University of Pennsylvania
December 5, 1995
Volume 42 Number 14
Rose Term Chair for Dr. Bernstein;
Agenda for Excellence: Call for Input by December 8;
Death of Margaret Allan
Provost's Seminar Fund;
Penn's Way & Why
Death of Dr. Leberman
Orientation of New Staff;
PPSA Session on 'Workplace';
Of Record: Revised Policy on Discontinuation of Positions
Modem Pool: Growth and Concern;
OF RECORD: Closing Policy
Undergraduate Research on the Quality of Political Discourse
Unzipping the Red Sea's Origins
Human Resources: A New Compass Q & A
Video Art: Between Art and TV
Technology Transfer at Work
Undergraduate Scholarship Dinner
From the A-3's: A Bazaar and Aquarium Tickets
An African Bazaar
Caterers on the Web
Shopping Around Campus
Operation Santa Claus
Holiday Toy/Food Drive
Crime Alert, CrimeStats, Update
The Sumerians and Us (Rodin)
Operating Budget of the University, FY 1995-96
(Copyright The University Museum, Neg. #S8-6525.)
The two tablets shown here were found by at Nippur in the late 1880s in a Museum expedition led by John Henry Haynes and Dr. Hermann V. Hilprecht. The richness of Penn's collection inspired generations of scholars including the leaders of the Sumerian Dictionary Project, Dr. Ake Sjoberg and Dr. Erle Leichty.
[Above is] a fragment known as the Deluge Tablet (c. 2000 B.C.) gives an account of the Creation and the founding of the principal cities of Babylonia, then tells of the Deluge in which the hero Gilgamesh emerged.
[At top are] the 15 medical prescriptions inscribed on a single tablet (c. 1200 B.C.) are the earliest known examples of written prescriptions.
Photographs courtesy of the University Museum, used by permission.
What you have seen as you wended your way through the Museum's Chinese Rotunda and in this, the Upper Egyptian Gallery, is an extraordinary collection of art and artifacts from those two cultures. What you won't see, but probably appreciate intuitively, is the century- long work of hundreds of Penn faculty and graduate students, whose efforts to discover, analyze, interpret, catalogue, preserve, and present these and other cultures have made them available and comprehensible to us and to generations of scholars, students, and visitors. In many respects, Penn's Department of Anthropology, housed here in the University Museum, has led the way in establishing these markers of our civilization, and of our place in it.
One floor below this room lies the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies' Babylonian Section, where Penn faculty and students are engaged in a project--translating the Sumerian tablets--that has captivated me. It epitomizes the unity and synergy among teaching, research, and graduate training at this and at other great research universities.
Creating the Sumerian Dictionary--the only, and therefore the definitive dictionary of the first written language--is, like most faculty enterprises, a labor of love. The painstaking process of deciphering and codifying wedge-shaped symbols produced by scribes on clay tablets 5000 years ago in the lower Tigris and Euphrates Valley, and of interpreting and translating a language with no modern antecedents, began at Penn in 1976, with support from the NEH. In 1984 the first volume, representing the letter 'B'--chosen because of the relative paucity of Sumerian words beginning with that letter--was published by the University Museum. Suffice it to say that it has not outsold Webster's. Two volumes of the more ubiquitous letter 'A' have been published since, with a third to follow next year. That leaves 15 more letters and about 20 years to go.
The work of creating the Sumerian Dictionary is of manifold significance, both for fundamental research and scholarship about ancient cultures, and for expanding our horizons about the means and patterns of symbolic communication. As a result, our academic colleagues, and the world, now know far more than ever before--but still not enough--about the workings of a complex and highly sophisticated civilization:
The insights gained from this research have formed the foundation of our understanding of Sumer's social and political structures and the activities of daily life. And, equally important, they have enhanced our knowledge of sophisticated patterns of symbolic communication and iconography, both of which are so important in the development of modern systems of artificial intelligence and computing.
The Sumerian Dictionary project not only demonstrates the connections of our past to our technologically advanced present, it also exemplifies the connections and synergy among teaching, research, and graduate education. It is at least a two-generation project--at least 40 years between initiation and completion.
While it has been driven by the extraordinary intellectual power and dedication of two senior faculty members in Anthropology who have brought the Dictionary from conception to birth, it could not, and cannot, be completed without the work of the twenty-five graduate students who have worked on the Dictionary and who represent the next generation of scholars and teachers. It is these students who will transmit knowledge about Sumerian culture.
In many ways to me the Sumerian Dictionary project also exemplifies the University of Pennsylvania. You need only look at the icons of Penn's home page, and virtually anywhere at Penn, to grasp the fundamental role that Benjamin Franklin, our founding father, still plays. Franklin's dicta still resonate loudly in his university that we must "teach what is useful...as well as what is ornamental," that the "noblest question" is "what good may I do?", that practice and theory are inextricably linked.
What this means for the doctoral students who have been an integral part of the Sumerian Dictionary project is that they not only go on to traditional careers in teaching and scholarship at colleges, universities, and museums, where they are engaged in both theory and practice. They have also taken other useful, but less-traveled, paths, to fields like publishing and computing, to which their well-honed linguistic and iconographic skills are particularly suited. They are making enormously significant contributions both inside and outside the academy.
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