Episode 63: Enrique Jiménez: the electronic Babylonian Library: transcript

0:13  JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand. 

0:32  JT

We take digital research resources for granted. The quantity and quality of data available is incredible. It’s something that 20 years ago we could only have dreamed of. Last year, a new platform was made public. I took the opportunity to ask the person behind the eBL, the electronic Babylonian Library, about this new resource. What does the eBL offer? How does it help us? What are the project’s goals? And what progress has been made so far? And of course, with an ever increasing number of resources, how do we make sure that more is better, rather than something that makes us look in too many places, only to find divergent versions of the information we need? 

1:20  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

1:34  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

1:42  EJ

My name is Enrique Jiménez. I am an assyriologist who works at LMU Munich. And I specialise in literature and scholarship from the first millennium BC. One of my main interests has always been the use of technology for studying Mesopotamian texts. And in a way the combination of these interests is the eBL project. And for that reason I’m very grateful for the opportunity to talk about it.

2:08  JT

So Enrique, you have recently launched something called the eBL. Could you maybe start us off please by explaining briefly what eBL is?

2:18  EJ

So in ancient Mesopotamia, literature, as opposed to the literature for Greece or for ancient Israel, is in a state of reconstruction. That means that we are now at the same stage which classics were during the Renaissance. So the electronic Babylonian Library is a platform that supports this ongoing process of reconstruction. 

2:41  EJ

Now, how does it do it? So first of all, it provides up to date editions of many literary texts, of all classics from the first millennium BC, which are informed by the latest discoveries, and are permanently updated to reflect the current state of knowledge. And secondly, it provides a large collection of fragments, a so-called Fragmentarium, which at the moment has around 350,000 lines of text. In this Fragmentarium, you will find photographs of thousands of tablets, and editions of around 23,000 tablets at the moment. It’s very important that the tablets are edited, so that you can actually find them. And the editions are also fully annotated with lemmatisations and so on. Then, the idea of the project is an algorithm compares the editions in the Fragmentarium with the corpus and tries to find matches, so that the fragments are automatically identified and then the corpus of texts grows even further. The algorithm is already developed, but can only be used by expert users. And we are currently working on making it available for all users.

3:51  EJ

Apart from these two core components, the corpus and the Fragmentarium, there are several other components, the goal of which is also to help with this process of reconstruction of Mesopotamian literature, and more in general to help you with tablets. So on the one hand, we have a complete Akkadian dictionary, which is searchable in many different ways. And it includes a complete Arabic translation. So it’s an Akkadian-English, but also Akkadian-Arabic dictionary. And then we also have a sign list, which has the complete version of the standard sign list, and additional tools, like snippets of signs, and so on and so forth. The dictionary and the sign list are meant to be reference tools, so they’re highly searchable. You can find, for instance, in the dictionary roots that begin with a particular letter and then followed by a wildcard, at the end another letter. So they are reference tools, but they’re also meant to be research tools. So that you find the many bibliographical references and things like that that will help you with your research.

4:59  JT

Okay, so in terms of progress, then, you say got tens of thousands of fragments, and you have hundreds of thousands of lines of text. What does that translate into? How much Babylonian literature do we have?

5:12  EJ

So the corpus of Babylonian literature includes something like 10,000 lines. So it’s a comparatively small corpus, especially if you compare with other corpora. For instance, the Iliad alone has around 20,000 lines. It’s a corpus that makes sense together, in the sense that texts sometimes refer to each other. The texts were copied in particular cities by particular people. So people who copied one text knew about the other texts, and so on. So it makes sense to reconstruct them all at the same time, because you gain knowledge from all of them while you do so. And how much of it is on the eBL? We have at the moment, what is traditionally considered the literature. So texts that don’t have a purpose that is immediately clear, so texts that are not magic, or divination, and so on. So literature in a very strict sense. So we have at the moment in the corpus. But the fragmentary includes all sorts of possible fragments, even really many administrative documents, thousands of divinatory fragments, and so on and so forth.

6:16  JT

Okay, I might resist the urge to ask what you’re going to do with those for the time being. Alright.

6:22  EJ

I wanted to say something about it as well, yeah.

6:24  JT

Okay. What then do you plan to do with the various fragments that are not strictly literary that you have within the eBL?

6:32  EJ

I wanted to say also that we have a problem in the field. We have a disease in the field. We excavated many more tablets than we could possibly publish. And the tablets that we excavated in the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century, they’re still very far from published. Strassmaier, who was an assyriologist from the second half of the 19th century, he is quoted as saying, “How could you possibly write a history of ancient Mesopotamia, if there are still tens of thousands of fragments that are unpublished?” He said that at the end of the 19th century, and that is still the case. It is still a problem. So in the largest collections of tablets, like the British Museum, the Iraq Museum, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, as a rule, less than half of the collection is published, because there’s simply too much to do. It’s a very time-consuming process. And there are not enough assyriologists. So we are trying to tackle this problem in new ways. We are exploring new ways of dealing with this problem, of the fact that we have excavated far too many tablets.

7:37  JT

I think the problem is rather that we don’t have enough assyriologists. Slightly different problem.

7:43  EJ

Yeah, that’s possible. Yeah. But I think the problem that we also have simply too many tablets is … it’s true. When we started doing this, everyone thought that it was a very good idea. And we got a very warm reception from the beginning. So the most importantly, we got a very warm reception from the British Museum, which has allowed and supported the photography project in a really exemplary way. And the field this very fortunate that the museum that has the largest collection of tablets in the world, is also the most open one. It’s a great fortune for the field.

8:17  EJ

But on the other hand, apart from the museum, we were also supported by many, many colleagues, who thought that what we are doing is something that is necessary. So we got donations of collections of transliterations from many assyriologists. We got both collections from assyriologists of the past. And these collections were donated by the academic executors. But we also got many collections of transliterations from living scholars, who have been going to the museum regularly over decades and produced massive collections of notebooks completely full of transliterations. And they have donated them, so that we can include them in the Fragmentarium. Among them, we have Werner Mayer, Simo Parpola, Andrew George, Ulla Koch, Jeremiah Peterson and Uri Gabbay. They have all donated to us the large collections of transliterations, which have been very useful for compiling the Fragmentarium. So we were never alone in this project. Everyone saw that it was really something that is needed. There are lots of people who have contributed to it.

9:22  EJ

So the collaboration was very necessary at the beginning to compile the Fragmentarium, but it’s still very necessary. Almost from the beginning of the project, we could collaborate with a project that is still ongoing in Geneva, directed by Catherine Mittermeier, whose goal is to produce an edition of part of Shumma Alu, a large series of terrestrial omens. I think the collaboration benefited both parts. Because we have obtained very many transliterations. And they have found hundreds of joins in the series. My idea is that this is something that other groups will continue to do in the future. There is still an almost desperate need for modern editions, especially of divinatory texts. There are many texts that have never been edited, especially of extispicy. They need to be edited in modern editions, in searchable editions. The hope is that other groups will start to work in the same way as the people from Geneva and use the Fragmentarium as a quarry to get the fragments that they need for reconstructing the texts.

10:27  JT

Okay, well, that’s a very good segue to the next question, which is, you’ve been working on this for a couple of years, and you still have a little bit of time to go before the project officially finishes. Why did you choose this point a couple of months ago to do the public launch?

10:42  EJ

It’s a very good question. On the one hand, development took a long time, because we were very ambitious and wanted to get many parts of the platform ready, that we were not planning to do at the beginning. For instance, the signs, or the dictionary. So that meant that the development took a bit longer than anticipated. But in February, we were basically done with the development in the sense that it was safe to open the platform to large amounts of people. I mean again it’s a large amount of people in an assyriogical way. A small amount of people. But you cannot really predict how many uses you’re going to have. So the platform has to be robust and stable. So on the one hand, that. On the other hand, we wanted to finish the edition of several literary texts before we made it public. Most importantly, Gilgamesh, which is the largest text, it has really many versions, and it was a challenge to get it finished on time. Before the launch, we had opened the platform. So we had created accounts for around 200 scholars around the world. So there were very many people who are using the Fragmentarium, for finding fragments or for finding joins, or for working on the reconstruction of texts.

11:50  JT

Okay, so what has the response been to the public launch? And how have colleagues responded to it? And what kind of engagement? What’s the impact? Have you noticed anything so far?

12:03  EJ

The field is now much bigger from all the fragments that we have published and included in the platform. So in total, we will have probably something like 15,000 new photos, and most of them were previously … well the photos were previously not accessible. Also the transliterations of all the texts were also previously not accessible. So it’s a huge text edition, so to say, for the field. And there’s been many reactions. The ones that are most satisfying are those from students, who are working on their dissertations or on the master thesis. And they are able to use the Fragmentarium to find their own fragments. That’s very rewarding, because it means that we have democratised the access to material. You don’t need to be a student of an important person in an important institution in order to access them. Everyone can access them from their own home, and find their own material.

12:54  EJ

So that’s the most satisfactory reaction that we get, is from students. Before would write us to ask for an account. And now they will tell us “Oh, I found this join here”, or “I identified this fragment”. And so on. On the other hand, we also got emails from colleagues who want to start projects based on the platform, which is also very satisfactory, because I think that the platform that we have, especially for the corpus, it’s very advanced, it’s very sophisticated. It took a very long time to get it right. And it’s really ready to be expanded to all possible corpora. So that’s very satisfactory, that there are some colleagues who want to use it for expanding to other corpora.

13:34  JT

Yeah, very good. We could maybe talk about the more popular reception of this? There’s been a certain amount of press attention. Can you say something about that?

13:41  EJ

Yeah, there’s been a lot of press attention. Partially because the last couple of years, artificial intelligence has been all over the newspapers. As a byproduct, the eBL has received a lot of attention. The press has also reported on some of the most spectacular discoveries that we have found. For example, we found in the depths of the fragmentation, a new version of the catalogue of texts and authors, which means that we have found many new authors that we didn’t know before. Which means that we can contextualise a bit better Mesopotamian literature. Or, yeah, we found other smaller things like, for instance, the beginning of the Theodicy. It’s a thing that I always wanted to read and never could, because there was one word missing. But we did find it. So now you can read the beginning of the Theodicy and every other text. Well, not every other text, but many other texts, completely. .

14:31  JT

And do you want to tell us the first word?

14:34  EJ

Yeah, it’s ashis itpeshu. So itpeshu was the word that was missing, very annoyingly.

14:41  JT


14:43  JT

A quick editorial note here for the benefit of listeners who don’t know Akkadian: the first line of this text now translates as “Oh wise sage, come! Let me tell you something”. You can find the full translation of that text at the eBL website: ebl.lmu.de.

15:05  JT

Okay, so it’s a means to an end, right? It’s a tool. And you set it up for a very specific purpose. And you talked there about some of the results you found so far. What for you will be the result of this? What discoveries have you made? How will it change things for you? Will you be able to establish Babylonian literature, you know, within the next few years, say? Can we move on beyond that very first stage of just reconstructing texts to something else?

15:32  EJ

So the pace of reconstruction has increased dramatically. As one result, that will also be a permanent result of the project. I’m currently working with my colleague and friend Anmar Fadhil from the University of Baghdad on the reconstruction of a text, that is a hymn to Babylon, that we have called the Praise of Babylon. With the use of the Fragmentarium, we were able to find 26 fragments of this text. So previously, it would have taken something like 30 or 40 years of visits to the British Museum … mostly to the British Museum … to find so many fragments. Now, you can just find them from your house in a couple of days. So that’s something that has changed the reconstruction; not only the pace, but also the quality of the reconstruction. That you can establish in a permanent way. No-one will ever have to go to the museum, order fragments randomly, and do transliterations in notebooks, and then bring it home and compare them with his notes. That’s … no longer will be like that. And any text that you want to reconstruct from now, you will be able to use these tools to help you with it. So that’s, I think, a very important result.

16:41  EJ

Of course, we want to go beyond the reconstruction. And the problem that we have is more or less the same that Strassmeier had 120 years ago–how can you write a history of Mesopotamia if there’s still tens of thousands of fragments of tablets that are not published? That is still a problem. How can you write anything about Gilgamesh, if you know that there’s one third of Gilgamesh that is still missing? Well, you have to, because you can only interpret Gilgamesh, as long as you establish this, that you try to interpret the text. If you don’t try to interpret what you have right now, then the reconstruction that you are going to make is going to be biased in one way or another. So you have to create this interim report as you move forward with the reconstruction. For the future, I mean, the fact that the editions are electronic is also a huge help for the future. So we are at the moment, for instance, investigating the Akkadian meter with the help of computers, which is something that you couldn’t do before. We would also like to investigate the Akkadian morphology with the help of computers. So anyone who has worked on literature from the first millennium knows that the ending of words are hardly ever one expects. Where one would expect a nominative, one finds an accusative, and so on and so forth. We want to see if we find any patterns from these irregularities. So we find regularities in the system. So that will also be a by-product of the fact that we have now digital editions.

18:14  JT

Alright, well, can we move on then to the future and the longer term questions? How long do you have left on the project?

18:21  EJ

So we have now around one year left, and we have applied for another extension. So we may have still two years to go.

18:29  JT

Okay, and then what happens next then? How long will eBL be available for colleagues?

18:35  EJ

So the future of eBL, of the eBL platform, is secure now, because we obtained funding from the Bavarian Academy of Sciences for a project called Cuneiform Artifacts from Iraq in Context, whose goal is to edit the cuneiform texts from the Iraq Museum and to develop the eBL platform further. Especially the parts regarding the archaeological information. And that’s a project for 25 years. These academy projects in the German system are very long time. So it’s the perfect framework for developing these further.

19:11  JT

EBL, I guess, is already established as one of the big players in digital assyriology. And the online resources that we increasingly use to do our work. How does eBL fit in with some of the older resources in the field, say like, Oracc or CDLI or something? How interoperable are you? How many times are we entering data? Or how many places do we need to look for something?

19:37  EJ

Yeah, so the idea is that you will only have to enter data once. And we implemented in such a way that it’s exportable and importable. So you will enter the editions in the eBL, then download them, and upload them into Oracc or into CDLI. And vice versa, you can take editions from Oracc or CDLI and import them into the eBL. We have an ongoing collaboration with both Oracc, which was really a pioneer on the digital edition of cuneiform texts. And also CDLI, which was also the pioneering platform for collecting catalogue data about all tablets in the world. We also have collaboration agreements in the framework of the Akadamie project with Archibab, which is devoted to Old Babylonian texts, and with BDTNS, which is devoted to Ur III texts. So we have established ongoing collaborations with all the other major digital platforms. The idea at the moment, assyriology is very insular, you have a platform that does this and another platform that does that. Hopefully, in the future we will evolve to a system, even though the platforms may remain independent, you will be able to search across platforms for lemmata or signs or things like that.

20:57  JT

Is that what the future looks like, then? You have individual repositories curated by domain experts, but somehow it connects together, and there’s a single interface that you can access them through?

21:09  EJ

I think that will be the ideal feature, right? It makes a lot of sense to produce digital editions. They are much more searchable than traditional editions. It’s much easier to correct them than traditional editions. And for a corpus that is growing, it makes a lot of sense to have digital editions. But there is no-one who is an expert on all periods. So it would make sense that that is how the future is. There’ll be a platform where you’re able to search through all the other various platforms. But the individual periods or genres are curated by experts who specialise in that particular field or genre.

21:46  JT

How far away is that?

21:48  EJ

So we were hoping to do that within the Akademie project. So it will happen at some point of the next 25 years.

21:55  JT

Okay. {LAUGHS} There are different ways of looking at that. That’s not too far away, is it?

22:00  EJ


22:02  JT

We’ve coped with worse. Alright, given your engagement with AI, presumably you have a fairly positive feeling about it. What do you think of the concerns about AI ethically, in terms of potential impact on the field? I guess at the most basic level, if someone hears about this kind of work, will computers replace us? Or will it change the way we work? Or the kinds of questions we can ask? What actually will be the impact of AI, do you think?

22:33  EJ

I think it will definitely change the way that we work. I tend to think that if something can be automatised, and it is our duty to automatise it. Because otherwise it means that we are wasting our time. And once we can automatise many of the things that we do, we will have time to do other things that at the moment we don’t have time for doing. Like, for instance, writing a comprehensive history of Akkadian literature. It’s very difficult to do at the moment, because of how demanding the reconstruction process is. You hardly ever have time for anything else, but that will be something that you will be able to do in the future.

23:13  EJ

Or exploring in a holistic way Babylonian literature is something that I would also find very interesting. To see how texts talk to each other; how people who read those texts, or copied those texts, what they knew of the other texts; how texts were transmitted. I think that sort of questions, which are very difficult to ask right now, except for very individual tablets or texts, it will be possible in the future to approach things in a more holistic way and take into account the entire Mesopotamian documentation. Because hopefully, the more menial tasks, the more the tasks that can be automatised, will by then have been automatised.

23:56  JT

Hmm. It would be quite a change. Turning to the future, then, you know, you have the technical maintenance of the website is assured; it will be preserved for as long as we’re likely to need it. I guess you have the manpower somehow to update it. What’s next, then? What are the longer term hopes? You know, before too long, you will have established as much of the literature as you can and you will have started to analyse it in various ways. What actually in the longer term do you want to do with this mass of material?

24:25  EJ

So first of all, we want to increase it and increase on the one hand the corpus, as I said. We want to include standard editions of all texts that were current, at least in the first millennium BC. Hopefully also in the other periods. Editions that are constantly updated, everyone can trust. And you can go there and see what the latest time of the text is. We would like to have that not only for literature, as is the case at the moment, but also for all of the genres. There is a project now as I mentioned that is doing additions of Shumma Alu. There is a project at the British Museum that is doing editions of the therapeutic texts, but there are many other genres of texts that need modern editions. We would also like to house them and to contribute to them with the fragments that are in the Fragmentarium at the moment waiting to be identified.

25:23  EJ

What we would also like to do is to increase the Fragmentarium, the coverage of the Fragmentarium. At the moment we have 250,000 records, but there are many more tablets in the world. At the moment, we are working towards improving coverage of other collections, and so on, but also improving coverage of secondary bibliography, so that you will also have a tool there, that tells you who has set what about which tablet. We are also starting to digitise other collections. We started digitising the Hilprecht collection in Jena. And we also started digitising parts of the University Museum collection in Philadelphia. That’s in the last few months.

26:03  EJ

What I would like to do, the direction that I will also like to go in the future, is also implementing more artificial intelligence approaches. With very practical purposes. What we’re doing at the moment, what we are putting a lot of effort into is the signs. In our field, we don’t have a systematic modern palaeography. The last one who tried to do that was Fossey in the 1920s. And that is very outdated, of course. We would like to include that in the sign list. At the moment, we have taggings of 20,000 signs, which is a very large collection. But it can be made bigger relatively quickly with the tools that we have implemented. And then the problem will no longer be that we don’t have a big enough collection, but quite the opposite, that the collection is too large. So we would like to implement tools so that the computer can analyse these sign forms, and sort of abstract the sign forms that are common to several of the instances.

27:03  EJ

And in the long run, the idea will be that the computer will also be able to provide a date for tablets that are undated. Especially for literature, that will be a small revolution. Because unless you have a colophon, it’s nearly impossible to date a tablet. Even broadly. You may be able to date this from the first half of this millennium or from the second half of this millennium. But it’s almost impossible to say anything more accurate than that. What we’re thinking of doing is to use administrative documents which are dated, and then dated literary tablets. But just having a large collection of signs from all periods, that will be very helpful.

27:42  JT

One day. It won’t be too long. Alright, brilliant. Well, thanks very much.

27:46  EJ

Well, thank you very much for having me, Jon. I would like to say as a conclusion that the eBL is open to collaborations with other cuneiformists. We have several collaborations going on or planned. But there are still many texts to be reconstructed. Since we have already developed all the tools that we need to reconstruct and to display texts, I think we’re really in a unique position to advance the reconstruction in a very significant manner. So I would like to invite anyone who is working on a particular text on a particular group of texts to contact us and explore possible collaborations. We will soon also offer demo and support sessions through Zoom that will be open to everyone. So this will be also an opportunity to explore possible ways of working together. Thank you very much, Jon.

28:38  JT

I’d also like to thank our patrons: Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Jonathan Blanchard Smith, Kliment Ohr, Christina Tsouparopoulou, TT, Melanie Gross, Claire Weir, Marc Veldman, Bruno Biermann, Faimon Roberts, Jason Moser, Pavla Rosenstein, Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver, Tate Paulette, Willis Monroe, Toby Wickenden, Emmert Clevenstine, Barbara Porter, Cheryl Morgan, Kevin Roy Jackson, Susannah Paulus, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.

29:51  JT

I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.

30:30  JT

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