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Volume 51, Number 2March/April 2000

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Sumerians on the Information Superhighway

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Eric Haase

"Here, look at this!" exclaims Sumerologist Åke Sjöberg at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He plops into my hand a clay tablet from Nippur, a long-vanished city in what is now the southern part of Iraq. Flat on one side and slightly convex on the other, impressed front and back with rows of a wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, the tablet was obviously meant to be easily held—and read. It recounts what's probably the original Paradise story. To the untutored eye, the writing looks much more like bird tracks than words. But for Sjöberg, translating it comes naturally. A Swede with a bubbling sense of humor and a life-long love of languages, he's co-editor of the Sumerian Dictionary project in the university's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, a job he shares with Dr. Steve Tinney, curator of the museum's tablet collection.

Tinney is spearheading a unique effort to marry old and new by making the slowly growing, immensely detailed dictionary available on the information superhighway at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/psd . The Sumerians, a Mesopotamian some 5200 years ago, would no doubt be pleased: The World Wide Web is only the latest manifestation of the information-technology revolution that they began.

Despite the dictionary project's new high-tech aspect, it remains the hands-on operation it has been for almost a quarter-century. In fact, what Tinney calls the "down and dirty" job of writing the dictionary is far beyond the capabilities of any computer translation program known or contemplated. It requires a select team of faculty and post-graduate scholars to tackle word after word in sentence after sentence, not only reading 150 years' worth of published translations of Sumerian inscriptions but re-reading the ancient tablets themselves in a campaign to glean every nuance from them. Like the making of any dictionary, it's a distinctly human effort that requires skill, imagination and time—and a vast, intensely specialized knowledge.

After 24 years of work, the project team has completed about one sixth of the 18-letter, romanized alphabet Sumerologists use to transliterate the language. An initial version of the dictionary should be done "within five to 10 years," Tinney estimates, and then the team will go on to publish "a completely exhaustive treatment." This represents a shift in strategy from the initial stages of the project, when the team fully completed one letter before moving on to the next.

The Tablet Room in the museum's Babylonian section lies at the heart of the project. Locked behind a wire-mesh door—dorned with a sign that warns "Do Not Feed the Assyriologists"—it contains some 30,000 clay tablets and fragments of tablets, tagged like exotic butterflies, tucked away in drawers or lying on table-tops. The tablets represent what most scholars believe is the world's oldest written language, probably predating Egyptian hieroglyphics by several hundred years. The collection is the second-largest in the United States, after that of Yale University, and it contains the world's biggest grouping of prize literary tablets.

Sjöberg started his own collection of Sumerian definitions in 1949. It resides on some 600,000 A7 (3x5") note cards, and it figures importantly in the project. Furthermore, outside experts, drawing on cuneiform tablet collections in the British Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul, the Iraq Museum, the Louvre and the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, as well as in major US institutions, are playing important parts in the effort to unlock the Sumerians' language.

Cuneiform script was created around 3200 BC in cities on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, probably as a basic accounting tool, beginning with sketches of actual objects and number symbols tallying an owner's assets. Yet within 500 years, it was being used in literary texts and letters, and by 1800 lie there is evidence aplenty of stories, laments for lost cities, law codes, recipes and homework assignments—all written in cuneiform.

But scholars have long lacked a definitive reference tool with which to focus their work on the corpus of Sumerian tablets. Like Sjöberg, students in the past have had to spend years compiling their own specialized dictionaries before they could start—rather like a journeyman carpenter being required to craft his own tools before he can build his first house. "We're laying down the first base document of Sumerian definitions [to] free scholars to concentrate on the broader literary, historical and anthropological questions that humanists ask of all civilizations," explains Tinney.

The evolution of cuneiform from simple pictographs representing sheep, say, or sheaves of grain, to a script capable of sublime literary expression actually occurred lightning fast. "It happened in virtually a fraction of a second," says Dr. Erie Leichty, professor of Assyriology and the curator of Akkadian language and literature at the museum. Leichty started the dictionary project with Sjöberg in 1976. "From the very beginning, scribes created lexical texts. They didn't want to sit there and talk about sheep all the time."

The Sumerian language flourished for some 1500 years and, even after it was eclipsed, continued to be studied and written by scribes whose peoples—Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians—had adapted cuneiform script to express their own tongues. The last known cuneiform inscription was written some 1900 years ago, late in the first century of our era. Then the script was finally lost to memory, buried in the tells of vanished cities that dot Mesopotamia.

The art of reading cuneiform was not relearned until around 1850. (See Aramco World, January/February 1971.) And it wasn't until the 1870's—after numerous tablets bearing Sumerian inscriptions had been unearthed in Iraq—that the language was fully recognized by scholars, and the long-dead people that had spoken it began to regain their voices and tell their stories to modern ears.

The Sumerian Dictionary and the Tablet Room itself are playing vital roles in that process. Although not on public display, the museum's collection is wide open to scholars from around the globe, and a dozen or so visit in any given year to work. When I arrived, a post-doctoral researcher from Oxford University was completing a study of Sumerian mathematical tablets, and a professor from a university in Changchun, in northeast China, was starting a two-year assignment on the dictionary project.

The tablet resting in my hand dates to around 1800 BC and provides one of the earliest known accounts of the Garden of Eden. Sjöberg reads from it, describing Dilmun, a land—firmly identified as today's Bahrain, just off the east coast of Saudi Arabia—where "the lion makes no kill, the wolf snatches no lamb," and where no one grows old. Then Enki, the god of the abyss, or abzu in Sumerian, nibbles forbidden plants from the garden of the earth-goddess Ninhursaga and is severely punished for his deed.

"Physical contact with the tablets is quite important, even if they are already published" says Sjöberg. "Deciphering words is a hell of a problem. You have to have very trained eyes to read a tablet correctly, especially when it's a little destroyed on the surface. We couldn't do without the tablets themselves. When we take out the original sometimes we see completely new things."

The tale of Enki and Ninhursaga, of course, is similar to the Paradise stories in the Bible and the Qur'an. The stories of creation and the great flood also have precedents in Sumerian literature. The flood story, for example, figures in the tale of Gilgamesh, a hero who sets off on a journey to find life everlasting. After traveling to Dil-mun to meet Ziusudra, the survivor of the flood, he gains immortality in the shape of a flowering plant, only to lose it—it is carried off by a chameleon—when he falls asleep. He returns home to Uruk a chastened man, eager to live his normal, mortal lifespan as fully as possible. (See Aramco World, July/ August 1983, May/June 1996.)

Sjöberg says that the creature that steals Gilgamesh's immortality in the fable—nesh gaggari or "earth lion"—is traditionally translated as "snake," but its real meaning is "chameleon." Edin, meaning "a plain," is one of a handful of Sumerian words that have come into English, along with absu, "an offshore fresh-water spring," which became abyss, and acre, meaning arable land.

Much of the University of Pennsylvania's tablet collection comes from its work in Mesopotamia, starting with a dig in 1889— the first expedition to the region by an American institution. After a rocky start, and the death of one team member, expedition leader Hermann Hilprecht hit pay dirt: The initial site selected proved to be Nippur— a holy city of the Sumerians and Akkadians.

By 1900, Hilprecht had excavated some 60,000 tablets found in the city's library, finds which were shared with sponsoring authorities in Istanbul. Tablets from Nippur now also reside at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany—a gift of Hil-precht's wife. The tablets included "school lessons, multiplication tables, king lists, astronomical records, legal documents, hymns and epic tales," relates Brian Fagan in Archaeology magazine, and they illuminated aspects of Sumerian life and culture like a thousand little beams of light. The university began to publish translations of its discoveries as early as 1893 and took part in four digs in Nippur before going on to participate in one of the most famous Mesopotamian expeditions of all time—that of Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur in the 1920's. Fruits of that expedition, including the famous golden mask of a long-dead king, are highlights of the museum's public collection.

A number of the tablets from Nippur, some bearing thumbprints and even tooth-marks, offer glimpses into schooldays gone by. Scribal schools—there was no other kind—"were limited to upper-class children, and they probably had to pay," explains Sjöberg. "We think the thumbprints were left when the teacher smoothed out the clay to erase a word a student wrote incorrectly." No one is certain why one tablet was bitten in half, but students' written complaints of harsh discipline are well known, and perhaps there is a connection. For those who graduated, the payoff was great in a society of which they were just about the only literate members. But the school examinations were apparently severe. "Do you know multiplication, reciprocals, coefficients, balancing of accounts, how to make all kinds of pay allotments, divide property and delimit shares of fields?" asks Sjöberg, quoting a bilingual Sumerian-Akkadi-an tablet that lists a math curriculum.

The dictionary project grew not only from Hilprecht's work, but also that of Samuel Noah Kramer, a renowned University of Pennsylvania Sumerologist who spent more than 50 years expanding the world's knowledge of the Sumerians. (See Aramco World, September/October 1979.) His books History Begins With Sumer and The Sumerians remain fascinating reference works for laymen and specialists alike, still in print long after their publication. "Be he philosopher or teacher, historian or poet, lawyer or reformer, statesman or politician, it is likely that modern man will find his prototype and counterpart in ancient Sumer," wrote Kramer. When he retired as curator of the tablet collection in 1968, Sjöberg took over, to be followed by Tinney in 1996.

Early on, Kramer laid down a strong argument for deciphering Sumerian. The literary texts, he wrote, "compare not too unfavorably with the ancient Greek and Hebrew masterpieces and, like them, mirror the spiritual and intellectual life of an ancient culture which would otherwise have remained largely unknown.... It is not too much to predict that the recovery and restoration of this ancient and long-forgotten literature will turn out to be a major contribution to our century to the humanities."

The dictionary, part of that contribution, is nothing if not comprehensive. It aims not only to define every Sumerian word but, like the Oxford English Dictionary, cite each word in every known context in which it has been used. Members of the team read tablets, review previously published information and prepare extensive entries for each word they're assigned. Then they discuss their drafts to reach a consensus. If they cannot agree, the editors make the call.

Even after that, outside experts review the drafts. And—like the schoolmasters of five millennia ago—they sometimes leave their own modern-day "thumbprints" or "bites." "Sometimes they write very nasty notes back," says Sjöberg with a chuckle, "such as 'When I read your article, I got a heart attack and I had to call an ambulance,' or 'Boys, get out of your caves.'" Such criticism often amounts to no more than erudite kidding. But it's easy to see why conflicting judgments might arise, both inside and outside the Tablet Room. Sumerian is so complex it makes English look like child's play.

"Sumerian is a very difficult and obtuse language," says Tinney. "It has no relatives, living or dead. The script is not syllabic, let alone alphabetic—it's logographic, like Chinese."

"The language consists of a repetition of signs, 600 common ones and 2000 or so if you add the obscure ones. Handwritings differed and sign values changed over time, and a given sign might have eight or nine different meanings. There is no punctuation and no space between the words. There are strings of signs with hundreds of possibilities. To cope, you need a mind that rapidly sorts out all the possibilities and picks the right one. Reading Sumerian is an art." The origins of the Sumerians themselves are purely hypothetical. There is a general belief, however, that they arrived in Mesopotamia from the mountains to the east about 3500 BC. And it's clear from archeological digs that they found already settled Semitic peoples there and prospered among them.

They certainly weren't laggards when it came to invention. Along with writing, the Sumerians invented the arch and wheeled vehicles. They used the sexagesimal system of numbers that is still reflected in our 60-minute hour and 360-degree circle. And they traded far and wide —indeed, the need to keep track of their accounts may well have sparked the development of the cuneiform script.

Writing probably developed as cities grew and commerce reached such a level of sophistication that record-keeping required more memory than the human mind could provide. "Writing just pops up at one point, with a number of other factors associated with large population," notes Tinney. Scribes found the raw materials for writing at their fingertips: Fine clay from the river-banks served as the canvas upon which a sharpened reed from the marshes could draw. Hardened in the sun, clay tablets proved long-lasting; baked, they were virtually indestructible.

In fact, there are more cuneiform tablets extant today than medieval manuscripts, though the tablets are nearly 10 times older. Of the thousands of tablets recovered, just one percent have been read, notes Leichty, and there are "millions" more to be unearthed. The vast majority in the University of Pennsylvania Museum are dry commercial documents. "It's as if all the merchants in Philadelphia had saved a week's worth of receipts and dumped them here," says Leichty. But there are also timeless tales like those of Gilgamesh, and Enki and Ninhur-saga, in the collection, along with mathematical, astronomical and agricultural tablets.

"The European concept that everything began with the Greeks is ridiculous," argues Leichty. "These people are our roots. They are the roots of everybody. By learning more about the Sumerians we can learn more about ourselves."

Even Dr. Wu Yuhong, the Chinese scholar seconded to the project, agrees. "All societies come from the ancient world. If we want to understand the modern civilizations, we should know how they developed," he says. "Mesopotamia influenced China as well as the West. In the first century, Buddhists entered China, bringing some of the Babylonian civilization in the form of stone lions. That's when we began to have temples decorated with statues."

The dictionary has already opened scholars' eyes. "You could write a skeletal description of much of Sumerian culture from this volume alone," writes Brian Fagan in his review of the letter B. "In a sense, this dictionary takes the place of a living informant..." He cites the word bansur, meaning tray or table, as an example. It meant the object, but also the meal served on it, and gold- and silver-inlaid tables were used in temples. "The owners of tables ate fattened oxen and sheep and washed their meals down with beer and honey mixed with dates. They enjoyed several kinds of bread, cheese and sweetmeats made with ghee [clarified butter]," he notes.

The third and latest volume of the letter A, published in mid-1999, defines key words whose sounds reverberate in many languages to the present day. These include ad-da for "father" and ama for "mother."

The project remains a labor of love for both its founders. "It's healthy to have this project going on. It's good for the students. It keeps things fertile," Leichty says. Sjöberg, 76, continues to come to his office five days a week despite retiring from most other university duties in 1996. Leichty, who's a decade younger, reckons he'll stay on the job at least through this year. Before retiring, he wants to be certain the work will continue.

If the past is any indication of the future, it will. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which kicked off the project with a grant in 1976, remains a key source of funding, with its investment to 2001 averaging $100,000 a year. The project also currently receives matching funding from the university, as well as important private donations.

In addition to the earlier-completed volume for the letter B, the dictionary team intends to have finished the fourth and final volume of the letter A by the end of the current two-year grant cycle in 2001. It will also have completed a draft of the letter L, and will have embarked on the letter H. That leaves 14 letters outstanding, making the projected schedule, which calls for wrapping up the project by 2019, seem very ambitious.

The team aims to make finished sections of the dictionary available on its web site, including regular updates of material already published, advance texts of articles in progress, and the bulk of the data on which the dictionary is based. Paradoxically, this may ensure that—electronically, at least—the project will never be completed, as more tablets are read by Sumerologists around the world, more discoveries are made by archeologists, and new material is incorporated. Indeed, there is a proposal to try to obtain an endowment that will allow the museum to support a resident scholar who will be charged full-time with keeping the dictionary up to date.

"I'd love to talk to the Sumerians," Leichty says. "They were a highly sophisticated society, and I'd like to understand them a bit better." He and many others— scholars and laymen alike—may have that chance, as the rest of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary gets ready to roll off the presses and down the information superhighway.

Arthur Clark , a longtime resident of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, loves the written word. This story, one of many he's written for Aramco World , allowed him to study how it began.

Eric Haase is a free-lance photographer who lives in Rockville, Maryland.

This article appeared on pages 20-25 of the March/April 2000 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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