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Fall 2004
From Distant Days
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Robert EnglundA UCLA scholar uses modern technology to understand and protect the remnants of an ancient civilization

by Dan Gordon '85
Photograph by Edward Carreon

A MAN WHO HAD PURCHASED an ancient cuneiform tablet for $120 from a private collector in Florida recently approached Robert Englund to ask if the UCLA professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures could help him to better understand the inscription, which depicted two sheep that had been brought into a temple household for slaughter.

That this relic of the earliest known written medium — in this case, some two millennia before the birth of Christ — was bought over the Internet on eBay may strike the casual observer as amusing, if not ironic. But Englund is more taken by the visceral response he noted in the tablet’s new owner.

“To see an attachment between that person and this thing he was holding that was written by some human 4,000 years ago … that’s somehow touching for me,” says Englund, a leading scholar of these clay artifacts of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. “I can’t quite remember what that first experience was like, how foreign it must seem to most people who don’t spend as much time with cuneiform as I do.”

Englund indeed spends a vast amount of time surrounded by bits and pieces of Mesopotamia’s past. He is heading an ambitious international effort to enable systematic analysis of the ancient texts by a broad group of researchers, while also making cuneiform less foreign to the world outside the circle of Assyriologists like himself who study it. He’s employing our most modern media tools — computers and the Internet — in an initiative to preserve and make available the form and content of the half-million excavated cuneiform tablets left behind by ancient peoples from approximately 3350 B.C. through the end of the pre-Christian era.

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