Joachim Marzahn (Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin)
Presented to the CDLI Avalon Meeting, October 2001
In our experience, three factors have most forcefully contributed to the cooperation of the Vorderasiatisches Museum with the CDLI:
1. The general interest of the highest administrative level of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz. The current president, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, who assumed his position in 1998, has pushed for the development in the direction of collection digitization, with obvious advantages for our project. It may be that we will find a similar situation in other museums. If at first the goals of a cooperation can be impressed upon the administrative levels of the museums, museum staff will carry less of the load in making the case for the project.
2. A well-conceived plan by the directors and initial participants of the project leaving little doubt about the likeliness of the project's success.
3. Financial and logistic support by a outside agencies, without whose help the whole undertaking would not have been possible.
We must be grateful for the confluence of these factors in our case, so that in the end no one at the VAM harbored serious doubts that our interests and those of the project CDLI were inherently the same. Thanks are particularly due Hans Nissen and Bob Englund as the original wellspring for the project, and to Peter Damerow and the direction and collaborators of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG) in Berlin (with special thanks to Michael Schuering and Markus Schnoepf), who all offered their expertise, their home budgets, and also a lot of time, the most valuable thing we have. We also say thank you to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz and - last but not least - to Hans Nohka, the administrator of our depot, for his patience and resourcefulness. Through their help and our common work, it was possible to recognize that what might at first appear to be a grave difficulty can, in time, prove to be a great opportunity for the museum.
The details of our cooperation need not be repeated here, since we have made this information available in the pages of the CDLI/VAM online presentation of our collection of early cuneiform (see http://cdli.ucla.edu/infovam_e.htm [dead link; now: http://18.104.22.168/cdli/vam/infovam_e.html] and http://cdli.ucla.edu/overview_e.htm [dead link; now: http://22.214.171.124/cdli/vam/overview_e.html] ). In short: we began at the VAM with a forerunner to the current project, the Archaic Texts of Uruk directed by Nissen, but have, in the meantime, a real "initiative" in the CDLI, and we in Berlin are justifiably proud to be the first who have in association with this group of researchers been able to bring online a substantial portion of our archival holdings.
But no pride without limitations: and this can explain something about the structure of the project and its effects beyond the CDLI. I already mentioned that the highest level of museum administration in Berlin supported us. To underscore this fact, a joint press conference was held together with the directorate of the MPIWG in June of 2001, about the same time that the VAM catalogue and image archive went online. Unfortunately, the journalistic response was less than overwhelming, although the articles that resulted from this press conference were uniformly of a high quality (mostly we experience the opposite). The question is: was the topic of the online presentation the reason for a tepid response, is there so little interest in cuneiform? Normally inter-media occasions find many interested people, why not in our case?
We must confess that there is less interest in cuneiform among the public than we might wish, and that means mainly the writing system and its form, not really the contents of what we call early writing. When we first glance at the monitors of CDLI, we see the picture and some physical information about a text, not the cultural background of the document. What we see is not very spectacular. This shows us that we are still at a stage comparable with the current position of Near Eastern history within museums. We will still find many more people interested in ancient Egyptian mummies or in classical statues and busts than is the case with Babylonian finds. This may be similar for the presentation of hieroglyphic texts or manuscripts of Roman poets, although the cuneiform script, or better the documents written with this system, can be much more humanly authentic.
It seems that we do not yet have a situation of general acceptance of our discipline, not yet a break-through to change this obviously unequal relationship, and I believe that this is a remarkable factor to be considered even where we might be able to demonstrate the enormous benefits our project can offer. We must admit that even in our own field we encounter a certain diffidence toward what we do. The anticipation that all colleagues who work in the field of cuneiform studies will use this new internet media to improve their working environment has not really been realized. At least I came to this opinion after talking to various colleagues in Berlin, even if we consider that not every cuneiform specialist in this city is occupied with the 3rd millennium.
Therefore, I think the question is also: can we continue without any kind of advertising, will it break through alone? Or can we achieve greater acceptance with still larger data sets of tablet documentation? Who is using the pages of the CDLI? Merely to tabulate web-counter numbers is not sufficient either, although even here I suspect the numbers will not be inspiring. We need in any case to engender a much broader interest in the web users of the CDLI to insure the continuation of our now living project.
So it may be useful to mark out here a certain position. As I have already mentioned, the Late Uruk material was the object of study at the beginning of this project, and it was of course very useful to include the next existing sources in the project from an historical point of view. Perhaps also Englund's special inclination for Sumerian texts brought the work to this expansion. This has surely been supported by the structure of the Berlin collection, since it contains more than 4,000 items of the periods of CDLI interest. That number can be considered a manageable quantity at this stage of the project.
The inclusion of published and unpublished texts was discussed within the museum, along with a consideration of the possibilities of using the material for commercial purposes. We did not determine now whether there will be sufficient cause to produce "classical" forms of publications later; certainly, the love of printed books is still alive, and volumes filled with hand copies are still accepted as perfect forms of publication and presentation of cuneiform material.
The CDLI/VAM data set contained, from its inception, the "classical" text information we need particularly in our administration, such as measurements, provenience, number of lines of the text, photo numbers and so on. And so we also have at the same time a number of external restrictions and guidelines that have determined the content and volume of the project up to now, and we are eager to find out if the character of other collections will change, or confirm this tendency empirically.
The structure of the data catalogue has disadvantages and advantages. First the disadvantages: it can only be used by a relatively small number of specialists and still needs a great amount of supplementary data, further requiring a great amount of time and participation of colleagues. So far, data structure has been determined primarily by the actually involved persons, and thus includes only a part of the data that should be used from the perspective of a museum. But exactly at this point we can find an important interface: the CDLI data can be included in the currently fast-growing databases used by museum administrations in Europe and America, since it already contains part of the required items, and this in a compatible format. Here it should be allowed to ask whether in future the more academic character of the CDLI should be continued as is, or whether we should include clearer visible entries and information for a more general circle of users. The somewhat self-contradicting situation of clashing interests might be moved into a more harmonic cooperation.
What can we do? The project was born and developed from working with cuneiform administrative documents, i.e., with a genre of literature which still is held to be less enlightening than the "real" historical sources of royal inscriptions, literature and the like. This special situation of focus on receipts and accounts is due in part to the content of the Berlin collection, but not only to this. Even if certain scholars feed exclusively from this trough, as I also prefer to do, surely we should be sensitive to a broader public and not avoid including different text genres in our presentation of early cuneiform. Concerning, for instance, literary or historical sources, of course, Berlin's collection is relatively not as extensive as that of London, Paris or Philadelphia. But the CDLI "visitor" should find in future an increasing focus also on the texts which can lead him in the more usual way to the cultural-historical background of the ancient Orient.
Perhaps the CDLI can become a true virtual library by exploiting the strengths of other projects, such as that of the Sumerian Literature group in Oxford (http://www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk/ ), whose presentations add to the CDLI a function similar to that of museums: the presentation of monuments, i.e., written monuments in the natural sense, suitable to make clear for the user the rich variability of literary tradition in Babylonia. Of course, this should not assume a general change of the present character of the CDLI, rather a kind of supplementation of its content to reflect in a general sense the task of a museum. In choosing this path, we would likely reach a wider public than heretofore, and we also would have a chance to ameliorate a still widespread problem within Assyriology: the separation of scholar from original text. We can perhaps care for a real meeting of the two.
That may sounds a bit ironical, but it becomes clearer if we remember that still too often only the simple content of a text finds the attention of a specialist. Let us remember, for instance, the form of publication of the Fara material in Berlin at the beginning of the last century, or that of the famous ED IIIb royal inscriptions, CIRPL, by Sollberger. It is possible in these cases to read every line in every column of that text publication, but you scarcely get any idea of how the text is distributed on the physical monument. A positive publication example is the more recent edition of the so-called ancient kudurrus by Gelb, Steinkeller and Whiting (OIP 104). In perusing the inscriptions of this book, the reader will frequently find in a companion volume corresponding photos of the physical objects containing the inscriptions.
But even the addition of pictures or photos cannot overcome the distance from the original that the modern scholar senses: the reading of the ancient sources does not regularly occur from the original surface of a document - at least if we consider the use of common publications. Thus he still uses the hand copy or transliteration, and the photo will be seen only as a helpful but dispensable instrument. This cannot be the way to correctly "feel" how the ancient reader consumed texts. No Babylonian or Sumerian scribe, or even stonemason - should the latter have been literate - has ever inserted a copy or a transliteration between his eyes and the tablet or stone writing surface. He read from "the page" and could enjoy the inseparable connection between himself and the different forms of materials and genres of monuments. That is a feeling that we today can only experience with difficulty, by the way. This is my own experience, because, while we did gather in a Berlin project all illustrations of 3rd millennium monuments, we were often surprised by the fact that the real shape and appearance of a presumably well-known document exhibited an unexpected variability among all the hitherto known published forms. We felt it would be worthwhile for all scholars to have a look at the stones and metals, not just the inscription, every time they consulted a text. This could represent be a chance to rewrite in a modest way the history of written communication in Babylonia.
As all curators know, there are a multitude of things to do in a museum that leave precious little time for the scientific research we might prefer to spend our time on. Therefore, a museum staff member is by his nature somewhat suspicious, and not a little jealous of his or her time, when colleagues arrive proposals for important and very long-term projects. The now ancient project Archaic Texts of Uruk initiated by Hans Nissen and so successfully, sometimes aggressively pushed forward by him and his associates M. Green and R. Englund, approached us in this way, but at the same time it was also very different. From the very beginning, that project succeeded in building up a certain level of confidence that the practical work with the museum's material could be limited to well-planned arrangements, presentations of lists with tablet numbers and the preparation of tablets by the administrator. The remainder of the work was performed by Englund without further ado, and so it developed that the project, with more then 1,000 items of study, resulted in little interruption for the actual museum organization.
Following this commodious experience, we felt we could cooperate with the CDLI, a project much larger than its predecessor, and surely requiring much more time. However, we felt we had a great advantage: the already processed texts of the "archaic project" could serve as the foundation of the new project, and so we began under the assumption that a large part of the task was already done. In reality we would learn that this was not true, since, first of all, we had a certain number of technical problems. We had to reexamine a number of texts, and also to make entirely new scans - later on, complete new sets of digital photographs where the quality of flatbed scans was not sufficient. Nevertheless, the experiences we have made have been very helpful in arriving at new decisions in how we can best support the project. This was not so much important on the more personal level we had enjoyed, but on the official, administrative level within the museum. A successful cooperation with continually open lines of communication helps to sustain the process.
Once more: this is of special interest if a museum like ours has too few staff members or volunteers to support such a huge task for a long period, because this will become a problem of increasing scope when the number of tablets steadily rises, and the time involved in scanning grows before the staff's eyes, or when the process becomes more and more confusing, made the more difficult by the need for constant transportation of a large number of pieces. We had these problems from time to time, above all because non-staff members are generally not allowed to work in the depot area. Museums which can place the work stations of the CDLI or like projects in the depot itself will probably have less difficulties, although I imagine that the project will encounter the same conservative policy in every large museum.
In this case, it can be very helpful if participants can agree to place the whole project management on a level relatively removed from the museum's tasks. To impress upon partners that the undertaking is one mutual assistance, with anticipated and obvious advantages for the museum both at the level of archiving and documenting the level of preservation of its collections, and at the level of involving its staff in the research into the correlations and contexts of the museum's treasures, should be a clear task for the CDLI in future endeavors.
At this point, I think the CDLI has perhaps its greatest opportunity: to guide both interested scholars and non-specialists to the material of written monuments in their unity of form and content. Add to this, of course, the necessary path to the highlights of written tradition that should be the interface between our work and the public we serve. In this way, we can help to make of the CDLI a virtual museum of the ancient inscriptions of the Orient, and thus offer a portal to the real sense of this work, namely, doing our best to recreate the social, indeed the emotional atmosphere that finally produced these many documents. This would to my mind be a worthwhile vision for the duration of the project. We at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin hope to do our part to realize this goal.