IMAGES: Feat of Clay

Science  30 Nov 2001:
Vol. 294, Issue 5548, pp. 1795
DOI: 10.1126/science.294.5548.1795a

Studying cuneiform, the earliest form of writing, has meant jetting all over the world to pick through far-flung, fragmentary collections. The logistical difficulties have hampered research on cuneiform and ancient languages such as Sumerian, says Robert Englund of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Now the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), a collaboration between UCLA and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, is building a massive cybermuseum that will give scholars access to much of the world's early cuneiform. Made by incising damp clay with a reed, cuneiform was used across the Near East for more than 3000 years. Available now are high-quality photos of some 3000 pieces belonging to the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. By 2003, CDLI will have posted caches from other museums that make up about half of the 120,000 known cuneiform tablets from the first millennium or so of writing (about 3200 B.C. to 2000 B.C.).

According to Englund, CDLI's co-director, most examples are the ancient equivalents of “those slips of paper you pull out of your pocket at the end of the day,” such as bills and receipts. But these quotidian records tell us much more about ordinary life at the time than official accounts do, he says.

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