarious situation of ancient artifacts in troubled countries such as Iraq. In this case, Englund notes, the situation may be both better and worse than the news reports made it appear.

"Most recent reports from Iraq warn us to be more circumspect in our judgment of reporting in the fog of war—indeed to beware the information firestorms that the Internet can foster," he explains. "Indications are that very little inscribed material was looted in Baghdad or elsewhere at the time of the invasion. Rather, several thousand small finds, most importantly a large number of cylinder seals—the cardinal administrative tool in Babylonia, used to validate public and private documents—are still missing from the National Museum."

Unfortunately, Englund notes, this relatively heartening news may have reduced the pressure to tighten border security and more closely monitor antiquities trading. He also laments that no coordinated international effort has materialized to digitally capture and preserve cultural heritage collections of the size and quality of those in the Iraq museum, along with antiquities in the British Museum and a number of American universities.

"You might imagine that an office of UNESCO would be the natural sponsor of such an effort, and that this effort would have the added effect of overlaying the process with metadata, imaging, and text storage standards," he says, adding "we must try to imagine the truly desperate situation in Afghanistan, where whole generations of cultural history were looted or for all times destroyed by a ruling class run amok, to more clearly appreciate how much is lost to humanity when we do not thoroughly document national collections of shared world cultural heritage."

As they hope for a more secure situation in Iraq that would allow more researchers to document and digitize the ancient treasures that remain in the country—Englund notes that current estimates place approximately ten times the number of already excavated texts in the ruin mounds of Iraq awaiting archaeological discovery—Englund and his colleagues monitor the Internet for all tablets offered for sale, most of which come from what he ruefully calls "irregular excavations" of sites in southern Iraq.

This work may help law enforcement agencies to police the movement of stolen antiquities, Englund says. "But perhaps more importantly, they can be used to tag those tablets in the markets that are not from known collections," he continues, "and to force the dealers of such tablets to show some pedigree proof for their collections, assuming national, or internationally respected antiquities laws stipulate this requirement."

While keeping an eye on the Internet, Englund and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin are busy working with owners of private collections to gather information on more tablets. Following a policy of strict fair use of digital records of shared cultural heritage produced in CDLI collaborations, the Los Angeles/Berlin project records with guarded alarm the tendency of some large public collections to commercialize their holdings. Thanks in part to Englund's widespread network, the CDLI is in the process of digitizing the cuneiform collections of the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Louvre, and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, with more to follow.

Envisioned at first as a project to make available to a specialized field of scholars the textual remains of civilization from the period of the latter 4th and 3rd millennium B.C., the CDLI now aims to permanently archive and make available through the Internet the complete repository of cuneiform—roughly half a million discrete inscriptions created over three and a half millennia. Supplementing the collection will be online tools necessary for textual analysis.

"We have catalogued and put online data sets representing just under 90,000 of that total, are actively harvesting from scattered online sources, and are gathering from project partners records of heretofore uncatalogued collections wherever we find them," he says.

Englund has not been to Iraq for a dozen years, and does not expect that conditions there will allow him to return soon. However, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities' Iraq Initiative, he and his colleagues will work with the CDLI's existing files, the records of Western archaeological teams that have excavated in Iraq, and from cuneiform publications to reconstruct the full tablet collection of the Iraq Museum, estimated at about 100,000 tablets and fragments.

As they archive these materials, which they plan to make available in both English and Arabic, Englund says, the CDLI will also seek to provide tools that will help others access and understand what remains of the civilization that flourished in the cradle created by the conjunction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

"Our goals for the next two years include, again with NEH support, the development and implementation of online linguistic tools to assist language specialists in understanding a highly complex, inflected Semitic Akkadian, and the language-isolate Sumerian, both represented with a cuneiform writing system very possibly originally developed by 4th millennium speakers of a language that we have not, and probably never will decipher."

When asked about the relevance of learning about the details of Babylonian business, familial, and literary lives 4,000 years ago, Englund points to the interdisciplinary goals of the project, engaged as it is in producing a freely scalable access system to Babylonian culture for all levels of online users, from grade school students to university researchers, journalists, even law enforcement officials. He stresses, for instance, how much linguists will learn from the Sumerian grammar and lexicon that will be made available through resources fed by the CDLI, the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary, and other related projects. Ultimately, however, Englund sees a more deeply humanistic value to his work.

"To my mind," he says, "access to the culture, and to the minds of ancient Babylonians best serves to remind us that when the differences between us are seen most clearly, they disappear altogether."

The National Humanities Center (nationalhumanitiescenter.org) is the nation’s only private, independent institute for advanced study in the humanities. Since 1978, more than 900 scholars from across the United States and around the world have researched and written more than 875 books during fellowships at the Center’s Research Triangle Park facility. The Center also sponsors award-winning programs through which leading scholars work with high school and college teachers to improve teaching in the nation’s schools and colleges, and holds conferences, seminars, and other public programs to raise and explore basic issues affecting human beings and their societies.

The Richard W. Lyman Award is made possible thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

  • Robert K. Englund biography and website poster (*PDF file)

  • Learn more about the Lyman Award


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