Reading the Tablets: Ancient Words in a Modern World

8614_10102538739796944_8716854565360110464_n-2We here at From Stone to Screen  like to brag that our project is an international, multi-disciplinary collaboration (because it is) but don’t just take our word on it, here’s some proof!  Our next student profile is on Nicholas Kraus, a PhD student at Yale University.  Does his name sounds familiar?  That’s because Nick was responsible for translating our cuneiform tablets.  While anyone looking at this tablet may just see scratch marks on a tiny piece of clay, Nick can see so much more.

Backing up, though.  How did our project, at a Canadian university on the West Coast, get a translation from a student at an American university on the East Coast?  While our project is definitely something that merits international attention, Nick is actually one of our alumni.  He completed his undergraduate degree at UBC where he became interested in the ancient Near East after taking an introductory course with Dr. Lisa Cooper (besides being one of our two Near Eastern archaeologists, she also was the one who did the initial assessment of the Fuller collection).  Following his time at UBC, he began his MA in ancient Near Eastern studies at the University of Toronto and now he’s working on his PhD in Assyriology at Yale.  We always love seeing one of our own go so far but still check back in occasionally.  Which brings us to the cuneiform tablet.

10505352_10100217614570997_2191472762805207737_n-2Nick was “perusing the website of [his] Alma Mater” (as one does, admit it, you do too) when he stumbled upon the website for FSTS.  Something that caught his attention was that one of the founders was his friend, Chelsea Gardner (for the many amazing things that are Chelsea, check her out here).  He went through the various artifacts in the Fuller Collection and realized that he could help with the translation of the cuneiform tablet.  He told me that he “sent an email to Chelsea with a translation and everything just sort of happened after that,” which made me realize that not only did he come up with a translation of a 4,000-year-old tablet and send it along but he did so without checking to see if we still needed one.  Because he wanted to.

Nick’s current research is, according to him, mostly on education in the Old Akkadian period (c. 2350-2200 BCE).  He also researches Sumerian linguistics, is working on an interdisciplinary paper on cuneiform and calligraphy, and works on cuneiform commentaries from Assyria and Babylonia in the first millennium BCE. For the Classicists reading the blog, or any lay person, this may just seem like a lot jargon that you would brush off.  Don’t.  It’s impressive.  In his short description of his interests that he sent me, he is currently covering a time period of roughly 2,000 years.  This is the same period of time from the rise of Bronze Age Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire.  The territory is roughly the same, the area around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, but he needs to understand the nuances of dozens of empires, time periods, climate changes and more. Now that I’ve sufficiently impressed upon you the diverse range of his research, let’s talk about Nick’s work.

10437364_10102529081826594_1224850946168638063_nWhen Nick isn’t translating ancient tablets or researching, he can be found digging in Israel (which is not exactly where his research interests lie).  He’s been digging for six years now primarily at the site of Megiddo in northern central Israel at the early Iron Age levels (c. 1000 BCE).  He also works with the Jezreel Valley Regional Project on an Early Bronze I/II site for a few seasons and most recently at a Roman military camp called Legio just south of Megiddo.  While his research is quite firmly in the languages and history of Mesopotamia (and not the Levant, where he digs) he said he finds excavation really exciting and enjoys the environment and people, adding “I think understanding how artifacts are excavated and interpreting their associated context is extremely important for anyone who wants to study the ancient world.”  This is definitely something we all agree with at From Stone to Screen.

487530_10151242191591743_2015158513_nNick learned cuneiform during his MA at U of T, which means that he has been studying Akkadian and Sumerian (the two main languages that are written in cuneiform) for about 4 years (to clarify – cuneiform is a type of script like hieroglyphs, not a language).  Our cuneiform tablet, along with the ones in the UBC library, date from the Ur III period and are written in Sumerian.  Nick has recently written up a post on their content which you can see here.  Working on our tablets, though, means that Nick has only ever seen photographs of them.  We used a flatbed scanner to create beautiful, hi-resolution images but they still aren’t the real thing.  Nick confirms that it is extremely difficult to work with photographs of cuneiform tablets.  A tablet needs to be held and moved to be read since the lighting of the wedges can change the way a sign appears.  The signs can also be broken or incomplete, so being able to examine a tablet in detail makes reading it easier.  Finally, most tablets usually have signs that run over the edges of the tablets so a straight on photograph rarely shows everything.  Despite the trickiness of photograph vs. artifact, Nick still provided us with new and improved translations.

FSTS is taking the first steps toward digital antiquities and the dissemination of knowledge around the world.

44432_419235598730_1062506_nNow to take the opportunity to heap so praise on the project, I asked Nick if the project was on track for being useful to academics at large which he vehemently agreed was.  “FSTS is taking the first steps toward digital antiquities and the dissemination of knowledge around the world,” he said.  “I can only imagine that one day there will be catalogues of 3D scans and images of antiquities from around the world, so any scholar can access primary source material no matter where they are.”  It’s as if he read our mission statement.  He points out that in his field you often have to go to multiple museums to see all the different artifacts you may need to talk about and after a while it becomes not only difficult but expensive.  “The outreach is also really important, especially educating people who have no access whatsoever to antiquities. The material on FSTS can be utilized not only by scholars for research but also teachers in classrooms, where students haven’t even heard of Mesopotamia, Greece, or Rome.” Our five tablets may seem small when compared to the resources he has regular access to at Yale, namely the Yale Babylonian Collection, which houses about 45,000 tablets and objects from all periods of Mesopotamian history.  He said that “in classes [they] try to use them as often as possible when teaching languages and history.”  Even though 5 tablets can’t begin to compare to 45,000, I like the idea that the open-access nature of our project allows anyone to see and work on ours, which Nick did.  Despite the fact that he has access to 45,000 of his own.

When I interviewed Nick in August, he said he was looking forward to any more collaboration with the project he can get.  In the mere two months since then, he and Chelsea are working together on a permit for the Field Museum and have been accepted to write a chapter with Lisa for the upcoming volume Implementing Meanings: the Power of the Copy Between Past, Present and Future.  We definitely love and appreciate all of the work that Nick has contributed, and his Near Eastern perspective that we are all missing and as Chelsea says, he “exemplifies the FSTS family attitude.

To find out more about Nick and his work, check out some of the links below:


Yale NELC:

Yale Babylonian Collection:

Cuneiform Commentaries Project:

Nick’s contribution to the project:

JVRP Project:

Megiddo Expedition:

About Kat Solberg

Kat has her MA in Classical Archaeology from UBC, where she first became involved with the project. Its Media and Communications director, she is the voice of the project and all of its public dealings. When she's not glued to her computer, she can be found digging things up and obsessing over the Romans.

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