Reading Closed Cuneiform Tablets Using High-Resolution Computed Tomography
One of the earliest forms of writing are imprints in clay, developed more than 5000 years ago by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and used all around the Near East. Since the middle of the third millennium BCE, people send each other letters. They tell of kings and their ruling, of merchants and their trade, as well as of the mundane and private life of families and of spouses. In order to protect both the confidentiality of the text and the material integrity of the tablets on their journey through mountains and the desert, they were wrapped in a clay envelope, on which sender and recipient were written. The sender signed the letter by impressing his artistic seal. To read the message, the envelope had to be broken and with it, the artistic seal.
Such opened letters then were kept in archives, where they are found today. About a million clay tablets have survived to this day. However, sometimes a letter did not reach its recipient and remained in its clay envelope for thousands of years. To open it would destroy the seal impression and bears the risk of also breaking the letter.
In this project, we will develop, build, and apply a portable high-resolution X-ray tomographic scanner for cuneiform letters and other encased tablets, which will make it possible to read sealed cuneiform texts without breaking the envelope or alter the artefact in any way. It will be used in archives and museums around the world for imaging the interior of cuneiform letters and other artefacts. The main technical challenge is to reconcile the physical limitations of X-ray imaging with practical boundary conditions imposed by work in museums and archives, since it is not possible to take the objects out of the collections. This includes the development of special feature extraction and visualization tools, including 3D printing of replica. The new instrument will be employed for documenting ancient cuneiform letters, including those stored in the Louvre in Paris, and will be used in the future for systematic studies in museums and archives around the world.