How the secrets of ancient cuneiform texts are being revealed by AI

Much of the world’s first writing, carved into clay tablets, remains undeciphered. Now AI is helping us piece together this ancient Mesopotamian script, revealing the incredible stories of men, women and children at the dawn of history

Humans 3 August 2022

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Chris Malbon

BEHIND a locked door in the British Museum, London, there is a beautiful library with high, arched ceilings. Inside this secret room, Irving Finkel opens a drawer and pulls out a clay tablet. Cracked and burnt, it is imprinted with the tiny characters of the world’s oldest written language. It is a list of omens. Another drawer reveals another tablet. “This is a prayer to the god Marduk,” says Finkel, who is assistant keeper of ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures at the museum, and one of only a handful of people in the world who can read this long-dead script, known as cuneiform, fluently.

Behind us, a photographer is meticulously capturing images of this writing, with lights positioned to highlight the indented etchings. This work is part of a revolution, one that is using today’s computing power to bring this 5000-year-old record back to life and unlock new secrets of the world’s first civilisation.

Although this system of writing was deciphered 165 years ago (See “Reading the signs“), the majority of texts that use it have never been translated into modern languages – a fiendishly complicated task that relies on experts such as Finkel. Now, thanks to developments in artificial intelligence, computers are being trained to read and translate cuneiform, to put fragmented tablets back together to recreate ancient libraries and even predict bits of missing text. These tools are enabling the earliest works of literature to be read in full for the first time since antiquity, giving insights into stories that later appeared in the Bible and shedding light on civilisations at the dawn of history.

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