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Event Review of Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative Lecture

Sara Sheer

Event Review



Professor Robert Englund of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) gave a lecture on the digitization of cuneiform texts. He described how the tablets had been scanned, then transcribed, translated, transliterated and annotated into machine-readable-code. This data was then organized into databases for the benefit of researchers. The geographic dispersal of cuneiform texts and the reluctance of curators to grant access to them has hindered scholarship in the area. Professor Englund’s particular project was an investigation as to whether the ancient Mesopotamians had the concept of abstract numbers. Mathematical and statistical tools allowed him to discover ten different cuneiform numerical systems.



On March 22, 2016 I attended a lecture at Columbia University’s Butler Library on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). The lecture was given by Professor Robert Englund of UCLA, one of the Principal Investigators of the CDLI.

The lecture began with a history of the earliest excavation of cuneiform texts in the early nineteenth century by the British and French. They excavated whole standing walls from Assyrian cities in Northern Iraq. These early excavators were deeply interested in the possible Biblical connections of the cuneiform texts. They were seeking to prove the historicity of the Old Testament, which included the rape and pillage of Ancient Israel by the Assyrians.

These early excavators did not just find stone walls, however. As soon as they dug below the sand they found clay tablets with cuneiform descriptions inscribed on them. Cuneiform was finally deciphered in 1857, mainly from Persian works in Persepolis and other sites of the Persian Empire.

In the course of the European plunder of Mesopotamian artifacts, not only were many cuneiform texts lost, but they were also scattered all over the world, creating difficulties for future scholars. Proto-cuneiform texts from Uruk in Southern Mesopotamia were excavated by the Germans and later divided between Germany and Iraq, splitting the texts apart. The Uruk texts were transcribed onto punchcards, which were later processed by the Max Planck Society in Berlin.

Professor Englund’s work on cuneiform texts was an attempt to determine whether or not the concept of abstract numbers existed in ancient Mesopotamia. To that end, he was trying to find specific cuneiform characters for different numbers.

Digital humanities was essential for this research. If a character was an anomaly in a string of numerical signs, that meant that it must belong to a different numerical system. Eventually ten different cuneiform numerical systems were discovered using mathematical and statistical tools.

In the mid-1980s, computer processors finally had enough power to scan cuneiform texts inscribed on clay tablets. A Xerox machine at the Ashmolean museum was used to scan that institution’s collection of cuneiform tablets. This was crucial, because the Ashmolean’s previous handwritten copies of cuneiform tablets were of terrible quality.

There was debate over whether or not clay tablets should be fired so as to make them harder and thus less likely to break. The downside to doing so was that once a tablet was fired, a clay analysis could not be performed.

As a result of digital image documentation, cuneiform texts can be organized into databases, transliterated, transcribed, annotated and translated into an open-access machine-readable code. Digital image documentation allows Assyriologists to study how the cuneiform alphabet evolved from being pictorial to being abstract. Assyriologists have also been able to determine how scribes moved their hands.

There are currently a number of obstacles to digital scholarship of cuneiform texts. Firstly, most institutions do not like to fund capture missions to digitize tablets. In addition, most museums are reluctant to give anyone hands-on access to their collections of ancient tablets. Most often the curator will assign a certain number of texts to each Ph. D. candidate for his or her dissertation and that will be it. Every collection has a legal department, as museums want to make money by copyrighting texts, a great blow to potential digital scholarship.

The CDLI is currently creating an iPad app for their tablets. It will show an image of a particular cuneiform tablet along with text. Each day a new page will come up at 12:00 PM New York time.

Professor Englund’s complaint about how museums often denied access to cuneiform texts in their collections and his attempt to make cuneiform scholarship available through an i-Pad relates to “The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0” (Presner et al, 2009) which makes open access to archives a goal for “utopian” digital humanists. Certainly digital humanists would have a much easier job pursuing their scholarship if museums made their collections open access.

In “Textual Analysis,” David L. Hoover points out how useful computer-assisted textual analysis is for

…investigating textual differences and similarities…Testing a hunch, hypothesis, or thesis about an author, text, passage, genre, or period…Investigating the history of an important word, concept or group of words or concepts over a long time span (Hoover 2014).

Professor Englund was able to use computer-assisted textual analysis to test the hypothesis that the ancient Mesopotamians did not develop the concept of abstract numbers. He was also able to trace how the cuneiform writing system evolved over 4,000 years. Hoover explains that

Word lists and concordances are very useful exploratory tools, and concordance can also be used to test hunches about how specific words are used in a text (Hoover 2014).

Professor Englund was able to use digital tools to ascertain the different numerical systems used by the Mesopotamians, and which cuneiform characters corresponded to which numbers within those different systems.

The curation of cuneiform texts follows the pattern outlined by Julia Flanders and Trevor Munoz in “An Introduction to Humanities Curation.” As Flanders and Munoz state,

“curation” also carries this dual emphasis: on protection, but also on amelioration, contextualization, and effective exposure to an appropriate set of users (Flanders and Munoz 2012).

Cuneiform texts are especially fragile, and their official curators especially unwilling to share them. The CDLI is a major effort of “amelioration, contextualization, and effective exposure to an appropriate set of users” of what had been very hard-to-access texts. The CDLI carries these tasks out by scanning the texts and using machine-readable code for their transliteration, transcription, annotation and translation. All this data can then be organized into databases to be accessed by researchers. The new i-Pad app that shows a new annotated cuneiform tablet everyday will make the texts available to a wider audience than ever.

Abby Smith’s article “What is Preservation and Why Does it Matter?” is also relevant to the CDLI project. Smith points out that

For the humanities–a field of open-ended inquiry into the nature of humankind and especially of the culture it creates–access to the recorded information and knowledge of the past is absolutely crucial… (Smith 2004)

One of the goals of the CDLI is to make one of the least-accessible parts of the recorded past accessible to as many people as possible. Smith also observes that

Digital technology can enhance the preservation of artifacts by providing superlative surrogates of original sources while at the same time protecting the artifact from overuse (Smith 2004).

The fits the CDLI perfectly, as the digital scans of the fragile cuneiform tablets were a vast improvement over the hand-transcribed copies. This greatly facilitated research on cuneiform texts while preserving the delicate originals from being handled.

I found Professor Englund’s lecture highly interesting, and am glad that digital humanities has expanded the boundaries of cuneiform research so greatly. Soon transliterated, translated, annotated transcriptions of cuneiform texts will be available to anyone with an iPad, a far cry from the days when curators kept their tablets under lock and key. In short, the CDLI is an excellent example of the liberating power of digital technology in the humanities.

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