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Nippur excavations, 1895. Photograph by John Henry Haynes, University Museum Archives.

A century after University Museum archaeologists uncovered thousands of tablets bearing the earliest known form of writing and 25 years after efforts began to compile a dictionary of the language, the Penn Sumerian Dictionary Project is going online.

By Susan Frith

Sidebar | The Rise and Fall of Hermann Hilprecht

The letter to Provost William Pepper C1862 M1864 came from Baghdad and bore a warning: “Entirely confidentially!

“I suffer immensely,” wrote its author, Dr. Hermann V. Hilprecht. “For what did I come then on this expedition, for what did I sacrifice all that was mine?”

The source of Hilprecht’s anguish during that winter of 1889 was a great trove of antiquities, including cuneiform tablets, recently purchased by two members of the Babylonian Exploration Fund. As an Assyriologist with a high opinion of his own abilities, he was appalled that his colleagues on the expedition hadn’t even offered him a peek. 

Seven months after setting out, the explorers were still waiting for official permission to excavate at Nippur, and the Wali had just denied them an audience because of a toothache. Even if they did get a permit to dig, he added, there was no hope of unearthing artifacts from such a vast area that season. “All my hope is buried.”

It wouldn’t remain buried for long, however. From the mounds of Nippur, 60,000 Sumerian cuneiform tablets and fragments would be unearthed over the next decade by the expedition team, which had agreed to give everything to a new museum being established by Provost Pepper. And now, more than a century later, the enormous mound of information gleaned from the ancient texts has made its way into an online Sumerian dictionary.

Dr. Steve Tinney, director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Dr. Steve Tinney, director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project, is eager to spread the words. Through the work of a seven-member team at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a partial version went up this month at ( 

Today most of the 30,000 pieces of the museum’s cuneiform tablet collection are stored in the offices of the Babylonian section, for which Tinney is associate curator. A veritable dessert cart of antiquities parked outside his own office offers a sampler of the world’s oldest written language for visual consumption by curious visitors: Palm-sized copybooks that students used to learn words for animals and personal names. A Flood account that bears a resemblance to the one in the Old Testament. And on a cylinder-shaped tablet, one of the oldest known literary texts. It’s a myth from about 2700 B.C.E. that continues to baffle translators. According to Tinney, “About the only thing we understand is they had sex and they kissed.”

The bulk of the tablets are stored in long file drawers, nestled like brooches in plastic boxes lined with archivally correct styrofoam. “One of the reasons the dictionary project was started here,” says Tinney, is that the “jewels of the collection,” its Sumerian literary texts, represent the world’s largest trove. Most of the texts were excavated at Nippur from what Tinney believes to have been home-based schools for the children of bureaucrats. The University is particularly fortunate to have these records, because school assignments were typically recycled in ancient Mesopotamia—the clay balled up and soaked overnight in a jar of water. The literary texts provide valuable contexts for scholars trying to understand the use and meanings of Sumerian words.

A quarter of a century ago, Dr. Åke Sjöberg—with the help of Dr. Erle Leichty—set out to compile a Sumerian dictionary at Penn. Pursuing grants and filling out thousands of notecards on the historical development of every word, they knew it would be a long, painstaking project. Sjöberg joked to a Gazette writer at the time that when the dictionary was finally done 200 years later, they would send out drafts of their entries to specialists, “who will read them and tell us we’re fools.”

It took until 1998 to produce four volumes, covering a fraction of the alphabet. “Although these books are very impressive and are great achievements in their own right,” says Tinney—pointing to a tall red tome resting on his work table that represents one portion of the letter A—“doing it this way could take another 30 or 40 years. And the times have changed. Acceptance of that sort of project has diminished to zero, so [we] are doing everything electronically now.” But although the electronic dictionary will build upon the work of scholars like Sj…berg, now emeritus professor in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and Leichty, emeritus professor of Assyriology—and, indeed, a slew of Sumerologists—it will also have a different focus. The older version was an exhaustive concordance that listed all the instances where each word occurs. The electronic dictionary will feature an updatable collection of words and their definitions and equivalents in Akkadian (a Semitic cuneiform language that displaced Sumerian); the entries will, in turn, be linked by search engine to administrative and literary texts in which those words appear. 

The team’s plan is to release within two years a beta version of the online dictionary that users can download to burn their own CDs. “The goal is not to produce something that’s exhaustively perfect the first time around,” Tinney says. “The idea is to be useful as soon as possible and fix the last few bits later.” Thanks to this incremental approach—as well as the use of advanced technology and data swapping with other institutions—the online dictionary will be released much more quickly than it could be in print form.

“One thing we’re very keen on doing is making the results usable on as many different kinds of machines as possible and to make it redistributable for no more than the cost of the media,” says Tinney. For one reason, many students can’t afford an expensive dictionary. He also would like the data to be accessible in places like Syria and Iraq, where the primary sources are still being found—“and where there is not always a reliable source of electricity, let alone a reliable Internet connection. So it’s very important that it’s self-contained and you can stick a CD in a notebook computer.”

(Excavations, of course, could be curtailed by the threat of war. The U.S. government hasn’t allowed researchers to spend money in Iraq since the Persian Gulf War, but teams from other countries have begun digs there.) 

After the dictionary has undergone scholarly review, Tinney hopes to publish a concise print version, and then to update the CD about every five years.

The project has received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, its longtime supporter. But it cannot continue to ask the agency for money, Tinney says. “One of the fundamental changes [with computerization] is we have gone from a fixed product to really a dictionary which [represents] a process. There is no real endpoint in sight.” As a result, the University Museum is trying to raise $3 million through its capital campaign to endow two permanent research positions for the dictionary project.

To get the word out, a museum exhibition on writing will launch in 2005 and travel the country. And, next spring, the museum will host a major event centered on storytelling and the Gilgamesh epic (for which the museum possesses several varied texts), complete with a stage production of the Akkadian version based on a new translation by Andrew George, published in 2000. (Fittingly, this later version of Gilgamesh expresses the durability of writing—a way for a king’s accomplishments to be preserved for the ages, “effectively enabling immortality where physical immortality is impossible.”)

One Line At a Time:
ninda gish-ma-am a gish-gi-mush-am (the signs)
ninda ma’am a gimusham (the approximate pronunciation) 
Translation— “Bread is the boat; water is the oar.”

ninda = bread, food
a = water, drink
ma = boat
gimush = oar
am = is

gish is a “determinative”—a sign used before words for trees and things made of wood which gives an indication of the semantic field of the following term.

—Professor Steve Tinney

“I like to say I got started in this field out of perversity,” says Tinney. “The personal myth with which I shroud the beginnings of my interest was that in grammar school [in southwestern England], when I was 11 or 12, our first year of ancient history, our textbooks began with texts on ancient Mesopotamia, which we did not cover in class. I figured if we weren’t doing it in class, it must be more interesting.” Tinney earned his undergraduate degree at Cambridge University and his Ph.D. at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He came to Penn in 1991 for a one-year postdoctoral position and wound up staying. “So the lesson is never to invite me in for a year.” Now associate professor of ancient Mesopotamian languages and cultures and director of the Center for Ancient Studies, Tinney brings to his job a hearty irreverence, reporting that his parents sent him to “electrocution” classes to get rid of his “regional accent” and groaning good-naturedly when asked a question that seems to beg a sound bite for an answer.

While he can joke about his life and work, Tinney is very serious in his belief that information should be shared more freely within and outside the academy. At a lunchtime talk about the dictionary project for museum employees, someone asks Tinney who the dictionary will be made available to, and his answer is, essentially, everyone with an interest. “I believe in complete freedom of academic data,” he says. 

“I think this is one of the most important, significant research projects the museum is doing,” says Dr. Jeremy Sabloff C’64, the Williams Director of the University Museum and University Museum Term Professor of Anthropology. The dictionary team has already “made important contributions,” he says, and under Tinney’s leadership, “they promise to make even more important ones in the years to come.” According to Sabloff, “the current goals of the Sumerian Dictionary Project mesh perfectly with the museum’s strong, mission-driven focus on outreach and accessibility for scholars and for the general public.”

Tinney hopes the dictionary will be a resource not only to specialists, but also to scholars interested in searching the vast body of information available in the accompanying texts to answer cultural questions, such as, “What did chairs look like in Sumer?” He would also like to see someone write a cultural encyclopedia around the dictionary.

The museum, through Tinney, has also become a partner with several institutions preparing online editions of Sumerian texts, allowing them to scan texts in its collection with the understanding that it will be able to integrate their “data sets” into the dictionary. 

The original Nippur expeditions were not so collegial. In one of his letters to Hilprecht, Provost Pepper expressed dismay upon learning that the expedition’s first scientific director, Dr. John Peters, sent about a dozen purchased cuneiform inscriptions that he couldn’t read to a professor at Oxford. All actions, Pepper wrote, must be taken for the “benefit of the University … It will not do to allow things to go into the hands of others. We must be just before we are liberal.”

dubsar emegir numunzua anam dubsar ene = “A scribe who does not know Sumerian, what kind of a scribe is he?”

dubsar shu kata sa eneam dubsaram = “A scribe whose hand can keep up with his mouth–he is really a scribe!”

“If you want to understand history,” says Tinney, “and you believe that histories are contingent upon each other and that one can follow paths through history to explain things, we have to understand as much as we can about the history of human experience. Early Mesopotamia, with its incredible wealth of preserved documentation in Sumerian and other languages, deserves to play a central role in advancing our understanding of that experience.”

As Dr. Samuel Kramer, the late Clark research professor in Sumerology as well as curator and pioneering translator of the museum’s tablet collections, wrote in his popular 1956 work, History Begins at Sumer, the Sumerians were a people of many “firsts.” They convened the first bicameral legislature, started the first schools, and left behind the first farmer’s almanac, medical handbook, and histories and proverbs. Tinney, however, steers the conversation away from questions about who the Sumerians were, where they came from, and who displaced them. “We understand now that the relationship between ethnic movement and interaction and language use is much more complicated than that. Rather than looking at the Sumerians per se, I would say the Sumerian language is an essential part of Mesopotamian culture going back to 3200 B.C. or so, and continuing for more than three millennia.” 

Why did writing develop in Mesopotamia? “It depends on whom you ask,” he says. “The simplest and probably correct answer is that writing emerged at the same time as the first substantial urbanization, and writing was associated with the increased administrative needs faced by larger organizations. Whether urbanization caused the need for writing or writing enabled urbanization,” Tinney says, “we don’t really know at this point.” There likely is a connection, though not a linear one, between writing and another recording system that involved using tiny clay tokens to represent commodities and numbers, says Tinney. Both methods were probably used early on, and “subsequently writing won out.”

According to Tinney, Sumerian died out as a spoken language around 2000 B.C.E., but continued to function as a cornerstone of the Mesopotamian education system until around 1700 B.C.E. It then continued to be used in certain contexts, religious and magical, down to the beginning of the common era.

But the power of writing didn’t rest in everyone’s hands. Being a scribe in ancient Mesopotamia meant having access to higher level jobs in the administration, Tinney says. “It’s a career track, essentially.” One interesting aspect of the literary texts is that they don’t present kings in a uniformly good light. In fact, some texts show rulers “who end up in sticky situations” as a result of their misdeeds, providing “an internal debate … about the nature of kingship,” Tinney says. “So it really makes it look as if literature belongs to not a simple organ of the court but a societal stratum which has its own interests and which is designed to some extent to survive kings.”

To the untrained eye Sumerian writing is a confusion of cramped markings that seem to run together on the baked clay. Proper lighting, a magnifier, and lots of experience are required to curl up with a tablet for a good read.

Sumerian is what is known as an isolate. The language has no relatives, living or dead. Scholars have been able to translate Sumerian writings because many texts are written in both Sumerian and Akkadian, which shares a common ancestry with other, better known Semitic languages. But Sumerian still is incredibly hard to understand. “I always tell students that you have to know what’s there before you read it,” says Tinney. 

The first “gotcha,” he says, is that the writing system doesn’t directly represent the spoken language. Sumerian writing began with pictographs, pictures formed with a pointed stylus which represented the literal meaning of the words. But they quickly morphed into more stylized renderings, consisting of an arrangement of wedge-shaped marks, called cuneiform. And then grammatical markers were added to the writing system. So the sign for mouth, which has the pronunciation of ka, could be used to write the sound ka, representing other words that have the same spoken sound. (The symbol for ka is also used to write the participle of.) Sumerian also features ideograms, which are signs that represent concepts. The sign ka, for example, could also be used to indicate wordspeak, or tooth. In addition, some of the signs represent syllabic sounds, and could be used to write personal names or words in another language, such as the Akkadian word for dog, formed with the signs for kaal, and bu

According to Tinney, Sumerology is still a new field, and the language has only been studied properly for the past half-century or so. One hindrance to translation has been the fact that some of the tablets in Penn’s collection were broken when they were excavated—and their fragments are now scattered in different museums. “Iraq was under the possession of the Ottoman Empire at the time of Hilprecht’s excavations, and the Ottomans kept half of everything,” says Tinney. On top of that, there was a “minor scandal” involving Hilprecht, “who claimed the Sultan gave him a number of tablets as a personal gift and kept them at his home in Jena, Germany.” Some were eventually donated by his widow to a museum there. Tinney hopes to eventually digitize the University Museum’s entire collection of tablets and try to get other institutions to do the same, so those fragments can one day be joined on the screen.

“The actual body of texts, the core knowledge of Sumerian we have is constantly changing,” he says. Considering the large number of untranslated texts out there—and those still being uncovered—there will always be something to puzzle over. Lately, Tinney has become fascinated with another cuneiform writing system called Hurrian, for which very few tablets have been collected. The museum possesses a small number.

“My fantasy is that someday soon, and by that I mean in my lifetime, somebody will discover a large collection of Sumerian-Hurrian bilingual texts,” he says. And then, he adds with an irreverent smile, “we’ll really have the blind leading the blind.”


Hilprecht in profile.
(Photos: University Museum Archives)

The January 3, 1903, edition of Old Penn leads with a flowery account, typical for its day, of a public lecture given by a young, hot-shot professor named Hermann V. Hilprecht. His discovery of a temple library in the ancient holy city of Nippur will give future generations “considerable knowledge” of the ages before Abraham, “which only recently were regarded by many scholars as mythical,” the Gazette’s predecessor reports. Before this find, “the creation was reckoned at about 4000 B.C.,” but the University’s excavations “have changed all of this and pushed back the beginning of history several thousand years.”

Beside the article, a photograph of the German-born Hilprecht peers out. His high, starched collar and serious countenance are offset by a mustache curled up like the ringmaster’s in Georges Seurat’s Circus. In some ways the ancient Near East was a mysterious Big Top for Westerners of the early 20th century, and Hilprecht was its showman. In his heyday, holding forth to readers of the Sunday School Times (a religious newspaper), the German Kaiser, and the curious-minded of Philadelphia, Hilprecht was content to leave uncorrected the public’s impression that he had done most of the work in the desert. In fact, he was out there amidst the sandstorms and flies only twice in 11 years, spending most of his time back in Philadelphia, translating and publishing results; in Constantinople, where he curried favor with the Ottoman Sultan (and secured for Penn the gift of many tablets) by lending his expertise to the imperial museum; and at his home in Jena, Germany. The so-called temple library was discovered by director of exploration, John Henry Haynes, in January 1900, during the last of four digs at Nippur sponsored by the Babylonian Exploration Fund. As scientific director, Hilprecht came on the scene in March to try to bring order to the site, which had been sloppily excavated, and to interpret the finds.

A 1903 painting of the Nippur excavations by Osman Hamdi Bey, director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum. According to University Museum archivist Alex Pezzati, Bey made it for Hermann Hilprecht and even included what is assumed to be the figure of the Assyriologist in the picture. (Photo: University Museum Archives)

Western explorers had been excavating Mesopotamia in earnest since the 1870s, when the British, and then the French, followed by the Americans, got into the game, explains Dr. Steve Tinney, associate curator of the University Museum’s Babylonian section and director of the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project. “So part of it is competitive colonialist archaeology,” which had its impetus in the 18th century when travelers brought back accounts of the Near East.

There was also an ideological component to the expeditions. As Dr. Bruce Kuklick C’63 Gr’68, the Jeanette P. and Roy F. Nichols Professor of History, writes in Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930, the Babylonian Exploration Fund “encouraged the generosity of moneyed citizens” for whom “the hope of scientifically establishing the truth of the Old Testament was comfortingly high-minded in an age troubled by Darwin yet unwilling to give up religious verities.”

Like many drawn to the ancient Near East in his day, Hilprecht was fascinated by the rise and fall of great cultures: “Ninevah and Babylon! What illustrious names and prominent types of human strength, intellectual power, and lofty aspiration; but also what terrible examples of atrocious deeds, of lack of restraint, of moral corruption, and ultimate downfall!” As he wrote these words in his Explorations in Bible Lands, basking in the glory of the Penn expeditions, he little expected his own rise and fall in the academic firmament.

Trained in Germany under Professor Friedrich Delitzsch, Hilprecht, a Lutheran minister, came to Philadelphia to edit the Sunday School Times and was hired by Penn as a lecturer in Egyptology, and then as professor of Assyriology before being asked to join the expedition as co-Assyriologist. At that time, writes Kuklick, the German doctoral education system was more renowned than its American counterpart, and Hilprecht had the arrogance to show for it:

In his first confidential letters to Provost William Pepper C1862 M1864, during the Fall of 1888, Hilprecht was already critical of his colleagues’ abilities and pessimistic about the expedition’s chances for success. Not only does Dr. John Peters, the BEF’s first scientific director and also a professor of Semitics at Penn, possess “unsound and illogical judgement,” but he also administrates “as dictator, blind against our advices.” Peters won’t give Hilprecht money to buy a revolver to defend himself if “I am attacked by some robber or impudent beggar.” Haynes (who came on the first expedition as photographer and business manager), he huffed, is a “man of comparatively small knowledge,” while co-Assyriologist Frank Harper and architect Perez Hastings Field are spendthrifts. On top of that, Hilprecht had been requested to travel third or fourth class to Beirut, and thus “sleep on the naked floor of the steamer” surrounded by “the lowest class of Oriental paupers,” sheep, and swine. This he refused as “beneath my dignity & that of my University.”

The dislike was apparently mutual. Peters implied Hilprecht’s unfitness for travel in his book, Nippur, or Explorations and Adventures on the Euphrates, published in 1897. Describing one mishap involving Hilprecht, Peters wrote: “The water was only about three or four feet deep; but when a man who cannot swim falls into a river, especially if the river is icy cold and he is on the top of a plunging horse, he is very apt to feel sure that he is drowning and do everything but put his feet on the bottom. For everybody excepting Hilprecht, who thought that his last moment had come, and the horse, which seemed to share the same conviction, it was a very ludicrous five minutes before horse and rider could be pulled out of the shallow water and set on terra firma again.”

Hilprecht was convinced that the only hope for success lay in buying collections for the University, and he continually urged Pepper to call back the failed expedition. “Here we stand at the old stream of the lost Paradise. But the same angel who was placed as a guardian before the door of Eden, keeps still away all those from its hidden treasures who come without self-humiliation, and the earnest desire to serve God alone in all that they are permitted to do.”

Even without angelic opposition, there were plenty of natural and human hazards facing these explorers. Peters wrote one day in his diary: “The thermometer in my tent is 92 degrees, and there are at least ten flies for each degree.” Robbery and typhoid fever presented constant threats. The first expedition’s camp—built unwisely atop the mounds of Nippur—was burned by warring Arab factions, each of which staked claims to the territory.

But the first season ended in success, and Hilprecht was quick to turn those and all subsequent finds at Nippur into good publicity for himself and the University. 

Besides a series of swooning articles in Old Penn, the Nippur finds even made their way into a 1910 Mask & Wig production. The plot for The Desert of Mahometgoes something like this: Henry Hilton, a student in Penn’s Department of Assyriology—who happens to be a millionaire—finds a cuneiform tablet in the University’s collection which “states that a certain tablet which is a ‘key’ to the cipher in which all the cuneiform tablets at the University are written, was centuries ago removed from its resting place in Babylonia and secreted in a temple located at an oasis in the desert of northern Arabia.”

As young Henry treks out there to bring it back for the University, quick on his heels is Dr. Diederich Donnerwetter—a Penn instructor of German extraction—who learned about the student’s caper while traveling in Europe with his niece, Hilda Hennig. A robbery at gunpoint, an imposter sultan given away by fake turban and wig, and a catchy Bedouin love song add to the dramatic mix, according to Old Penn

But as the curtain rose on that faux desert oasis, Hilprecht’s star was already descending.

Years earlier, Delitzsch, his former mentor, accused him of falsely taking credit for what others had done. Old Penn rushed to his defense, reporting in 1903 that as a result of the “gratuitous attack” by Delitzsch and his associates, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm had invited Hilprecht to repeat his lecture before the imperial court. “Instead, therefore, of this attack, which is of a personal nature, having done Professor Hilprecht harm, their efforts to belittle his great accomplishments have simply brought his works into prominence.”

But even the Kaiser’s favor was not enough to protect Hilprecht against his enemies. A group of American scholars led by Peters cast doubt on the Assyriologist’s claims of finding a temple library and charged him with academic dishonesty for publishing misleading information about the finds. They also raised a stink about artifacts in Hilprecht’s personal possession that they believed should instead have gone to the University Museum, including a pair of intricately carved goat-heads that Hilprecht claimed to have bought with his own funds. 

The University committee set up to look at the charges finally acquitted Hilprecht. But another committee of scholars from the American Oriental Society continued to informally depose the professor. (Though the tablets from Nippur were significant, Hilprecht probably was wrong about them being part of a temple library, notes Steve Tinney. “They were probably used in private houses for educating bureaucrats.”)

On top of this, G.B. Gordon, the new University Museum director, notified Hilprecht in 1910 that he was planning to make an inspection of his department. Gordon had heard that the Nippur tablets were “in a bad condition” because of improper storage. When Hilprecht suddenly sailed off to Europe for the summer, taking his keys with him, museum officials broke into his office and found many tablets moldering away in their original packing boxes. Furious to learn of this trespass, Hilprecht quit.

Backed by European colleagues and local clergy, he appealed, unsuccessfully, to retain his exclusive lifetime rights to catalogue the tablets and to control the details of scientific publications based on them. In 1912 Penn’s trustees filed his last letter of complaint.

“As far as American universities were concerned,” writes Kuklick in Puritans in Babylon, “Hilprecht dropped off the face of the earth. He did, however, travel back and forth from Germany, and he held up his head in Philadelphia society … But he did no more significant writing.” By the age of 50, “his career had ended” and he wrote to one friend of “‘my life’s shattered work.’”

—Susan Frith

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