What a Babylonian laundry list says about you
Having trouble reading this ancient Babylonian tablet? Now you can look it up. It may be a grocery list. Or not.
June 10th, 2011
02:11 PM ET

What a Babylonian laundry list says about you

Scholars have completed a dictionary after 90 years of work. Considering the language they were working on is 4,500 years old, they made pretty good time.

The University of Chicago's Oriental Institute this week announced completion of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, a work begun by institute founder James Henry Breasted in 1921.

The 21-volume, 9,700-page opus identifies, explains and provides citations for the words written in cuneiform on clay tablets and carved in stone by Babylonians, Assyrians and others in Mesopotamia between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 100. The first 20 volumes were published as they were completed, but now the work is complete.

"I feel proud and privileged to have brought this project home," said Martha Roth, editor-in-charge of the dictionary, which has about 30,000 entries. She's a late arrival to the project, having only worked on it for 32 years.

"It is a language that is no longer alive, this is absolutely true, but it is a language that records a society and culture that impacts the Western world in a way that is not always clear to us," said Roth, who is dean of humanities at the University of Chicago.

Other than glimpses provided by Hebrew and Greek writings, the modern world knew little about ancient Mesopotamian cultures until 19th-century scholars started to decipher cuneiform inscriptions, Roth said.

"We began to see entire civilizations that had been thriving, flourishing for 3,000 years and more," she said. "This was 3,000 years of history that we've discovered."

Compiling and defining every word of the ancient language allows us to glimpse everyday life in that place and that time and draw connections to our own place and time, Roth said.

The writings gave us "the histories that went into forming who we are," Roth said. They told a creation story older than the Hebrew creation story, told a flood story that preceded the Noah story, and described a code of laws that predated Moses, she said.

Robert Biggs, professor emeritus at the Oriental Institute, worked on the dictionary and also as an archaeologist on digs where he recovered tablets.

"You'd brush away the dirt, and then there would emerge a letter from someone who might be talking about a new child in the family, or another tablet that might be about a loan until harvest time," he said. "You'd realize that this was a culture not just of kings and queens, but also of real people, much like ourselves, with similar concerns for safety, food and shelter for themselves and their families.

"They wrote these tablets thousands of years ago, never meaning for them to be read so much later, but they speak to us in a way that makes their experiences come alive," Biggs said.

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Filed under: Education • Illinois • Literature • Middle East • Science
soundoff (20 Responses)
  1. John

    Thank you for the insight into the alternative creation and flood stories. While present day knowledge would tend to discount the validity of these stories, they were clearly believed by a significant population in the past ... just as the modern day creation and flood stories are accepted by various populations today. However, what I find interesting is that modern day knowledge can not prove that any of these previous stories are totally false any more than modern day knowledge can prove that the current stories are totally true. What seems to be clear to me is that whil the other shoe has yet to drop, all of the current day stories are very unlikely to be totally true as they seem to be mutually exclusive, albeit not collectively exhaustive. It would be interesting to come back in 5,000 or so years and see what the then current conventional wisdom reflects. For some reason I have tendency to feel that the populations in 7,000 to 10,000 AD may feel that the current creation/flood stories are just as mythological as our current view of the stories from ancient civilizations.

    June 11, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. jon

    @gunghoe, are you aware that the ancient jewish people have no term for hell, it's a Greek mythology and has nothing whatsoever to do with the bible. The only definition the jewish people have that comes close translates to meaning death or darkness-a complete separation from god.

    June 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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