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Diek Veldhuis examines tablets Niek Veldhuis, an assistant professor of Assyriology in UC Berkeley’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, examines ancient cuneiform clay tablets in the basement of Kroeber Hall. (Noah Berger photo)

Clay cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia to be placed online

– As authorities continue to ponder the recent theft in the Middle East of ancient Iraqi antiquities, a University of California, Berkeley, team is scanning a collection of fragile, ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets to share with the world via the Internet.

The latest addition to the international Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative repository represents a significant aid for academic research and vastly expands public access to museum collections, said Niek Veldhuis, an assistant professor of Assyriology in UC Berkeley's Department of Near Eastern Studies.

Also the curator of the Mesopotamian epigraphy at UC Berkeley's Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Veldhuis said the staggering losses at the Iraqi National Museum - with its 170,000 cuneiform tablets - and at the National Library in Baghdad underscore the project's importance.

"With the destruction of so much material in Iraq, there is added significance and awareness that we should guard whatever we have left of Iraqi heritage," he said.

The more than 1,000 clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions at the Hearst Museum document the history of the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians from about 2,600 B.C. to 450 B.C. The collection contains royal inscriptions, administrative notes, a few literary pieces - such as a hymn to a hoe - as well as texts that were copied by school boys for learning the writing system.

The tablets, most purchased by private donors from antiquities dealers, were given to the museum in the first half of the 20th century. They form the largest cuneiform tablet collection west of Chicago.

 Cuneiform tablet
Images like this one, of a clay cuneiform tablet in the Hearst Museum collection, have been placed online through the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. (Photo courtesy Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology)

In the early 20th century, tens of thousands of tablets were found at ancient sites by robbers or sold off at early excavation sites, Veldhuis said. Through the antiquities market, tablets were scattered around the world, ending up in private collections of one to 1,000 tablets and in much larger collections at some public museums or other institutions.

This scattering of information is a frustrating problem for research and particularly acute for tablets from the so-called Ur III period (about 2,100 B.C. to 2,000 B.C.). The Ur III period marked the third time in history that the capital city of Ur (now in southern Iraq) dominated all of what was then the centralized state of Sumeria. From this era, the most prolific time ever for production of cuneiform tablets, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform characters and figures have been preserved. The texts are administrative and bureaucratic in nature and contain a wealth of information on daily life, government and religious practices. The Hearst Museum collection contains about 250 tablets from this period.

Scholars over the last century have taken it upon themselves to record what was on the tablets by publishing line drawings and transliterations of the contents - a task far from complete. These publications appeared in a variety of books and articles, thus scattering the information a second time.

The UC Berkeley Ur III tablets, for instance, were published this way in 1928 by H. Lutz (then professor of Assyriology at UC Berkeley) in a booklet that is now virtually impossible to obtain. Scholars seeking verification of that information or trying to reconcile conflicting evidence have had to see the tablets for themselves.

"It was a difficult and time-consuming task, because the other tablets that you need may be in Alaska or Japan," said Veldhuis. He noted that scholars wanting photos of tablets also have had to pay about $30 per image.

The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative aims to solve these problems while simultaneously preserving ancient history. The project that intends to collect images and transliterations of all Ur III tablets on one website was initiated by Professor R. Englund of UCLA. Three major collections have already been published this way - one in Berlin, one in Paris, and now, the third, at UC Berkeley.

The initiative also is expected to contribute significantly to all aspects of research in Sumerian, including the development of a comprehensive Sumerian sign or grammar list and dictionary.

The procedure is as inexpensive as it is effective: UC Berkeley's participation was made possible by a junior faculty grant of no more than $4,800. A first step in making this possible is the use of an inexpensive scanner to capture images of the tablets with a resolution of 600 dots per inch.

Six images are mounted online to show the front of the tablet, the back and each side. In addition, the website is designed to include the inscriptions' transliteration in Roman alphabet.

John Carnahan, the project research assistant, said the results are "just amazing, they are so legible." The scans produce an image superior to most conventional photographs, he said, and can be blown up to show the grain of the stylus used for writing and sometimes reveal the scribes' fingerprints on the tablets.

The process takes about 10 minutes to scan the tablets and another 10 minutes to assemble and crop the images, Carnahan said.

The last stage is to prepare the transliterations and compare them with previously published versions. "That's much more time consuming," Carnahan said.

Many Ur III tablets are sealed with small, carved, cylindrical seals that were rolled over the wet clay as the equivalent of a modern signature. Sealed documents reflect some special administrative significance, Veldhuis said, although, in the past, the seals were not dealt with seriously or even recorded in publications. The seals in the UC Berkeley collection, usually not included in Lutz's publication, are now available on the scanned images on the Web.

In addition to seals, some tablets were enclosed in a clay "envelope" to further safeguard important information. One such tablet at UC Berkeley reflects a personal loan of silver, Veldhuis said.

Much of the Hearst Museum collection of tablets - heavy on the recording of animal sales and grain purchases - was long considered "kind of garbage can, mundane stuff," said Carnahan. Scholars were more interested in finding tablets that told epic tales and myths.

"This is like excavating an IRS archive," Veldhuis said. "Translation is not the fun of it. The fun of it is finding the patterns and what's going on at an administrative level. It tells you a lot about what makes a society tick, about its social history. And it tells us a lot about our society, and what we take for granted."

Veldhuis isn't about to become complacent about the Hearst Museum's cuneiform collection once it's up on the Web. He said he hopes to raise funds for the next project - conservation of the tablets, many of them crumbling or suffering from salt encrustation.

Veldhuis will make a public presentation about the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative at 12:15 p.m., Thursday, May 8, in the gallery of the Hearst Museum in Kroeber Hall, near the intersection of Bancroft Way and College Avenue. The program is free and open to the public.

The website of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative is http://early-cuneiform.humnet.ucla.edu. Click on the digital library to find pages with the UC Berkeley tablets.

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