A Digital Library for Cuneiform
The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) represents the efforts of an international group of Assyriologists, museum curators and historians of science to make available through the internet the form and content of cuneiform tablets dating from the beginning of writing, ca. 3350 BC, until the end of the pre-Christian era. We estimate the number of these documents currently kept in public and private collections to exceed 500,000 exemplars, of which now nearly 270,000 have been catalogued in electronic form by the CDLI.
In its early phases of research, the project concentrated on the digital documentation of the least understood archives of ancient cuneiform, those of the final third of the 4th, and of the entire 3rd millennium BC that contained texts in Sumerian, in early Akkadian and in other, still undeciphered languages. For despite the 150 years since the decipherment of cuneiform, and the 100 years since Sumerian documents of the 3rd millennium BC from southern Babylonia were first published, such basic research tools as a reliable paleography charting the graphic development of archaic cuneiform, and a lexical and grammatical glossary of the approximately 120,000 texts inscribed during this period of early state formation, remain unavailable even to specialists, not to mention scholars from other disciplines to whom these earliest sources on social development represent an extraordinary hidden treasure. The CDLI, directed by Robert K. Englund of the University of California at Los Angeles and Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, is pursuing the systematic digital documentation and electronic publication of all cuneiform inscriptions, with special attention paid to these 4th and 3rd millennium sources, but with increasing resources devoted to the entire cuneiform text corpus bearing witness to 3500 years of human history. Cooperative partners include leading experts from the field of Assyriology, curators of European and American museums, and computer specialists in text markup. The CDLI data set will consist of text and image, combining document transliterations, text glossaries and digitized originals and photo archives of early cuneiform.
This electronic documentation should be of particular interest to cuneiform scholars distant from collections, and to museum personnel intent on archiving and preserving fragile and often decaying cuneiform collections. An important subset of the data will form the basis for the development of representations of the structure of 3rd millennium administrative and lexical documents, making the contents of the texts accessible to scholars from other disciplines. A typology of accounting procedures, graphical representations of formal structures of bookkeeping documents, and extensive glossaries of technical terms later supplemented by linguistic tools for accessing the primary sources by non-Assyriologists are being developed. Data formats, including Extensible Markup Language (XML) text descriptions, with vector-based image specifications of computer-assisted tablet copies, will be chosen to insure high conformance with ongoing digital library projects. Metadata-based lexemic and grammatical analysis of Sumerian in the CDLI markup environment will not only put at the disposal of specialists in the fields of Assyriology and Sumerology available cuneiform documents from the first thousand years of Babylonian writing, but also general linguists, semioticists, and historians of communication and cognition, of administration and early state formation, will for the first time have access to the form and content of these records.
In an initial three-year phase funded by the Digital Library Initiative of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities for the period 2000-2003, project staff and associates completed the digitization of the early cuneiform collections of the Vorderasiatisches Museum (VAM), Berlin, the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, the Institut Catholique, Paris (ICP), the Hearst Museum of the University of California at Berkeley, and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Dual track internet presentations of these collections (conforming on the one hand with individual museum presentation, on the other with archival data sets of the CDLI) are being implemented incrementally. The ca. 3200 tablets of the VAM, representing one of the finest collections of early cuneiform known to us, with representative text groups from all of the major phases of writing in Mesopotamia, went online in 2001. The following year, the collection of the ICP was presented, and in 2003 both the Hearst and the Hermitage, with its substantial archives of pre-Sargonic Lagash (ca. 2400-2350 BC) and Ur III (ca. 2050-2000 BC) administrative documents, went online, supplemented with searchable data sets of all collections of tablets deriving from the period of proto-cuneiform (ca. 3350-3000 BC). Such research tools as a reliable paleography of the first twelve hundred years of cuneiform, and a lexical and grammatical glossary of the wide-ranging records from the period of early Babylonian history will follow from the cooperative research on these data sets sponsored by the CDLI.
With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services for the period 2004-2006, the CDLI continues to implement scalable access systems for a wide array of users, including researchers, museum staff, internet users, and even law enforcement officials. A proposed online educational component combining the support of the NEH Iraq Initiative and a Learning Federation effort of the Federation of American Scientists fulfills two goals of the CDLI. On the one hand, our resources will provide a rich learning environment for K-12 and advanced students and their families, for whom ancient Iraq can still seem impenetrable. On the other, an interactive, English/Arabic presentation of shared cultural heritage dating back five millennia will assist an Iraqi nation now struggling to re-establish its historical and social unity.