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Spreading the Word, continued

Dr. Steve Tinney, director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project, is eager to spread the words. Through the work of a seven-member team at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a partial version went up this month at (http://psd.museum.upenn.edu).

Today most of the 30,000 pieces of the museum’s cuneiform tablet collection are stored in the offices of the Babylonian section, for which Tinney is associate curator. A veritable dessert cart of antiquities parked outside his own office offers a sampler of the world’s oldest written language for visual consumption by curious visitors: Palm-sized copybooks that students used to learn words for animals and personal names. A Flood account that bears a resemblance to the one in the Old Testament. And on a cylinder-shaped tablet, one of the oldest known literary texts. It’s a myth from about 2700 B.C.E. that continues to baffle translators. According to Tinney, “About the only thing we understand is they had sex and they kissed.”

Dr. Steve Tinney, director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

The bulk of the tablets are stored in long file drawers, nestled like brooches in plastic boxes lined with archivally correct styrofoam. “One of the reasons the dictionary project was started here,” says Tinney, is that the “jewels of the collection,” its Sumerian literary texts, represent the world’s largest trove. Most of the texts were excavated at Nippur from what Tinney believes to have been home-based schools for the children of bureaucrats. The University is particularly fortunate to have these records, because school assignments were typically recycled in ancient Mesopotamia—the clay balled up and soaked overnight in a jar of water. The literary texts provide valuable contexts for scholars trying to understand the use and meanings of Sumerian words.

A quarter of a century ago, Dr. Åke Sjöberg—with the help of Dr. Erle Leichty—set out to compile a Sumerian dictionary at Penn. Pursuing grants and filling out thousands of notecards on the historical development of every word, they knew it would be a long, painstaking project. Sjöberg joked to a Gazette writer at the time that when the dictionary was finally done 200 years later, they would send out drafts of their entries to specialists, “who will read them and tell us we’re fools.”

It took until 1998 to produce four volumes, covering a fraction of the alphabet. “Although these books are very impressive and are great achievements in their own right,” says Tinney—pointing to a tall red tome resting on his work table that represents one portion of the letter A—“doing it this way could take another 30 or 40 years. And the times have changed. Acceptance of that sort of project has diminished to zero, so [we] are doing everything electronically now.” But although the electronic dictionary will build upon the work of scholars like Sj…berg, now emeritus professor in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and Leichty, emeritus professor of Assyriology—and, indeed, a slew of Sumerologists—it will also have a different focus. The older version was an exhaustive concordance that listed all the instances where each word occurs. The electronic dictionary will feature an updatable collection of words and their definitions and equivalents in Akkadian (a Semitic cuneiform language that displaced Sumerian); the entries will, in turn, be linked by search engine to administrative and literary texts in which those words appear.

The team’s plan is to release within two years a beta version of the online dictionary that users can download to burn their own CDs. “The goal is not to produce something that’s exhaustively perfect the first time around,” Tinney says. “The idea is to be useful as soon as possible and fix the last few bits later.” Thanks to this incremental approach—as well as the use of advanced technology and data swapping with other institutions—the online dictionary will be released much more quickly than it could be in print form.

“One thing we’re very keen on doing is making the results usable on as many different kinds of machines as possible and to make it redistributable for no more than the cost of the media,” says Tinney. For one reason, many students can’t afford an expensive dictionary. He also would like the data to be accessible in places like Syria and Iraq, where the primary sources are still being found—“and where there is not always a reliable source of electricity, let alone a reliable Internet connection. So it’s very important that it’s self-contained and you can stick a CD in a notebook computer.”

(Excavations, of course, could be curtailed by the threat of war. The U.S. government hasn’t allowed researchers to spend money in Iraq since the Persian Gulf War, but teams from other countries have begun digs there.)

After the dictionary has undergone scholarly review, Tinney hopes to publish a concise print version, and then to update the CD about every five years.

The project has received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, its longtime supporter. But it cannot continue to ask the agency for money, Tinney says. “One of the fundamental changes [with computerization] is we have gone from a fixed product to really a dictionary which [represents] a process. There is no real endpoint in sight.” As a result, the University Museum is trying to raise $3 million through its capital campaign to endow two permanent research positions for the dictionary project.

To get the word out, a museum exhibition on writing will launch in 2005 and travel the country. And, next spring, the museum will host a major event centered on storytelling and the Gilgamesh epic (for which the museum possesses several varied texts), complete with a stage production of the Akkadian version based on a new translation by Andrew George, published in 2000. (Fittingly, this later version of Gilgamesh expresses the durability of writing—a way for a king’s accomplishments to be preserved for the ages, “effectively enabling immortality where physical immortality is impossible.”)

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Copyright 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 01/05/03