Cuneiform Tablets in the News

Posted by on Tuesday July 18 2006

tablet.jpgIt’s not often that cuneiform tablets are in the news these days, so I’ve “enjoyed” following the recent articles about the disputed 2500-year-old Persian tablets at the University of Chicago. This is a long standing problem, of course, and I don’t really want to get into the various legal and political arguments.

However, the points being made about the “irreplaceable scholarly data” represented in these tablets reminds me of the old question, “if you could save either the artifacts in your museum, or the information about those artifacts, but not both, which would you choose?” This is also a good question for a class of LIS students learning about museum information systems, BTW.

Of course, in class, I initially answer this question by saying, “well, that depends…” — but I usually end up coming down on the side of “saving the information” — because as much as I’d hate to lose the original objects, I argue that most of what we know about those objects is not contained within those objects. Saving the objects, therefore, could make it difficult if not impossible to recover the lost information — and thus saving the information could be more important in the long run in terms of contributing to humanity’s knowledge-base (but being a good professor, I can also argue the other way, if you prefer).

This takes me back to the Cuneiform tablets — and indeed the general question of repatriation vs. scholarship. As digital surrogates and visual representations of museum artifacts increase in quality, how will those advances affect these arguments? If the thousands of tablets at the University of Chicago were scanned as part of the Digital Hammurabi Project (plus see conference paper) or the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, would there be less concern about giving the tablets up?

If you have any ideas, be sure to send your email in cuneiform!

Filed under: Digital media andRandom Musings

3 Responses to “Cuneiform Tablets in the News”

  1. Chuck Jones
    July 19th, 2006 03:47

    The issue curently in the news with respect to the Pesepolis Fortification Tablets is not really whether they should be repatriated or not – The University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute do do dispute that these excavated objects are the property of the Iranian Museums and Antiquities services. The issue is whether cultural property such as this is a fungible asset of the current government of Iran and whether it can therefore be transferred into the hands of those who are owed something by that government. Have a look at some of the more reliable news pieces such as this week’s articles in the Sun Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times:

    In addition Cheryl Corley did an audio piece on Tuesday’s NPR morning edition

    An open access version of a recent publication on the Persepolis Fortification Tablets is:

    Seals on the Persepolis Fortification Tablets, Volume 1. Images of Heroic Encounter (Two Volumes, Part 1: Text and Part 2: Plates)
    and is published online at

    As for scanning these objects – rest assured that we are working towards such a goal, which is not an easy task. FYI, The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative “scans” tablets in low tech style – on a portable flatbed scanner. Digital Hammurabi does not yet have a scanner in production. The scanner we will be using in Chicago is the Konica-Minolta Vivid 9i ( which we selected along with our colleagues at the Xiangtangshan Caves Project (

  2. Paul Marty
    July 19th, 2006 07:47

    Quite so, Chuck, and I appreciate your comments. Of course, that’s why I had posted the SunTimes and NYTimes links within the body of my post — so that readers interested in the whole story could follow them up without my having to engage the legal/political dispute. Nor was I implying that appropriate digitization technology already exists — the potential difficulties of handling different angles and light sources alone are overwhelming! I was simply using the story as a launching point for a what-if scenario about artifacts, information, and digitization.

  3. Chuck Jones
    December 2nd, 2008 06:27

    There is a typographical error in my comment above. Where it reads
    “the University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute do do dispute that these excavated objects are the property of the Iranian Museums and Antiquities services”
    it should read
    “The University of Chicago and the Oriental Institute do not dispute that these excavated objects are the property of the Iranian Museums and Antiquities services”

    The Oriental Institute’s continuing work on the Persepolis Fortification archive is documented at

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