Ancient Mesopotamia Goes Digital

From his office on the second floor of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Grant Frame directs a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project that is increasing the understanding of Assyrian and Babylonian history, using never-before-translated or published royal inscriptions.

Ancient Mesopotamian rulers had countless inscriptions written in the Standard Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, ranging from short one-line inscriptions to lengthy, detailed inscriptions of more than 2,500 words and 500 lines.

Thousands of these texts have been discovered preserved on tablets, prisms, cylinders, wall and threshold slabs, and artifacts from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and other parts of the Middle East, says Frame, an associate professor of Assyriology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Composed between 744 and 609 B.C.E., the royally commissioned texts provide a rich history lesson on the lives of ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, describing the military and hunting exploits of their kings, and frequently mentioning Israelite and Judean kings of the Hebrew Bible, as well as rulers such as King Midas, who appears in the works of classical authors.

In 2008, Frame was awarded the first of four National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grants to continue his research in the Royal Inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian Period, or RINAP, Project. Frame’s latest $250,000 NEH award for 2015-17 brings his total NEH funding for the project to nearly $950,000.

Frame and his research team are editing and translating all of the known royal inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian kings from the reign of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 B.C.E.) to that of the last Assyrian ruler, Ashur-uballit II (611–609 B.C.E.).

The project involves translating royal inscriptions into English from the cuneiform writing system and the Standard Babylonian dialect of Akkadian. Texts are published in print volumes and online in the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus.

Frame says that RINAP Online helps preserve ancient Neo-Assyrian history and makes it more accessible, while also providing information on the Mesopotamian languages, religion, and literature. Scholars, students, and those interested in ancient history can search Akkadian and Sumerian words appearing in the inscriptions and English words used in the translations on the RINAP website.

“Many of these royal inscriptions of the kings of the Neo-Assyrian period have never been translated into English or published before,” says Frame, who is also associate curator of the Penn Museum’s Babylonian Section.

Four books have been published so far by the RINAP Project; Frame is working on a fifth. The latest grant is for a sixth book, which will include most of the official inscriptions of Ashurbanipal (668c.-631 B.C.E.). Frame hopes to complete the Project with a seventh volume containing the remainder of Ashurbanipal’s inscriptions and those of his successors, up until the fall of Assyria.

The project is Frame’s life’s work. He spent more than two decades on the project at the University of Toronto, which produced 10 volumes of official inscriptions of rulers from Assyria, Babylonia, Sumer, and Akkad.

In 2006, he joined the faculty at Penn, where he teaches courses on ancient Iraq, early empires of the Neo-Assyrian Period, and Akkadian historical texts, legal texts, letters, and literary texts.

Penn has a long and honored tradition in the study of the ancient Near East. The Penn Museum was created to house materials found at the University’s 1889-1900 excavations in southern Iraq in the ancient city of Nippur. The Museum’s Babylonian Section has the second largest collection of cuneiform tablets in North America and the most important collection of Sumerian literary texts in the world.

  • Text by Jacquie Posey
  • Photos courtesy of Grant Frame