Dictionary of dead language complete after 90 years
By Cordelia Hebblethwaite BBC News
A dictionary of the extinct language of ancient Mesopotamia has been completed after 90 years of work.
Assyrian and Babylonian - dialects of the language collectively known as Akkadian - have not been spoken for almost 2,000 years.
"This is a heroic and significant moment in history," beamed Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum's Middle East department.
As a young man in the 1970s Dr Finkel dedicated three years of his life to The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary Project which is based at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.
That makes him something of a spring chicken in the life story of this project, which began in 1921.
Almost 90 experts from around the world took part, diligently recording and cross referencing their work on what ended up being almost two million index cards.
The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is 21 volumes long and is encyclopaedic in its range. Whole volumes are dedicated to a single letter, and it comes complete with extensive references to original source material throughout.
It all sounds like a lot of work for a dictionary in a language that no-one speaks anymore.
It was "often tedious," admits Prof Matthew W Stolper of the Oriental Institute, who worked for many years on the dictionary - but it was also hugely rewarding and fascinating, he adds.
"It's like looking through a window into a moment from thousands of years in the past," he told the BBC World Service.
Ancient life and love
The dictionary was put together by studying texts written on clay and stone tablets uncovered in ancient Mesopotamia, which sat between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers - the heartland of which was in modern-day Iraq, and also included parts of Syria and Turkey.
And there were rich pickings for them to pore over, with 2,500 years worth of texts ranging from scientific, medical and legal documents, to love letters, epic literature and messages to the gods.
"It is a miraculous thing," enthuses Dr Finkel.
"We can read the ancient words of poets, philosophers, magicians and astronomers as if they were writing to us in English.
"When they first started excavating Iraq in 1850, they found lots of inscriptions in the ground and on palace walls, but no-one could read a word of it because it was extinct," he said.
But what is so striking according to the editor of the dictionary, Prof Martha Roth, is not the differences, but the similarities between then and now.
A statue inside the Assyrian Hall of the Iraqi National Museum Inside the Assyrian Hall of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad
"Rather than encountering an alien world, we encounter a very, very familiar world," she says, with people concerned about personal relationships, love, emotions, power, and practical things like irrigation and land use.
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians are far more prominent both in the public consciousness and in school and university curriculums these days.
But in the 19th Century it was Mesopotamia that enthralled - partly because researchers were looking for proof of some of the bible stories, but also because its society was so advanced.
"A lot of the history of how people went from being merely human to being civilised, happened in Mesopotamia," says Prof Stolper.
All sorts of major advances are thought to have their earliest origins there, and - crucially - Mesopotamia is believed to be among three or four places in the world where writing first emerged.
The cuneiform script - used to write both Assyrian and Babylonian, and first used for the Sumerian language - is, according to Dr Finkel, the oldest script in the world, and was an inspiration for its far more famous cousin, hieroglyphics.
Its angular characters were etched into clay tablets, which were then baked in the sun, or fired in kilns.
This produced a very durable product, but it was very hard to write, and from about 600BC, Aramaic - which is spoken by modern-day Assyrians in the region - began to gain prominence, simply because it was easier to put into written form, researchers believe.
With the dictionary now finally complete, "there are mixed emotions", says Prof Roth.
"As someone who has been so deeply engaged every day of the last 32 years with this project, there is a sizeable chunk of my scholarly identity that feels like it is going to be missing for a while," she told the BBC World Service.
Dictionary page An entry from the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary
"It's a great achievement and a source of pride," adds Prof Stolper.
"It was like a living thing that grew older and changed its attitudes, that made mistakes and corrected them.
Now that it's done, it's a monument, grand and imposing, but at rest".
But those involved most closely in the dictionary, are also the first to stress its limitations.
They still do not know what some words mean, and because new discoveries are being made all the time, it is - and always will - remain a work in progress.
Prof Stolper for one says he is stepping aside; any future updates or revisions would be best done by "fresh minds" and "fresh hands", he believes.
The entire dictionary costs $1,995 (£1,230; 1,400 euros), but is also available for free online - a far cry from the dictionary's low-tech beginnings.
Turning philosophical, Dr Finkel reflects on the legacy of our own increasingly electronic age, where so much of what we do is intangible.
"What is there going to be in 1,000 years' time for lunatics like me, who like to read ancient inscriptions - what are they ever going to find?" he asks.
"They will probably say that there was no writing - it was a dark age, that people had forgotten it, because there may be nothing left."
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg2 ... ?full=trueClimate change: The great civilisation destroyer?
06 August 2012 by Michael Marshall
Magazine issue 2876.
War and unrest, and the collapse of many mighty empires, often followed changes in local climes. Is this more than a coincidence? ...
The notion that climate change toppled entire civilisations has been around for more than a century, but it was only in the 1990s that it gained a firm footing as researchers began to work out exactly how the climate had changed, using clues buried in lake beds or petrified in stalactites. Harvey Weiss of Yale University set the ball rolling with his studies of the collapse of one of the earliest empires: that of the Akkadians.
It began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, a belt of rich farmland where an advanced regional culture had developed over many centuries. In 2334 BC, Sargon was born in the city state of Akkad. He started out as a gardener, was put in charge of clearing irrigation canals, and went on to seize power. Not content with that, he conquered many neighbouring city states, too. The empire Sargon founded thrived for nearly a century after his death before it collapsed.
Excavating in what is now Syria, Weiss found dust deposits suggesting that the region's climate suddenly became drier around 2200 BC. The drought would have led to famine, he argued, explaining why major cities were abandoned at this time (Science, vol 261, p 995). A piece of contemporary writing, called The Curse of Akkad, does describe a great famine:
For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither syrup nor wine,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel's worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel's worth of grain was only one-half quart. …
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.
Weiss's work was influential, but there wasn't much evidence. In 2000, climatologist Peter deMenocal of Columbia University in New York found more. His team showed, based on modern records going back to 1700, that the flow of the region's two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, is linked to conditions in the north Atlantic: cooler waters reduce rainfall by altering the paths of weather systems. Next, they discovered that the north Atlantic cooled just before the Akkadian empire fell apart (Science, vol 288, p 2198). "To our surprise we got this big whopping signal at the time of the Akkadian collapse."
It soon became clear that major changes in the climate coincided with the untimely ends of several other civilisations (see map). ...
Even as the evidence grew, there was something of a backlash against the idea that changing climates shaped the fate of civilisations. "Many in the archaeological community are really reticent to accept a role of climate in human history," says deMenocal.
Much of this reluctance is for historical reasons. In the 18th and 19th centuries, anthropologists argued that a society's environment shaped its character, an idea known as environmental determinism. They claimed that the warm, predictable climates of the tropics bred indolence, while cold European climates produced intelligence and a strong work ethic. These ideas were often used to justify racism and exploitation.
Understandably, modern anthropologists resist anything resembling environmental determinism. "It's a very delicate issue," says Ulf Büntgen, also at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, whose work suggests the decline of the Western Roman Empire was linked to a period of highly variable weather. "The field is evolving really slowly, because people are afraid to make bold statements."
Yet this resistance is not really warranted, deMenocal says. No one today is claiming that climate determines people's characters, only that it sets limits on what is feasible. When the climate becomes less favourable, less food can be grown. Such changes can also cause plagues of locusts or other pests, and epidemics among people weakened by starvation. When it is no longer feasible to maintain a certain population level and way of life, the result can be collapse. "Climate isn't a determinant, but it is an important factor," says Drake, who is at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "It enables or disables."
Some view even this notion as too simplistic. Karl Butzer of the University of Texas at Austin, who has studied the collapse of civilisations, thinks the role of climate has been exaggerated. It is the way societies handle crises that decides their fate, he says. "Things break through institutional failure." When it comes to the Akkadians, for instance, Butzer says not all records support the idea of a megadrought. ...
For more details see:... In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the Hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400-year-old cult hymn. ...
Thank you - it's extraordinarily fascinating.For more details see...