Sumerian Dictionary to Decipher Ancient Texts

Faye Flam
The Philadelphia Inquirer
July 24, 2002

The people known as Sumerians are credited with starting the first civilization and building the first settlements worthy of being called cities. They also invented writing, and then they wrote and wrote and wrote, filling millions of tablets with their intricate, detailed characters.

They left behind everything from religious texts to poetry to receipts, much of which remains preserved 5,000 years later. Understanding the symbols they etched in clay is another matter. The oldest known language left no descendants.

Scholars studying the ancient world are therefore eagerly awaiting the first Sumerian dictionary, a 30-year project at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Sumerologists there hope to release an early version by 2004.

The Sumerians settled and farmed the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, now part of Iraq. Around 3500 B.C., they became the first people on Earth to congregate in cities, to use complex mathematics, and to record their ideas with a written language.

They did most of their writing between 3000 and 2000 B.C. Over the next millennium, they were gradually assimilated into the Babylonian civilization, which continued to advance Sumerian literature, astronomy, and mathematics.

The dictionary project will allow scholars to glean much more meaning from the text-covered tablets left behind. Most range in size from business cards to laptops, and many are still to be unearthed.

The tablets, said Rubio Gonzalo, an expert on Sumer at Ohio State University, "provide us with an amazingly rich perspective on the most diverse facets of human life in such early periods, from economy to medicine, from animal husbandry to childbearing, from literature to mathematics, from magic and religion to astronomy and politics."

Shades of Meaning

That their writings survived to the present day was a lucky byproduct of the Sumerians' choice of materials. They wrote by pressing a reed tool into clay tablets and then drying them, a method that has enabled even the most mundane lists to endure for millennia. (The Greeks and Romans wrote on early forms of paper. Much of what is known about them is from versions of the originals that were repeatedly copied and passed down.)

"There is no other ancient culture for which there is so much written material," said Piotr Michalowski, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

And yet, of all the ancient languages in both Eastern and Western civilization, said Rubio, Sumerian is the only one that has lacked a comprehensive dictionary to aid scholars. Some words were translated into other languages and passed down through the ages. Others are still unknown.

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