A Useful Assyriology Tool

February 25, 2007 at 1:01 pm (Computers, Dissertation, Education, Languages)

Since I started this blog, I’ve been throwing around alternative career ideas for myself, besides straight Assyriology. One of the ones that I’ve found appealing of late is travel-writing, because (a) I’d like to think that I’m a decent writer when I set my mind to it, and (b) I do like to travel. Of course, it’s hard to make a living at that, so it would just be a “side” gig, that I’d do in addition to some other job that lets me work from home and/or otherwise control my schedule. However, in order to do this, I’d need a computer so that I could write and blog easily on the road (I know, I could use a pencil and paper, but I edit a lot, and a computer just makes that more efficient). Now, the UCLA Bookstore has a deal on Apple Macbooks where you get a $1300 computer for $1000, which is a pretty good deal. However, to really justify that expense, I figure I’d have to start using it for school and other work, as well as my writing, which got me thinking about what the ideal computer setup for translating cuneiform texts would be…

I couldn’t have a bunch of programs open at the same time, because then I’d have to keep flipping through windows or resizing panes, and I want to be able to see the text at the same time as I write my notes. So, I’d have to come up with a single-screen, multi-panel layout. There are basically three parts to working on a text: the images of the text itself, the reference manuals/tools consulted, and the edition and translation of the text, so that suggests already a three-panel layout, in which the image of the text is in the top left, the top right would give me access to a whole set of digital reference tools, and the bottom part would have a text entry space where I could type in my transliteration, transcription and translation.

The image window would potentially be pretty small, since I’m looking at a 13″ laptop. So, I would need to be able to scroll both horizontally and vertically around a larger image, and adjust my magnification, both easily solvable using scroll bars and a magnification control in one corner. In case I had more than one image (say, a drawing and a photograph), I’d want tabs so that I could flip between the images, but my position on each image would need to be saved, so that I’d see the same location when I flipped back. And, I’d want to be able to either add images from my harddrive or automatically download images from the CDLI, when relevant, and have those same images still associated with that texts if I saved my work and came back to it later.

The text entry window, along the bottom, would let me type in a transliteration of the various signs. I would be able to select sets of signs and “tag” them as being particular forms of a particular word, basically keeping notes as I go. I could also provide an interlinear translation, which would be saved along with the transliteration, and could be made visible or invisible with the click of a button. Since I’m a firm believer in the power of networks and open-source resources, I would want to be able to not only save this data to my own harddrive, but to also upload it (via the click of a button) to a webserver, say, the CDLI server, were it would be stored in case anyone else wanted to look at that text. Each user would have their own account, which would be rated according to their expertise and experience; there would be both “official” ratings, and individual users could set their own personal ratings, in case they preferred a particular scholar’s editions. Later users, looking for editions of texts on that website, could either download the data or access it dynamically, and they’d be able to filter the editions that they would see by user rating, if they wanted to.

I imagine teams of cuneiformists populating this online database with hundreds of texts a day. After a year or two of cuneiform training, students (whether undergrads or retirees) could begin uploading their own editions of simpler texts, which could be quickly checked by a more experienced scholar. This scholar’s edits would have the scholar’s user rating, but the primary edition itself would have the initial creator’s user name associated with it, giving them credit for their work. In my imagination, cuneiform studies would explode as amateur scholars contributed small amounts of time and, as a group, achieved dramatic results.

The reference window, however, is, to me, the most exciting part of the tool, and what properly enables the above-described fantasy. Certain, this panel would need to provide access (again, via tabs, probably) to digital versions of the standard text references, such as AHW, ePSD, a signlist and a grammar reference for both Akkadian and Sumerian. However, there would be an additional tab, a tool powered by the tags that users would provide for the individual words in their transliterations, as described above. This tool would plug into the online signlist and the database of tags and, as the user filled in signs in the transliterations, would list all of the possible sign combinations, with the most likely (based on their appearance in the database of tagged combinations corresponding to actual words) rising to the top or otherwise being highlighted. If signs were missing, this tool could even suggest possible reconstructions, based on the remaining signs and parallels within the database of tags. Of course, the suggested sign values would also take into account the date, provenience and genre of the text, which could be easily edited or downloaded automatically from the CDLI database.

With this tool, my dream of armies of amateur Assyriologists really would become possible. As more and more data was added to the database, the level of skill required to prepare at least partial editions of texts would drop dramatically, freeing up the professional scholars to focus on the most difficult parts or texts, while still making the easier texts available to the wider public. The different parts of the text edition could be listed as complete or incomplete, giving users the ability to search for texts on which work was still necessary. Vandalism would be limited by making each new account a ‘trial’ account for a particular period of time or number of editions, in which case each edition or edit provided would need to be approved by a higher-ranked ‘editor’ before being added to the online database. This would hopefully keep people without any Assyriological training from randomly editing content. Further, accounts could be disabled and their edits could be deleted or ‘archived,’ if necessary.

This tool would require a lot of work, obviously. The hardest part, I imagine, would be creating the reference tools. Not only will all of the reference data need to be online, but it will need to be downloadable and the window interfaces will need to be developed. Someone (probably me) would have to type all of Labat and von Soden, or the equivalent (i.e., Cale and me creating our own online grammar). Further, we’d have to develop the whole database structure before we started digitizing the reference tools, since I envision the tools interacting with the tag database. The tag database and editions with user accounts could hopefully be adapted from existing wikis, etc., so the production costs would be lower. Finally, I expect that there would be a lot of resistance from the establishment, who would object to letting “anyone” produce their own editions of texts. However, I think that the practical limitations, specifically, the likelihood that they’d focus on simpler texts, such as economic documents, would gradually wear down the establishment’s resistance. Now, I just need to find the money…


  1. marystan said,

    Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, look out!

  2. Jim Wagner said,

    Thirty-five years ago I did a course in cuneiform (Akkadian) as part of my M.Div.

    Just recently, I’ve been going at it again ABZU has a whole lot of stuff, including published versions of a whole lot of things in the British Museum, and then there’s the “Annals of the Kings of Assyria,” as well.

    I’m curious if you could direct me to a published version of the Taylor Prism (sometimes called Sennacherib’s Prism; or is it the other way round?)



  3. a,h, said,

    I am interested in helping you develop this tool. Email me for more details.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: