Technology brings new insights to ancient languageRead it all, and while you're at it have a look at the excellent photo of one of the texts.
October 14, 2009
New technologies and academic collaborations are helping scholars at the University of Chicago analyze hundreds of ancient documents in Aramaic, one of the Middle East’s oldest continuously spoken and written languages.
Members of the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California are helping the University’s Oriental Institute make very high-quality electronic images of nearly 700 Aramaic administrative documents. The Aramaic texts were incised in the surfaces of clay tablets with styluses or inked on the tablets with brushes or pens. Some tablets have both incised and inked texts.
Discovered in Iran, these tablets form one of the largest groups of ancient Aramaic records ever found. They are part of the Persepolis Fortification Archive, an immense group of administrative documents written and compiled about 500 B.C. at Persepolis, one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Archaeologists from the Oriental Institute discovered the archive in 1933, and the Iranian government has loaned it to the Oriental Institute since 1936 for preservation, study, analysis and publication.
Scholars from the West Semitic Research Project at the University of Southern California helped the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project build and install an advanced electronic imaging laboratory at the Oriental Institute. Together, the two projects are making high-quality images of the Aramaic texts and the seal impressions associated with those texts. They are distributing the new images to the international research community through the Internet.
Inked and incised texts pose different problems that call for different imaging solutions. Making high-resolution scans under polarized and filtered light reveals the ink without interference from stains and glare, and sometimes shows faded characters that cannot be seen in ordinary daylight. Using another advanced imaging technique, called Polynomial Texture Mapping, researchers are able to see surface variations under variable lighting, revealing the marks of styluses and even the traces of pens in places where the ink itself has disappeared.
Impacts are far-reaching
The collaboration between the Oriental Institute at Chicago and the West Semitic Research Project at Southern California began with support from a substantial grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2007. To date, the teams have made high-quality images of almost all the monolingual Aramaic Fortification tablets. The next phase of the work, supported by a second Mellon grant that runs through 2010, will make images of the short Aramaic notes written on cuneiform tablets, seal impressions on uninscribed tablets and previously unrecorded Elamite cuneiform texts.
(Via the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project blog.)
For background on the Persepolis archive and the political controversy in which it is mired, see here and here. More on the site of Persepolis here.