- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) Historians using the language of computers are assembling a virtual library of the earliest-known written documents: clay tablets inscribed more than 4,000 years ago.

Begun in 1998, the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative has taken on new urgency. Experts fear that if the texts aren't cataloged electronically, they could be lost forever.

About 120,000 cuneiform tablets from the third millennium B.C. are scattered throughout the world. Thousands more are plundered each year in Iraq and dumped on the world antiquities market. Tablets even show up on Web auction site EBay, where bidding can start at $1.

"They are just so incredibly dispersed," said Robert Englund, a professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles, who spearheads the project. "It seems to us the only way to get control of the texts is to collect them on the Internet."

During the next year or two, Mr. Englund will try to finish gathering, cataloging and photographing 120,000 tablets, which will be posted on the Web.

The tablets are the earliest-known written documents, and record how people lived, labored, ruled and wrote for millennia in ancient Mesopotamia. The library focuses on tablets created by scribes during writing's first millennium-plus, roughly 3300 B.C. to 2000 B.C. The writing looks like a series of little wedges connected by lines. The term cuneiform means "wedge-shaped."

About 60,000 texts are already online.

"It's like being able to walk into the tablet room of a museum and pick up the actual tablets, but this can be done from any corner of the planet and by any number of individuals at one time," said Gene Gragg, director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

Cuneiform collections in England, Germany, Norway, Russia and the United States are still available for students to see.

"It's simply going to change the way we work, because access to these texts is slow and painful, and can involve traveling thousands of miles to see. That changing to just a click away is going to be huge," said Steve Tinney of the University of Pennsylvania, which is compiling a Web-based dictionary of Sumerian, the first written language.

The best-known cuneiform texts include the earliest-known creation myths, legal codes, medical prescriptions and recipes for beer. Most, however, are more mundane and include ledgers, deeds, receipts and lists including types of birds, and musical instruments and the woods used to make them.

Their detail is unparalleled in any other period in history, until, perhaps, the rise of the Venetian empire in the 1200s. Historians hope the library will prove a boon for economic historians and others who have ignored cuneiform records.

"We are hoping to bring the richness of Mesopotamian culture to anyone who works on anything. We have agriculture texts, magic texts, and medical, legal and religious texts. This is a treasure trove that has not been exploited," Mr. Tinney said.

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