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  • SN-0063 Documenting and Digitizing Clay Tablets

This wiki space contains archival documentation of Project Bamboo, April 2008 - March 2013.

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Documenting and Digitizing Clay Tablets

Collection Date: March 9, 2009
Scholar #1 Info: (if more than one scholar's process is described, copy this set for each scholar)

  • Name: Laurie Pearce
  • Email:
  • Title: Lecturer, Department of Near Eastern Studies
  • Institution/Organization: University of California, Berkeley
  • Field of Study/Creative Endeavor: Akkadian, Assyriology, Cuneiform

Collector Info (can be the same as "Scholar" above):

  • Name: Rich Meyer
  • Email:
  • Title: Project Bamboo Program Manager
  • Institution/Organization: University of California, Berkeley
  • Name: Connor Riley
  • Email:
  • Title: Graduate Student Researcher, School of Information
  • Institution/Organization: University of California, Berkeley

Notes on Methodology:

The collectors recorded this interview; delineated various workflows discussed in the interview and wrote them using quotes from the interview. These were then reviewed and edited by the interviewee before being posted.


The scope section is provided by the collector, with input from the scholar(s), and attempts to estimate the scope of the group that performs the processes described: How broadly do the practices described in this narrative apply to others in same field, in related fields, etc?

  1. In the opinion of the scholar, who participates in the process the story describes?
    (e.g. "just this scholar", "many people in the scholar's field of inquiry", "all academics", etc.)
  2. What is this process intended to accomplish for the scholar?
  3. Who is the intended audience of the processes described?
  4. Is this the only process the scholar uses to accomplish his/her goals?
  5. What "shared services" would help transform the story into something of more benefit for the scholar or his/her audience?  What process or processes in the story could be automated?


Please provide some keywords that will allow us to group or cluster related stories--or aspects of stories.

2. Suggested keywords: Does this narrative contain elements that could be mapped to these keywords?  If so, please indicate which ones and briefly describe the mapping.  Add any additional keywords in #3. (These are global keywords from this page keywords)


In the field of Near Eastern archaeology, there are over half a million existing clay documents which collectively form the basis for literary, social and economic research in the field. These clay documents are stored primarily in museum collections and are generally not available digitally. 
In order for scholars to access a document, they must have physical access to the tablet itself, or access to a printed transcription of the tablet's contents. These transcriptions, or autograph(ed), or hand copy, copies of tablets, are assembled for publication in book form by scholars. A single transcription may form the basis for a scholarly journal article. Once published, other scholars can more easily access these printed sources for their research. 
Projects exist to digitally scan clay documents, but scanning is currently done on flatbed scanners even though clay tablets are three-dimensional objects; cost is usually the biggest factor in preventing increased and better digitization of tablets. Transcription is then generally done by a scholar looking at the tablet itself, not a digital copy of the tablet. 
In current hand-transcriptions, it is up to the transcribing scholar whether or not to document the shape of the document and any flaws in the tablet. Annotations are used to mark flaws in the tablet or unintelligible text, but these annotations are not standardized between scholars. Other information that scholars may add to an autographed copy before publishing include museum and publication numbers for locating the physical document. 
Some digital tools do exist to catalog clay documents. The CDLI, or Cuneiform Digital Library initiative, is the primary index for collecting scans, autographed copies, and metadata on all existing clay documents, with about 250,000 currently documented in any way. When transcribing or making a copy a clay document, use of the CDLI is important to give other scholars access to the texts that one is transcribing and scholars should take the time to enter any metadata about the document they find. Unfortunately the list of metadata the CDLI requests for a simple submission is very long, asking for publication history, size, museum numbers, and many other pieces of metadata that may take extensive time to gather. However, the greater the number of shared autographed copies and collected metadata offered to  the community, the better the access other scholars have to primary sources.


Greater access to digital tools could conceivably help solve the problem of how to provide scholars greater access to primary sources. More coordinated efforts to digitally scan clay documents in a fully representational manner would certainly help. 
Automated character recognition technology could also help to transcribe digitized clay documents; such technology would need to be able to take into account how the characters change over time and account for differing handwriting styles, but if a computer program could generate a fairly good transcription from a scanned clay document, it would save scholars a lot of time. 
Digitizing the scholarly works which collect autographed copies could also be useful. If by digitizing these volumes scholars could search within them for names of people or terms, it would greatly cut down on the time needed to both locate sources and find particular names or terms within them. 
There may be possible improvements that can be made to documenting tablets in the CDLI. There may be shortcuts available to pre-populate some of the data that needs to be entered, which would save time. 

Other Comments:

The information below was comprised when transcribing the interview, to make sure pieces were not missing.  If it is unhelpful, please disregard.


Discover document of interest in a museum or other collection
Go to the location where the document is store
Document the text
Document any associated decoration, seals, etc.
Document any flaws in the tablet if necessary
Document the shape of the tablet if necessary
Note museum number, publication number, any other metadata associated with the clay document
Collect other metadata associated with clay document
Enter metadata into CDLI form
Create CDLI entry for tablet
Upload autographed copy or tablet scan to CDLI 

Ingredients: Tools and Content

Clay tablets
Pictures or scans of clay documents
CDLI for digitized clay documents
Clay document Metadata:    
Document size    
Museum number    
Publication numbers    
Publication History    
Excavation information    
Age/Dating information



Example Link