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Cuneiform bits become history bytes

Times Staff Writer

In a windowless office at UCLA’s Kinsey Hall, professor Robert Englund is translating clay markings into bytes, turning one of the oldest forms of communication into one of the newest.

Englund and a few graduate students in the Department of Assyriology have undertaken an ambitious task: archiving the contents of cuneiform tablets scattered throughout the world. With the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, they are trying to create a centralized inventory of cuneiform for scholars, and -- in the wake of the looting in Iraq -- a tool for investigators.

Cuneiform is wedge-shaped writing made by pressing the tip of a reed into wet clay. It was used in various forms from about 3,200 BC to the Christian era to write in many of the major languages of the Near East. Englund’s project (on the Web at https://cdli.ucla.edu) currently archives images of 70,000 cuneiform texts, out of a worldwide cache of 1.5 million.

Not surprisingly, one of the most important and extensive collections of cuneiform has long been in the possession of the National Museum of Iraq. Englund, a professor of Near Eastern language and culture who studied the collection on several visits before the Gulf War, estimates that it then contained more than 100,000 tablets and text fragments. (By comparison, the British Museum’s cuneiform holdings, the largest single collection in the world, has 150,000 pieces.)

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No one knows the fate of the Iraq museum’s collection at this time. But Englund’s database already includes images and texts of 3,300 tablets from the Baghdad museum, and he recently began to complete the cataloging work on another 3,500. Even though it’s just a fraction of the total, it’s a start in establishing what was in the museum. It may also be the only surviving record of those particular tablets.

Englund also sees cataloging as a law enforcement tool. Each tablet is “an absolutely unique text,” he says. “One text was made, at one time, at one place.” Which means that the images in the library are also photo IDs for specific tablets. Englund envisions a system of “quick checks” comparing tablets against the online record at border points in Iraq and other hot spots.

“That can be done in minutes,” says Englund, who points out that there is a lively black market in the easily transportable tablets and that a well-preserved, older tablet in a legitimate sale can fetch more than $25,000.

The recent looting “has graphically shown the need to make images of these tablets,” says Stephen Tinney, director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project, who calls the digital library “arguably the most important project in our field.” Digital initiatives should be used “aggressively to buffer ourselves against natural or man-made catastrophes,” he says. “What happened in the Iraq museum is really an object lesson in why it is important.”

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Although Englund speaks passionately about the library project, he’s not so sure anyone should be paying $25,000 to own a cuneiform tablet. He mostly cares about what they tell us. His blue eyes glinting mischievously behind steel-rimmed glasses, Englund says that once a cuneiform sample has been digitized, it’s obsolete.

Most of the cuneiform in collections around the world record everyday life in Mesopotamia, the area now encompassing Iraq, Iran, parts of Syria and Turkey. There are 5,000-year-old personal letters, lists of various sorts, business receipts, as well as literary, political and legal documents.

“The tablets are very readable,” says Englund’s research assistant, Madeleine Fitzgerald, who’s an admitted fan of the physical tablets.

“There’s one lovely tablet, shaped like a lentil,” she says. Drawn on it is a small geometric figure involving a right triangle: Pythagoras’ theorem, 1,000 years before Pythagoras.

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“It still bears the thumbprint of the student who used it,” says Fitzgerald. “It’s charming.”

Another Fitzgerald favorite is a familiar-sounding letter from a boy at school. “All the other boys have nice garments. If you really love me,” he wrote, “please send more money.”

But, says Fitzgerald, there are also a lot of writings about beer, laundry lists, and other mundane texts. “We count sheep in this field a lot.”

The key to cuneiform writing was discovered in the 1830s during excavations in what is now Iraq. A British Army officer, Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, copied a lengthy inscription on a cliff near Baghdad. The text was written in three languages; by deciphering one, he could decipher the others. His findings were published in 1846 and provided a breakthrough akin to the Rosetta stone (a key to understanding hieroglyphics), allowing for the translation of such seminal texts as the Babylonian “Epic of Gilgamesh,” which includes a version of the biblical flood story, and the Code of Hammurabi, a collection of Babylonian laws dating from 1,800 BC.

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Englund and associates at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, are hoping that the library’s funding, from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will continue so they can keep gathering material for the archive. The library now includes early cuneiform examples from the Yale Babylonian Collection, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and a collection at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose. Next up, completing the documentation of the collection at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. After that, Englund hopes to add the early cuneiform in the Louvre and parts of the British Museum collection.

“We get access to their collections, and they get access to us,” says Fitzgerald.

Without such a centralizing effort, which allows for easy comparison and contrast among texts spread around the globe, ancient Mesopotamian history is “almost like an organism missing its synapses,” says Englund.

On a recent afternoon at the Gelb Library at UCLA, Englund was lecturing on a tablet, the image of which was projected onto the wall. It was the ancient Near East equivalent of a credit card slip showing the purchase of sheep. He had spent three hours in the hot, dark library pointing out the nitty gritty of the writing system and the text, and a student stifled a yawn.

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“Why should we care?” Fitzgerald had asked rhetorically at one point during the afternoon, before providing the answer: “We’re reconstructing the history of human endeavor.”


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