Hi-tech approach to preserving ancient scripts

Cuneiform script is one of mankind’s earliest systems of writing, first developed in Mesopotamia around 3300 BCE. Cuneiform scribes wrote by pressing a reed stylus into soft clay tablets producing wedge-like impressions - hence, the name cuneiform, from Latin cuneus ‘wedge’ and forma ‘shape’. Ancient cuneiform texts depict the religious, literary, scientific and everyday life of their era. There are encyclopaedias, dictionaries, political texts, letters, administrative documents and scribe school tablets as well as epic stories like the British Museum flood tablet and the recently deciphered ark tablet.

As a medium, clay has proven durable over the millennia in terms of preserving inscriptions but the excavated artefacts we have today are predominantly fragmented. The reconstruction of these fragments is like a worldwide jigsaw puzzle of gigantic proportion. But unlike jigsaw puzzles of thousands of pieces, which computers can now easily solve, these pieces are complex free-form 3D objects and they form an unknown number of complete or incomplete tablets whose surviving pieces can be eroded and may no longer fit well together.

Collections of thousands of cuneiform tablet fragments are distributed in museums worldwide. The largest collections are found in the British Museum, the Louvre, the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Cuneiform tablets were still being discovered until recently when instability in the region (modern-day Iraq and the adjoining countries) halted excavations. As we know from frequent reports in the media, this instability has also had catastrophic consequences for the peoples of the region and for their heritage sites and collections.

As part of a Leverhulme Trust funded project, www.cuneiform.org.uk, our team has created tools for the collaborative reassembly of virtual cuneiform tablet fragments across the Internet. It also developed computer algorithms to automatically find fragment matches. In 2014, we successfully made the world’s first automatic cuneiform fragment joins – these were scanned Neo-Babylonian fragments (c.600 BCE) from the ancient city of Uruk.

One significant barrier to the creation of virtual artefact repositories is the time, cost and logistics of acquiring 3D scans. For example, laser scanning systems typically cost thousands of pounds and don’t provide texture detail. We had the idea of developing a high-quality but low-cost capture system that could also be more easily resourced and used in places where collections were vulnerable. The result was a camera and laptop system with a rotating artefact turntable (adapted from a jeweller’s window display turntable) and we used photogrammetric image processing techniques to compute 3D mesh models, rendered with photographic detail, to produce high-quality virtual forms.

Next, we had the idea of creating a smartphone version of the system – a system so low cost it could almost be thought of as disposable and sent anywhere it might be needed – yet still capable of capturing high-quality data. The smartphone version doesn’t need a laptop. The phone controls the turntable rotation and takes photographs at ten degree intervals. The whole system, including the phone, can be made for as little as £100.

We had a fantastic opportunity recently to test both the camera and smartphone systems with the British Museum Ur collection. This incredible collection of artefacts contains several thousand cuneiform fragments. At the time of writing, we have just made a first automated join from photogrammetrically captured fragments in the collection and are currently processing the remaining data. We have a new PhD student ready to expand on the work and, with our Leverhulme team, Assyriologist and museum collaborators, we aspire to contribute toward digital artefact preservation and the exciting new insights revealed in these ancient texts. 

Thanks also to the Leverhulme Trust for their financial support and to our fellow research team members E. Ch’ng, A. Lewis, L. Hernandez- Munoz and E Gehlken, and also the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and British Museum.