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Fall 2004
From Distant Days
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Alabaster bowl, ca. 2350 B.C.

Photography courtesy of Robert Englund

Section of a large Ur III-period labor account, ca. 2050 B.C., from the collection of the Museum of the Ancient Near East at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Ancient Umma, where this piece was found more than 50 years ago, has been heavily plundered since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The text inventories six laboreres described as "half-time workers."

Rather than breathing a sigh of relief, Englund asserts that anyone interested in a shared world cultural history must think about what might have been and use the incident as a catalyst to digitally capture and preserve all of the most important collections of antiquities. To his dismay, that imperative appears to have returned to the back burner.

Englund and colleagues did receive funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop an online catalogue of the cuneiform collection of the Iraq National Museum, estimated to include at least 40,000 tablets. The project’s goals include development of a Web site with both English and Arabic descriptions of the archived materials and relevant educational data, and a Web-based learning center designed to assist scholars and non-scholars alike — including Iraqi citizens — in gaining a deeper appreciation of the cultural roots that can be traced to the soil of ancient Iraq, where early civilization once flourished.

“We hope to assist Iraqi colleagues in putting up data sets that affect a national image of Iraq which otherwise would be very difficult to keep alive in a country that now seems to be falling apart according to ethnic and religious differences,” Englund says. “If we are successful in our Iraq initiative, we give the world a digital capture of a very important historical collection, but we also provide a means of reaching an Iraqi nation that is just now connecting to the Internet itself.

“On the other side, we are starting to see Iraqis described as savages within the United States, as certain cells within Iraq use the Web to send horrific images of torture visited upon foreigners. In our small way, we can serve a much better function of explaining the intricate, deep history of Iraq and, potentially, fostering a cultural exchange.”

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