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Early cooperation

The effort to digitize and make available via the internet the imposing early cuneiform collections of the Vorderasiatisches Museum (VAM) is marked by a long history of cooperation between the staff of that museum and members of the academic community involved in research on tablets in the museum's collection. Since the mid-70's, the members of the project Archaische Texte aus Uruk, including Hans Nissen, Margret Green and Robert Englund of the Free University of Berlin (Englund currently at the University of California at Los Angeles, UCLA), and Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for Education and Human Development (currently Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, MPIWG), have with the support of the VAM Directors Liane Rost, Evelyn Klengel-Brandt, and currently Beate Salje, and in particular with the unstinting assistance of the tablet curator Joachim Marzahn and the archivist Hans-Joachim Nohka, spent many hundreds of hours cataloguing, transliterating and copying the museum's 1755 proto-cuneiform tablets deriving primarily from the pre-World War II German excavations of southern Babylonian Uruk/Warka. The large number of proto-cuneiform documents in this collection makes it in its composition far and away the most important outside of Iraq; considering the fact that the largest numbers of tablets from the first writing phase in Mesopotamia, according to excavation stratigraphy called the Uruk IV period (ca. 3200 B.C.), were unearthed in the pre-war campaigns, the VAM collection in fact represents the most substantial source on earth for the study of the beginning of writing in the Near East (see the literature cited here, in particular R. Englund, ATU 5, and the description of the collection ).

Project expansion

A decisive change, which led to the form of access to the collection presented here, occurred with the decision of the museum in 1998 to participate in the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI). This decision was preceded by a reevaluation of research with the goal of extending the focus on archaic texts to include all museum texts dating from the early periods of cuneiform, that is, from the Uruk IV period ca. 3200 until the end of the so-called Ur III Dynasty ca. 2000 B.C. The reason for this expansion of interest rests in both the academic pursuits of the participants in this effort, as well as in the natural scope of study in ancient literacy and administration; for the conservative written tradition in Mesopotamia often presents scholars with textual evidence from later periods which facilitates their understanding of earlier material. Finally, the common interest of the project participants in developing tools for the paleographic analysis of early cuneiform, made the inclusion of all 3rd millennium texts from the VAM in the data of the research participants desirable, if not mandatory. As a welcome outgrowth of this work, the 200 documents in the museum from ancient Fara, dating to ca. 2600 B.C. and containing the earliest known examples of a comprehensible written literary tradition, are for the first time presented in photographic form; the transliterations of these texts are currently being entered in SGML markup by Blahoslav Hruska in Prague and, together with further bibliographical and translation aids, will be inserted in these pages upon their completion.

The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science provided funding for staff and computing facilities to undertake the digitization of the over 3200 clay documents in the early cuneiform collection of the VAM. From 1995 on, the museum archivist Nohka and the MPIWG staff member Michael Schüring produced digital images of the texts, based on museum records and the electronic catalogues of the CDLI. Since early 2000, Markus Schnöpf of the MPIWG has undertaken the completion of digital imaging and the correction of several hundred earlier images deemed below project standards. The presentation here represents the result of the completion of the first stage of electronic capture of the VAM texts. In a meeting held at the MPIWG in August of 1999, attended by the principle investigators of the CDLI, by Director Salje of the VAM and by the president of the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, an agreement was reached concerning the form in which the texts were to be made available through the internet.


The state of research presented here is evidently a work in progress and exhibits the early focus of our research in archaic cuneiform. Translation aids, and transliterations of the incompletely treated texts of later periods will be inserted in these pages in the near future. Several dozen texts from the Old Akkadian period (ca. 2340-2200 B.C.) have not been digitized. We believe nonetheless that the pages of this internet site represent an advance in the use and distribution of public museum collections, and indeed may serve as a model of how a successful cooperation among members of research institutes, universities and cultural institutions can result in a public information forum of lasting impact.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, President, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Beate Salje, Director, Vorderasiatisches Museum
Robert Englund, Peter Damerow, principle investigators, Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative
Jürgen Renn, Director, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science