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Fall 2004
From Distant Days
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As they were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries, cuneiform tablets made their way to some of the world’s great museums, where their fragility — they have been known to crumble spontaneously — has precluded transportation and, for the most part, limited access to specialists with the dedication and means to travel the world over for their studies.

That began to change not long after Englund, then a research assistant studying the earliest cuneiform tablets while at the Free University of Berlin in the early 1980s, met Peter Damerow, a mathematician at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development, who was, like Englund, interested in advancing cuneiform study by electronically sorting and compiling data from the tablets. “As soon as I saw Damerow, I grabbed hold of him and said, ‘We’re going to work on this together,’ ” Englund recalls.

At the time, Assyriologists’ “computers” were their file cabinets. “Even today, if you go into the offices of most of the people in my field you will see, stacked around the tops of their bookshelves, shoe boxes full of what are effectively pre-electronic files on the cuneiform texts,” Englund says. For their publications, Englund’s colleagues have traditionally gone to a museum, made a hand copy of a cuneiform tablet and combined it with a text description and interpretation. “I don’t have a very good hand for that,” Englund quips.

What Englund and Damerow started on a mainframe computer evolved, with the advent of the World Wide Web and initial funding from the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, into much more. The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (www.cdli.ucla.edu), with Englund and Damerow as principal investigators, was established in 2000 as an international collaboration of Assyriologists, museum curators, historians of science and information-technology specialists whose mission is to digitally capture and disseminate online three millennia’s worth of cuneiform tablets. Approximately 100,000 cuneiform documents have been catalogued thus far.

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