Cuneiform: From the Museum Drawer to Your Computer

Sumerian inscription, 26th Century BC, Schøyen Collection MS 3029.
The text is a list of “gifts from the High and Mighty of Adab to the High Priestess, on the occasion of her election to the temple.” Wikimedia Commons

Just a decade ago, if you wanted to see examples of cuneiform, one of the earliest known writing systems in the world, you would have had to travel to a dusty museum storeroom in Philadelphia or London or Baghdad. But today, you can examine many of these ancient clay tablets online through the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). Based out of UCLA, this international collaboration brings together digital images of many of the nearly 300,000 tablets held in a score of public and private collections, including the Penn Museum, the Iraq Museum, and the British Museum.

Some of these tablets came into museums through rather interesting circumstances. See a 2003  article and sidebar I wrote for The Pennsylvania Gazette about  the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project for an introduction to Hermann Hilprecht, a melodramatic professor of Assyriology who brought thousands of cuneiform tablets back to Philadelphia at the turn of the last century.