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
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.