Digitization of Babylonian fragments

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Once again, DH to the rescue:

AI Deciphers Ancient Babylonian Texts And Finds Beautiful Lost Hymn

Eat your heart out, ChatGPT.

Tom Hale, IFLScience (2/7/23)

It used to be that paleographers and philologists labored mightily trying to piece together bits and pieces of old manuscripts, using only their own mental and visual powers. Now they can call on AI allies to provide decisive assistance.

Researchers have crafted an artificial intelligence (AI) system capable of deciphering fragments of ancient Babylonian texts. Dubbed the “Fragmentarium,” the algorithm holds the potential to piece together some of the oldest stories ever written by humans, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The work comes from a team at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany who have been attempting to digitize every surviving Babylonian cuneiform tablet since 2018.

The problem with understanding Babylonian texts is that the narratives are written on clay tablets, which today exist only in countless fragments. The fragments are stored at facilities that are continents away from each other, such as the British Museum in London and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

On top of these hurdles, the texts are written in two complex writing systems, Sumerian and Akkadian, making the task of compiling the texts all the more taxing.

Researchers previously deciphered the texts by copying the characters onto paper, then painstakingly compared their transcripts with others to see which fragments belong together and where to fill in the gaps.

Fragmentarium makes this process a whole lot easier. From the 22,000 text fragments that have been digitized so far, the AI can sift through the images and systematically assemble text fragments together by making connections in seconds that would typically take human researchers months.

"It's a tool that has never existed before, a huge database of fragments. We believe it is essential to the reconstruction of Babylonian literature, which we can now progress much more rapidly," Enrique Jiménez, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literatures at the Institute of Assyriology at Ludwig Maximilian University, said in a statement

In November 2022, the software recognized a fragment belonging to the most recent tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s oldest surviving piece of literature dating back to 2100 BCE. The most famous parts of this epic poem describe a great catastrophic flood, which is thought to be the origin of the Noah's Ark story found in Genesis.

In another breakthrough, Jiménez and a colleague from Iraq identified a hymn to the city of Babylon with the help of Fragmentarium. Jiménez explains: “The text is lovely. You can imagine the city very well. It describes spring arriving in Babylon.”

“Hitherto there have been no hymns to cities in Babylonian literature. Now we have found 15 new fragments of it. Without the Fragmentarium, the reconstruction would have taken 30 or 40 years,” he adds.

The literature may be thousands of years old, but the discoveries being made with the assistance of Fragmentarium are exciting and bring antiquity back to life.  The hymn digitally stitched together by Jiménez and colleagues reads as follows:

“The river Arahtu,

– created by Nudimmud, the Lord of Wisdom – Waters

the plain, drenches the reeds,

Pours out its waters into lagoon and sea.

It's blooming and green on his fields,

The meadows shimmer with fresh grain;

Thanks to him the corn piles up in heaps and heaps,

Grass grows high for pasture for the flocks,

With riches and splendor befitting mankind,

[All is] covered in glorious abundance.”

So far, just 200 researchers from around the world have used the online platform for their work. However, as of February 2023, Fragmentarium will be free for the public to use.

“Everybody will be able to play around with the Fragmentarium. There are thousands of fragments that have not yet been identified,” says Jiménez.


German version


Selected readings

[Thanks to Hiroshi Kumamoto]


  1. Christopher J. Henrich said,

    February 12, 2023 @ 6:54 pm

    It's comforting, and I think it is realistic, to believe that this little
    poem, and the Fragmentarium, will be enjoyed when Putin is a fading memory.

  2. KeithB said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 8:19 am

    I thought the usage of "corn" for a general grain was somewhat archaic?

  3. HE ZHANG said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 9:32 am

    Exciting news, indeed.
    Agree with the above comment about the use of "corn." Is it the AI's old fashioned storage problem?

  4. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 9:59 am

    The use of corn, archaic or not, does not worry me. But I do have a problem with "It's blooming and green on his fields" — the "it" of this clause is the river Arahtu, and I cannot see how a river can bloom (algal blooms aside). Did the poet really mean something like "Brings blooms and verdant green to his fields" ?

  5. Suburbanbanshee said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 11:46 am

    "It" stands for "the condition of the area."

    "It's raining."

    "It's snowing."

    "It's awfully dry out there."

    I suppose you could parse it out as "the weather" or "the earth," but why bother? The general condition of existence is already indicated.

    And English isn't the only language to do this. You don't give an explicit subject when you use the Spanish verb "lluviarse," to rain.

  6. Coby said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 11:50 am

    There is no such verb as "lluviarse" in Spanish. It's llover. But it's true, it doesn't require a subject.

  7. Suburbanbanshee said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 11:51 am

    Llover is the verb form, actually. Apologies. I should check before commenting, especially here.

    But anyway… people usually just say "llueve," it rains. It's not "the cloud rains," unless some kind of special meteorological point is being made.

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 12:42 pm

    So the "it" of line 4 ("Pours out its waters") is not the "it" of line 5 ("It's blooming and green"). Hmm. That is certainly a possible interpretation, but not the one which first came to my mind. Could a Babylonian scholar please comment as to whether this potential source of confusion is also present in the original ?

  9. GeorgeW said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 4:23 pm

    The translation as 'corn' is a distraction since they did not have corn/maize at that place, at that time. I would think a more general 'grain' would be better, unless we know what specific grain it was.

  10. Philip Anderson said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 3:52 pm

    @keithB, George W
    Why do you think a team of scholars in Germany were aiming for a translation into American English, or should have been? It may be archaic in your speech, but in British (European) English, corn is still a generic word for grain, or more particularly the predominant grain in an area, which happens to be maize in the USA, wheat in Britain, and probably barley in Babylonia and Sumer. The German equivalent is Korn, Korn in other Scandinavian languages.
    For me, corn is the word for crops in the Bible and other ancient and medieval texts. Cornflour implies maize, but cornflower doesn’t, and we eat sweetcorn.

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