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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
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Fall 2004
From Distant Days
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WHILE MUSEUMS EMBRACE THE IDEA of producing digital facsimiles of delicate, 5,000-year-old tablets as a way of preserving the real articles, for Englund the CDLI is most importantly a research tool. “This allows us to take a full set of cuneiform tablets and make queries that would otherwise tax the capabilities of a genius,” he says. Much of the earliest cuneiform text remains indecipherable, Englund notes; with the CDLI data set, researchers can use linguistic and statistical tools to quickly analyze the many hundreds of thousands of lines of text transcriptions that the project has entered in standardized form.

The questions that can be addressed through the systematic analysis of the cuneiform record are far from esoteric. Englund points out that records of schooling in Mesopotamia are better than any that exist until the Middle Ages. Cuneiform text describes the origins of trade. Those interested in how hierarchical societies develop can consult the administrative record from the end of the third millennium B.C. — again, more illuminating than any written record prior to the Middle Ages.

But at the same time that Englund is pursuing the project’s lofty research goals, he is focused on using CDLI to make the cuneiform record more accessible — both by expanding the base of scholars who can study it, and by reaching non-scholars. “The real beauty of what we can now do electronically is that it breaks down the boundary between our field and others,” he says. Most lessons of world history start in earnest with the early Greeks, with only passing reference to Egypt and Mesopotamia. “If we can make this data more accessible to the broader community, that important conversation between the research and lay community can come to a new consensus about the pre-Christian, pre-Greek stages of history,” Englund says. He and his CDLI colleagues hope to appeal to a lay audience by making the site user-friendly to non-linguists, and through special projects. A proposed online educational component would explore technology-based learning strategies for museums and libraries to use CDLI resources to reach K-12 students and their families.

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