From Banning to Changchun: Cuneiform Studies Online, Today and Tomorrow

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By: Robert K. Englund

Paper publication of cuneiform artifact photographs has not progressed much since I was a graduate student in Germany in the 1980s. Instead, the advent of web-based text documentation has resulted in the availability, to cuneiform researchers and others, of imposing numbers of images of decidedly higher quality than those cited by Dietz Edzard in his now famous Reallexikon der Assyriologiearticle, “Keilschrift.” More than that, digital facsimiles of such artifacts are now within reach of any young scholar in Changchun, no less than of retirees in Banning, California who can get hold of a computer with internet access. Where are these efforts going?

Cuneiform tablet case impressed with four cylinder seals. Metropolitan Museum  86.11.214b

Cuneiform tablet case impressed with four cylinder seals. Metropolitan Museum 86.11.214b

The first to commit to this effort at electronic dissemination were the members of the project “Archaic Texts from Uruk” (ATU), led by Hans Nissen and supported by Berlin’s Free University and the German Research Association on the one hand, and the Max Planck Institutes for Human Development (MPIB) and the History of Science (MPIWG) on the other. The major collections collaborators of these early open access enthusiasts were, consequently, the Vorderasiatisches Museum and the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, the Uruk collection of the University of Heidelberg, and the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. The core data of that project went online in 1995 at a now long expired MPIB web address.

Archaic text from Uruk, MSVO 3, no. 1, now on permanent loan by the State of Berlin to the Vorderasiatisches Museum.

Archaic text from Uruk, MSVO 3, no. 1, now on permanent loan by the State of Berlin to the Vorderasiatisches Museum.

Subsequently, the methods of digital capture developed by ATU, and all project files, flowed into a new collaboration conceived by MPIWG research associate Peter Damerow, University of Pennsylvania Sumerologist Stephen Tinney and myself following my move to UCLA, and Steve’s appointment at Penn in 1996. In 1998 and 1999, we submitted applications to the joint National Science Foundation/National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Library Initiative under the title “Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative” (CDLI) and were funded in 2000. Since then the CDLI has, after several generations of content management programs and web server software, grown in both size and stability. Due to generous support from the NSF/NEH, from the IMLS, and, in the past six years, from the Mellon Foundation, our datasets now offer free web access to over 310,000 text artifacts in some form, of these about 140,000 accompanied by image files, and some 104,000 by transliterations (as of February 2015). Further, CDLI hosts three online journals  that themselves hyperlink to the stable URLs assigned to all entered texts, thus offering the specialist community an unprecedented primary text reference apparatus. Given the expanding access to cuneiform artifacts and their text content additionally offered by the Madrid-based Database of Neo-Sumerian Texts (BDTNS) and the Oracc consortium, we find that only Classics and the flagship Perseus Digital Library have open access-oriented online research tools in the Humanities that are comparable to Assyriology.

In the past fifteen years, CDLI has thus enjoyed remarkable success as a respository of core data for specialist, as well as informal learner research in cuneiform studies—while at the same time ensuring digital preservation of all collections to which we have been granted access. Nevertheless, there have been points of contention; with specialists concerning textual presentation, and with collections management staff concerning imaging and access. Documentation of unprovenienced artifacts has been particularly debated among cultural heritage proponents, notably members of the archaeological community who, naturally enough, are committed to the defense of artifactual assemblages in countries of origin.

A well-curated Old Babylonian seal of Adda-mušallim in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (IMJ 76.17.1656).

A well-curated Old Babylonian seal of Adda-mušallim in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (IMJ 76.17.1656).

Some criticism is understandable. We have added various levels of text annotation that appear to extend beyond our core archival tasks, indeed with some overlap with Oracc projects. For instance, we have pages dedicated to Mesopotamian royal inscriptions, including separately for the reliefs of Assurnasirpal II’s Nimrud palace pages with versions of all texts liable to duplication in scribal schools, and others for seals and sealing. But we generally underscore that their ultimate purpose lies in caring for clean and consistent core content, meaning above all text transliteration in “Canonical ASCII Transliteration Format” (C-ATF).

CDLI transliteration insists on use of simple ASCII, the 128-character subset of UTF-8 (Universal Character Set +Transformational Format–8 bit, capable of encoding all possible characters and now the dominant character encoding for the World Wide Web). But it has met with some resistance in a field occasionally enthralled by fonts and diacritics and Mac ease-of-use. Still, there is no confusion in using simple ASCII transliterations across platforms and systems, once a few simple rules are accepted to generate representations of such special characters, and of course the full UTF-8 character set is employed in all annotation of strict transliteration code. We defend simplification of our data, the choice of our software, now primarily running in MySQL, an open-source relational database management system, and off-the-shelf guidelines in hardware purchase and use. In the end, these simple formats and protocols ensure the transferability of CDLI-generated files and will ultimately ease migration of this project from one generation to the next.

Another criticism, regarding image quality, is often leveled by impressionable colleagues who appear to have just left a 3D sales pitch presented on fast, local computers–invariably colleagues who themselves have never created or processed more than a few mantelpiece digital photos of cuneiform artifacts. But the primary motivation for CDLI images is their use in online research. We are well aware of the failings of flatbed scanning techniques when curved surfaces of larger tablets or other text artifacts do not yield to assembly-line techniques, or where clay surfaces have subtle impressions of one or more cylinder seals.

These latter considerations have inspired the implementation of Reflectance Transformation Imaging in collaboration with other initiatives. The high-resolution static image in figure 1 created by Klaus Wagensonner at Oxford, for instance, can be viewed dynamically with a utility developed by Gianpaolo Palma of the Visual Computing Laboratory, Istituto di Scienza e Tecnologie dell’Informazione, Pisa. We create pathways to data packages, and any image in CDLI can, in an instant, be replaced by a better one.

A static rendering of the dynamically imaged Ur III tablet Ashmolean 1911-197.

A static rendering of the dynamically imaged Ur III tablet Ashmolean 1911-197.

A second point of contention voiced against CDLI is harder, and less understandable. Among the most willing proponents of increasing exposure of Near Eastern artifacts, to name only the larger collections, are the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Semitic Museum at Harvard University in the US, and the Ashmolean and Louvre Museums in Europe. With few exceptions, collections accept the desirability and responsibility for digital capture and dissemination of their artifacts. This is despite the early interest in commercialization from various museums’ copyright and intellectual property officers, and the feeling that digital capture should remain in local hands despite all the financial and technical contraints of museum budgets.

A friendly reception towards digitizing public collections often cools once queries turn to unpublished texts. We do not generally face the level of sensitivity witnessed in the debates on ownership rights to the Qumran texts. But the protectiveness towards unedited text artifacts can be burdensome, particularly since it is difficult to see the downside to disseminating catalogue, images, and in time text transliterations, of artifacts currently residing in museum storerooms.

Many of CDLI’s digital files are little more than raw data created with minimal human input, a far cry from the intellectual process involved in cuneiform research and publication. Protecting such shared world heritage from public view excludes large communities of less privileged specialists from exposure, most notably the communities of cuneiformists from the countries of origin of the artifacts. At the same time, shielding unpublished cuneiform and other texts also removes insightful input from their final scholarly editions. We have even heard the argument that CDLI does a disservice to the field by exposing unpublished texts and therefore thwarting generations of future dissertations! If I were to take a moment to defend the Humanities division at my and other universities, I would say that such small-minded criticism should not come to the attention of administrators debating the future of our ancient studies fields, for instance at this very moment at Yale.

A third and final point of contention has, in my view, never been credible—objections to documenting, and debating, the content of unprovenienced artifacts. The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut–Berlin, and ASOR itself have sought—and apparently still seek—to restrict free access to cuneiform texts based on their suspicious pedigree. Those and other professional bodies, and a good number of philological and archaeological colleagues, believe, whether justifiably or not, that communicating the content of irregularly excavated texts enhances their market value and therefore constitute at least unintentional collaboration with plunderers, or worse, with terrorists whose weapons are purchased with sale of such plunder.

This argument, however, appears malicious, and lacks the dignity we should expect of academic discourse. In my own view, it may be benignly labeled the “Pacific solution”: if ever you find a tablet in your hands that is likely to have derived from illicit excavations in Iraq, then, they seem to be saying, you must look away and toss it into the Pacific Ocean.

David I. Owen is the most prominent senior Assyriologist who has spoken out against this, as he believes, form of petty, anti-academic censorship (more junior colleagues have remained largely silent). Jerry Cooper’s attempt to mediate between the two sides by claiming that the sheer numbers of plundered texts force us to deal with them in academic communications makes no more sense to me than arguing that capital punishment is too expensive; a civilized society simply does not coldly kill human beings, and dreary cultural heritage functionaries do not limit knowledge acquisition—at least not actively in the public square.

If but a single tablet was removed illegally from Iraq after some cut-off point and offered for sale, we must bend to the natural curiosity of active minds, and learn and share its contents without regard to the path that tablet took to London or elsewhere. Consider another scenario: final inventories suggest that the great bulk of antiquities plundered by local citizens from the National Museum in Baghdad in April 2003 consisted of some 5,000 cylinder seals. Imagine that these seals had been digitally preserved and that images and annotations were generally available (which, of course, they are not). Imagine further a young art historian who proposes to deliver a paper at a scholarly meeting on a group of seals photographed at a shop in Bond Street. Who would prohibit such a communication, that itself could potentially lead to identification of some seals still missing from Baghdad? Who would state, the dissemination of such photographs by CDLI merely raises their profile among antiquities dealers?

In all of this, we need not fool ourselves that cuneiform texts represent “whispers from creation.” Though ancient and sometimes mysterious, they are largely documents produced in the course of performing dull administrative, legal or academic duties. But shame be on whoever undertakes to get between the ancient Babylonian scribe and our interested modern learner!

Robert K. Englund is Professor of Assyiology and Sumerology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Director of the Cuneiform Digitial Library Initiative. 


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