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Spreading the Word, continued

One Line At a Time:
ninda gish-ma-am a gish-gi-mush-am (the signs)
ninda ma'am a gimusham (the approximate pronunciation)
Translation— “Bread is the boat; water is the oar.”

ninda = bread, food
a = water, drink
ma = boat
gimush = oar
am = is

gish is a “determinative”—a sign used before words for trees and things made of wood which gives an indication of the semantic field of the following term.

—Professor Steve Tinney

“I like to say I got started in this field out of perversity,” says Tinney. “The personal myth with which I shroud the beginnings of my interest was that in grammar school [in southwestern England], when I was 11 or 12, our first year of ancient history, our textbooks began with texts on ancient Mesopotamia, which we did not cover in class. I figured if we weren’t doing it in class, it must be more interesting.” Tinney earned his undergraduate degree at Cambridge University and his Ph.D. at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He came to Penn in 1991 for a one-year postdoctoral position and wound up staying. “So the lesson is never to invite me in for a year.” Now associate professor of ancient Mesopotamian languages and cultures and director of the Center for Ancient Studies, Tinney brings to his job a hearty irreverence, reporting that his parents sent him to “electrocution” classes to get rid of his “regional accent” and groaning good-naturedly when asked a question that seems to beg a sound bite for an answer.

While he can joke about his life and work, Tinney is very serious in his belief that information should be shared more freely within and outside the academy. At a lunchtime talk about the dictionary project for museum employees, someone asks Tinney who the dictionary will be made available to, and his answer is, essentially, everyone with an interest. “I believe in complete freedom of academic data,” he says.

“I think this is one of the most important, significant research projects the museum is doing,” says Dr. Jeremy Sabloff C’64, the Williams Director of the University Museum and University Museum Term Professor of Anthropology. The dictionary team has already “made important contributions,” he says, and under Tinney’s leadership, “they promise to make even more important ones in the years to come.” According to Sabloff, “the current goals of the Sumerian Dictionary Project mesh perfectly with the museum’s strong, mission-driven focus on outreach and accessibility for scholars and for the general public.”

Tinney hopes the dictionary will be a resource not only to specialists, but also to scholars interested in searching the vast body of information available in the accompanying texts to answer cultural questions, such as, “What did chairs look like in Sumer?” He would also like to see someone write a cultural encyclopedia around the dictionary.

The museum, through Tinney, has also become a partner with several institutions preparing online editions of Sumerian texts, allowing them to scan texts in its collection with the understanding that it will be able to integrate their “data sets” into the dictionary.

The original Nippur expeditions were not so collegial. In one of his letters to Hilprecht, Provost Pepper expressed dismay upon learning that the expedition’s first scientific director, Dr. John Peters, sent about a dozen purchased cuneiform inscriptions that he couldn’t read to a professor at Oxford. All actions, Pepper wrote, must be taken for the “benefit of the University … It will not do to allow things to go into the hands of others. We must be just before we are liberal.”

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