Largest collection of cuneiform texts digitized and published

Largest collection of cuneiform texts digitized and published

A tablet with a Babylonian text fragment in cuneiform. © LMU

300,000 lines of text from ancient Mesopotamia, including previously unknown versions of the Epic of Gilgamesh and entirely new types of text, are now becoming digitally and publicly accessible for the first time. It is the largest text publication in the history of cuneiform studies to date. It is made possible because a team of ancient orientalists uses an AI system to digitize the fragments of Babylonian cuneiform tablets, put them together virtually and make them readable as text. More than 22,000 of these fragments are already accessible in the digital collection.

When the first Babylonian cities developed in the region between the Euphrates and Tigris more than 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians recorded their history, legends and religious beliefs in cuneiform on clay tablets. These texts give a unique insight into the thinking, feeling and beliefs of the people of ancient Mesopotamia. However, over the millennia, most of these cuneiform tablets have broken into many fragments. Which fragments belong together and which texts result from the ensemble can often hardly be determined today.

Puzzle made from fragments of cuneiform tablets

In order to make sense of the cuneiform fragments, scientists first had to laboriously copy them, then try to identify which belong together by comparing different pieces. This is made more difficult by the fact that the Mesopotamian texts were written in two different, complicated written languages, Sumerian and Akkadian. Only fragments have survived even of the most famous heroic saga of Babylonian literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Only around two thirds of the text have now been made legible.

But now the most modern digital technology is coming to the aid of the ancient orientalists and linguists: In the “Electronic Babylonian Literature” project, a team headed by Enrique Jiménez, professor of ancient oriental literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich (LMU), is working on the inventory of Babylonian cuneiform texts to digitize and assemble with the help of artificial intelligence. More than 22,000 tablet fragments have already been photographed for this purpose. An adaptive, specially trained algorithm then reads the characters and looks for possible matching text passages.

“Fragmentarium” makes cuneiform texts accessible

All digitized cuneiform script fragments are collected in a digital database, the “Fragmentarium”, and made available for research. “It’s a tool that has never existed before, a huge database of fragments,” says Jiménez. “We believe it is essential to the reconstruction of Babylonian literature, which we can now progress much more rapidly.” The AI ​​system has already identified hundreds of manuscripts and created many textual connections. Among them was a piece of text from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was only written around 130 BC – this copy is thousands of years younger than the oldest known version. It is very interesting that Gilgamesh was still being copied at this late period, Jiménez said.

(Video: LMU)In February 2023, the research team will publish the Fragmentarium and a first digital edition of Babylonian texts based on the database. It will be the first edition to include all known copies of cuneiform fragments. With around 300,000 lines of text and complete digital editions of important texts from Babylonian literature, it is also the largest text publication in the entire history of cuneiform studies. In addition to scientists, the public should now also have access to the online platform. “Anyone will be able to play with the Fragmentarium. There are thousands of fragments that have not yet been identified,” says Jiménez.

The ancient orientalist and his team hope that their project will advance research into this world cultural heritage. “There is so much to do in the study of Babylonian literature. The new texts we are discovering help to understand the literature and culture of Babylonia as a whole,” says Jiménez. “The questions the Babylonians asked themselves are not arbitrary. They also keep us busy.”

Source: Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich; Project “Electronic Babylonian Literature

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