The first cuneiform digital library on the internet

June 27, 2001

Researchers see new possibilities in reconstructing knowledge of early cultures / Cooperation among the Berlin Vorderasiatisches Museum, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The digital edition and internet publication of the early cuneiform documents of the Berlin Vorderasiatisches Museum was completed in mid-June 2001. More than 3200 cuneiform tablets in the storerooms of the museum are now freely available to scientists and museum visitors under the WWW addresses and (in the USA This pioneering work is the result of the joint efforts of the Vorderasiatisches Museum of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (MPIWG), and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The digital library of the Berlin texts is an important milestone on the way to an international "Cuneiform Digital Library," in which worldwide six further museums with significant cuneiform collections are participating. The British journal Nature reported on the cuneiform project and other digitisation efforts of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in its February 1, 2001, edition.

Human cognition develops in close interplay with the form of its written representation. Cuneiform transmission is therefore of great meaning not alone from the perspective of the linguist, but also for disciplines such as the history of science. "Whoever wants to follow and investigate the development of human knowledge back to the beginnings of writing needs an extensive foundation. This foundation includes new source material, new techniques in the treatment of this material and new forms of cooperation beyond institute, indeed beyond national boundaries. I am therefore extremely thankful for this cooperation between our institute and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, since it is not common that museums open their doors in this way," observed Prof. Jürgen Renn, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

The digitisation of the Berlin cuneiform collection, one of the best of its kind in the world, is part of an international project aimed at bringing together in a virtual internet library the administrative archives of the city-states and empires of early Mesopotamia. 4000 years forgotten, the remains of these excavated archives ended up in museums all over the world. Seven of the most important museums are participating in the work of the CDLI-founded by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the University of California at Los Angeles-, including the Parisian Louvre, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Yale Babylonian Collection in New Haven (USA). The CDLI is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), both USA.

Robert K. Englund, Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of the CDLI, is pleased with the success just achieved in Berlin: "The Berlin collection documents the origin of writing better than any other in the world. The tablets illuminate the daily life of a world lost to us for thousands of years, beginning with the urban cultures of the 4th millennium B.C. and culminating in the great empire of the Ur III Dynasty at the end of the 3rd millennium, which united all of Mesopotamia in one administrative whole. We thus gain insights into cultural history reaching well beyond narrow inquiries. This in particular motivates us to create new conditions for interdisciplinary research. The opening of this collection is a first step toward the realization of this goal of our initiative." Prof. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, adds: "We have happily made the collections and expertise of one of our museums available for such a forward looking form of research; in so doing, we believe that we can better do justice to our responsibility as 'treasure-house of human knowledge'.

The digital edition of documents and material such as cuneiform texts is demanding. The form and contents of all cuneiform tablets dating from the origin of the script ca. 3200 B.C. until the end of the 3rd millennium are to be electronically published. Special search and representational techniques must be developed to facilitate work on the content of the more than 120,000 texts. Moreover, much more powerful translation programs than heretofore available will be required. For although cuneiform was deciphered more than 150 years ago, even specialists lack adequate aids in the evaluation of cuneiform literature-not to mention the dilemma of scientists from other disciplines. Lexical and grammatical glossaries are urgently needed, but also an historical reconstruction of the graphic development of cuneiform through time.

In the face of these challenges, the CDLI opted from the beginning for a new form of cooperation among research and cultural institutions: Assyriologists, museum curators, historians of science as well as computer programmers today work together on the internet edition of cuneiform texts. The Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science expect that with the Cuneiform Digital Library not only will new instruments helpful in the understanding of the texts appear, but that heretofore isolated research efforts, such as that geared toward understanding the functioning of the administrative apparatus of early literate culture, will find common ground. For instance, the scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science want to develop typologies in calculation and in the graphic representation of formal accounting transactions, but also comprehensive glossaries with technical terminology and additional translation aids. "We anticipate from this still unusual form of interdisciplinary cooperation a decisive impulse for the further advancement of cuneiform research and the dissemination of our research results-results which have until now been available to only a handful of specialists", said Dr. Joachim Marzahn, curator of the cuneiform collection of the Berlin museum.

In its final form, the Cuneiform Digital Library is meant to contain not just all cuneiform tablets in text and image; diverse tools will also make it possible for scientists from other fields to work with the material. In this way, Assyriologists and Sumerologists will not be the sole winners in this endeavor; they will be joined by linguists, semioticists, historians of cognitive psychology, but also by social scientists engaged in the origins and administration of the first city-states

A cuneiform library in the internet demonstrates that digitisation has come into force in the humanities. Jürgen Renn sees this as a positive development: "As one consequence of new information and communication technologies we are experiencing today the passage from the international exchange of knowledge to the international division of labour in the creation and utilization of knowledge. The growing digitisation of all fields of science has on the one hand threatened us with an explosion of information and the increasing fragmentation of knowledge, yet on the other hand, new chances for a thematically oriented interdisciplinary cooperation are being realized thanks to just such worldwide digitisation projects."

VAT 4874 (=W. Förtsch, VS 14, 48; from Girsu/Tello in southern Iraq, ca. 2370 B.C.)

This text is an administrative document concerning deliveries of three sorts of beer to different recipients (to the palace and to a temple for offerings) and gives the exact quantities of barley and other ingredients used in beer-brewing. Cereal use was credited to the brewer Amar-Giri, a well-known officer of the so-called "House of the Woman (wife of the prince)", a large household of the state of Lagash. The text dates back to the 6th year of prince Lugalanda who ruled about 2370 B.C. in southern Mesopotamia.

VAT 4874 is part of an archive of more than 1700 tablets found during excavations in 1902; it has considerable evidence of the administration of the above mentioned estate. Using this information, it is possible to survey the economic as well as social activities of the household during a time span of about 22 years.

Since all these texts were sold by antiquities dealers, they are presently housed in museums all over the world, making the work on the archive a daunting task for scholars. The accessibility of the material in the internet, however, represents an important aid in scientific research.


20 Nigin-vessels of red-brown beer
- the necessary spelt: 300 liters,
the necessary beer bread: 300 liters,
the necessary malt: 450 liters -
the first time;

20 Nigin-vessels of red-brown beer
- the necessary spelt: 300 liters,
the necessary beer bread: 300 liters,
the necessary malt: 450 liters -
the second time, (the brewer) delivered it to the palace.

10 Nigin-vessels of pressed beer
- the necessary spelt: 110 liters,
the necessary beer bread: 110 liters,
the necessary malt: 150 liters -
were brought away for the festival
"Malt-meal of the goddess Nanshe".

VAT 9128 (=A. Deimel, Schultexte aus Fara 77; from Shuruppak/Fara in southern Iraq, ca. 2600 B.C.)

Examples of the columns two and four-five:

ama-tu gan-gar



This cuneiform text dating to ca. 2600 B.C. comes from the area of a scribal school of the city-state Shuruppak (modern name: Fara) in southern Mesopotamia. It contains an extensive list of Sumerian homophones. This text very likely derives from an exercise of dictation in which it was essential to clearly differentiate between such homophonic values. The main features of classification are consonant and vowel alteration, vowel harmony as well as phonemic duplication achieved by using particularly difficult words.

Evidently produced to deepen the education of higher officers, or of scribes charged with editing literary compositions, this text offers the modern philologist some significant information concerning, for instance, the grammatically important loss of final syllables or the form of words in various dialects.

On the reverse, the tablet exhibits drawings lacking any clear connection to the text itself. They are probably a part of a different, now unknown exercise of the ancient scribe.
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Person responsible for contents:
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Biology, Medicine:
Dr. Christina Beck (-1306)
Walter Frese (-1272)

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ISSN 0170-4656

For further information:

Dr. Peter Damerow
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin
Phone: 30-2-26-67-1-06
Fax: 30-2-26-67-2-99
Dr. Joachim Marzahn
Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin
Phone: 30-20-90-53-04
Fax: 30-20-90-53-02


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