Computerized Cuniform

Nov 30, 2017 | Diggin Past | 0 comments

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Some people have easy jobs – the post of taster in an ice-cream factory springs to mind as one that would be the envy of every small boy. Other people have exotic jobs – fruit fly inseminator, for example, or the man whose task it is to grade llama wool. I suppose the ideal job would be one that is both easy and exotic, in which case the post held by Tom Malzbender must come fairly high up the list.

For the past few months Tom has been engaged in silver-plating cuneiform tablets and, what is more, this is no gimmick to provide curios for the insatiable tourist trade, but a serious piece of scientific research. Perhaps I had better explain.

Cuneiform is an ingenious form of writing. The scribes of Mesopotamia were not blessed with papyrus plants, parchment had not yet been invented and a scarcity of trees made paper impracticable. On the other hand, there was plenty of soft clay just crying out to be shaped and moulded into flat but thick pages. However if you try writing on clay you will find that as you drag your stylus across the surface, you tear off lumps that leave an uneven edge to your letters and may even obscure the smaller ones.

On the other hand, clay takes an impression very easily. Some unknown hero of the literary world decided to use instead of a pen or stylus, a thin rod with four (or three) sides. By pressing the corner of this rod into the clay he produced a pleasing wedge-shaped mark. Indeed, by pressing harder he could make a larger wedge or by holding his rod at a different angle he could produce sideways wedges – and thus cuneiform was born.

At first, like all writing, the signs were stylised representations of real world objects – stars, a cow’s head and so on. Fairly rapidly, however, the Sumerians progressed to using their signs as symbols for parts of words and developed a syllabic “alphabet”. Thus every consonant had a vowel attached and there were different signs for “ka”, “ke” and “ko”. Some syllables were closed and consisted of two consonants with a vowel in between, such as “sit” and “sat”.

Once the writing was on the clay, however, the scribes were faced with a problem. It was only too easy to make intentional alterations, by smoothing out the clay with a wet thumb and impressing more signs into it, but even more distressing was the possibiliity of unintentional alteration or erasure. A leaking roof could turn your library into mud pies within minutes!

The obvious solution was to bake the tablets and turn them into hard, unchangeable pottery – and it is thanks to this that we have so many thousands of cuneiform tablets preserved for us today. In fact, the literary endeavours of temple scribes who not only wrote religious texts and lengthy myths, but also documented every grain of wheat that came in or out of the temple storerooms, must have contributed greatly to the deforestation of the plains of Mesopotamia.

No doubt there were economic theorists and accountants in those days, constantly urging the authorities to cut costs and completely overlooking the need for quality. As a result, not all tablets are as well baked as they ought to be and their soft and crumbly surface has not survived the vicissitudes of time in pristine condition. In addition, cylinder seals were often crudely carved and their impressions lacked sharpness and clarity. And so we come back to Tom Malzbender.

I am sure you will be able to imagine that the lighting by which you view a tablet can contribute greatly to the ease with which you can read it. Lit directly from above, the tiny wedges of the cuneiform will merge with the natural roughness of the tablet and the thing will be virtually impossible to read. Lit from one side, however, the indentations of the wedges will appear as shadows and thus stand out clearly.

With some of these badly worn tablets, however, you can move your lamp further and further to the side and just when you are on the point of making out something legible, your lamp disappears below the edge of the tablet and leaves the entire face in shadow. At which point you hurl the tablet violently to the floor and start to tear your hair out in great handfuls. Or, of course, you can send for Tom and save both tablet and hair.

Tom Malzbender is a computer expert at Hewlett Packard’s laboratories in Palo Alto, California where his speciality is digitising rough surfaces. Exactly why this should be considered desirable I am not sure, but his expertise has proven invaluable to the students of cuneiform. In 1999 Tom attended a lecture given by Bruce Zuckerman, director of the University of Southern California’s West Semitic Research Project, in which Zuckerman mentioned the difficulties I have outlined above. In fact, Zuckerman has spent twenty years developing special photographic techniques in order to retrieve as much ancient writing as possible, but there were still tablets whose badly worn surfaces defeated him. As he listened, Malzbender realised that he might be able to help.

As part of his work, Malzbender had developed a special high-resolution digital camera which was mounted vertically and faced down onto a table. Over the camera Malzbender placed a black plastic dome, excluding all extraneous light. However in the dome were placed fifty computer-controlled miniature flash-guns and these were programmed to fire one at a time or in combinations. The clever bit, however, came in the software Malzbender had developed, which took the numerous photographs and combined them in such a way that every point and pit of the object beneath the camera was digitised.

Once the millions of bytes of information was safely inside the computer, Malzbender can manipulate it. By moving his mouse, he can “move” the light source, from side to side, up and down and even round behind the object or beneath the surface of the object. Because he is dealing with a virtual object rather than a real one, Malzbender can illuminate it from angles that are impossible in real life. He can, for example, place the light source actually inside one of the cuneiform wedges, or place it a couple of millimetres below the surface of the top right of the tablet.

In addition, Malzbender can alter the surface colour of the tablet, because often variations in the baking process or the texture of the clay produce coloured stripes and patches across the tablet which can be most distracting – and this is where the silver-plating comes in, for not only can Malzbender make the tablet black and white (or any other colour combination you choose) but he can alter the reflectance of the surface, so that it appears to be coated with silver and shiny like a mirror. In addition, Malzbender can play tricks, like only allowing a surface to reflect light if the light source is directly above it. This would be impossible in real life, where every surface reflects some light.

Using these techniques, Malzbender and Zuckerman have been able to read tablets that before were completely illegible. So sensitive is their new equipment, that they are actually able to make out the fingerprints of the scribe who held the tablet as he wrote on it, bringing up the possibility of grouping tablets according to their author!

The power of the computer can be understood by taking the example of Walter Bodine, an expert in Babylonian cuneiform at Yale University. Bodine spent six years working on one particular tablet out of the 40,000 in the Yale collection. At the end of six years, having used every trick in the trade, Bodine was still lacking certain vital parts of the text. Then he was pursuaded to let Malzbender have a go and within a couple of hours the complete cuneiform text of the tablet was clearly visible. Bodine was astounded and delighted. “This has given me a whole new set of data. I have found quite a number of things I haven’t been able to see before.”

(Incidentally, the tablet turns out to be a contract between Ur Ningal, a Sumerian slave trader around 3,100 BC, and his buyers. The contract contains the stipulation that if the “goods” prove faulty, the buyer is entitled to return them for a full refund. Consumer legislation is nothing new!)

August-September 2001

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