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Cuneiform bits become history bytes

Looting in Iraq's national museum bolsters an initiative to digitally archive tablets.

May 27, 2003|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

Englund and associates at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, are hoping that the library's funding, from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, will continue so they can keep gathering material for the archive. The library now includes early cuneiform examples from the Yale Babylonian Collection, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and a collection at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose. Next up, completing the documentation of the collection at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. After that, Englund hopes to add the early cuneiform in the Louvre and parts of the British Museum collection.

"We get access to their collections, and they get access to us," says Fitzgerald.

Without such a centralizing effort, which allows for easy comparison and contrast among texts spread around the globe, ancient Mesopotamian history is "almost like an organism missing its synapses," says Englund.

On a recent afternoon at the Gelb Library at UCLA, Englund was lecturing on a tablet, the image of which was projected onto the wall. It was the ancient Near East equivalent of a credit card slip showing the purchase of sheep. He had spent three hours in the hot, dark library pointing out the nitty gritty of the writing system and the text, and a student stifled a yawn.

"Why should we care?" Fitzgerald had asked rhetorically at one point during the afternoon, before providing the answer: "We're reconstructing the history of human endeavor."

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