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The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and the History of Decipherment


The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI)

The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) represents the ongoing efforts of an international group of Assyriologists, museum curators and historians of science to make freely available through the internet images and content of cuneiform tablets dating from the beginning of writing, ca. 3350 BC, until the end of the pre-Christian era. We estimate the number of these documents currently kept in public and private collections to exceed 500,000 exemplars, of which now more than 175,000 have been catalogued in electronic form by the CDLI.

In its early phases of research, the project concentrated on the digital documentation of the least understood archives of ancient cuneiform, those of the final third of the 4th, and of the entire 3rd millennium BC that contained texts in Sumerian, in early Akkadian and in other, still undeciphered languages. For despite the 150 years since the decipherment of cuneiform, and the 100 years since Sumerian documents of the 3rd millennium BC from southern Babylonia were first published, such basic research tools as a reliable paleography charting the graphic development of archaic cuneiform, and a lexical and grammatical glossary of the approximately 120,000 texts inscribed during this period of early state formation, remain unavailable even to specialists, not to mention scholars from other disciplines to whom these earliest sources on social development represent an extraordinary hidden treasure.

The CDLI, directed by Robert K. Englund of the University of California at Los Angeles and Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, is pursuing the systematic digital documentation and electronic publication of all cuneiform inscriptions, with special attention paid to these 4th and 3rd millennium sources, but with increasing resources devoted to the entire cuneiform text corpus bearing witness to 3500 years of human history. Cooperative partners include leading experts from the field of Assyriology, curators of European and American museums, and computer specialists in text markup.

The CDLI data set consist of text and image, combining document transliterations, text glossaries and digitized originals and photo archives of early cuneiform. At present, the online catalog of the CDLI contains more than 175,000 catalog entries with information about tablets of the third millennium B.C., more than 16,000 digital images of these tablets, more than 41.000 hand copies, and more than 56,000 transliterations are accessible through the CDLI web site. This electronic documentation should be of particular interest to cuneiform scholars distant from collections, and to museum personnel intent on archiving and preserving fragile and often decaying cuneiform collections.

The Cuneiform Tablet Collection of the Catholic Institute of Paris

Within the framework of an agreement of cooperation signed by the Institut Catholique de Paris (icp) and the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) on May 22, 2002, Bertrand Lafont, Directeur de Recherche at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, Paris), and Jacob Dahl of the CDLI staff at the University of California at Los Angeles were given direct access to the full cuneiform collection of the icp. With the support of icp staff, Lafont and Dahl proceeded to scan the collection in June of 2002 following procedures discussed in the methods pages of the CDLI, and have since then completed cataloguing and transliteration collations of all texts. The icp and the CDLI are privileged to present in these pages the first of a series of planned online data sets documenting all accessible cuneiform collections in public and private hands in France.
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