Artificial intelligence helps academic research on Assyrian tablets

At the end of April, the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice has present the “Progetto Luber”, coordinated by the assyriologist and professor Paola Corò, in collaboration with the British Museum in London and the Centre for Cultural Heritage Technology of the Italian Institute for Technologies. The program deals with the research and study of ancient clay tablets dating back to the Assyrian era through the use of artificial intelligence. 

Low relief from the Nineveh palace (640 BC), depicting Assurbanipal.
Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

During the VII century BC, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal created a royal library made of tens of thousands clay tablets written in cuneiform Akkadian. These writing supports contain literary texts, among which the famous “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the first epic saga of human history. On these tablets, among the cuneiform writings, some holes whose meaning is still obscure have been relieved.

It is on this occasion that research using artificial intelligence comes into play: through the comparison of over thirty-thousand tablets still existing today, it will be possible to get closer to the real nature of these holes. Conserved by the “Library of Ashurbanipal” of the British Museum in London, two-thousand already-digitised tablets have been analysed and labelled by 35 Ca’ Foscari students: this information has been directed into the specially created algorithm to identify characteristics which would not have been relievable with the naked eye. 

One of the 30thousand tablets preserved at the British Museum.
Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum

The hypothesis on the purposes of these holes are numerous: in a first moment, they were thought to serve in the process of tablet baking. However, it was then discovered that these tablets weren’t actually baked during the Ashurbanipal era, but they were actually involved in a fire in 612 BC. These happening allowed the conservation of tablets and their finding in the Nineteenth century. The research carried on by the Liber Project wants to get closer to the meaning of these holes, which could open up both to new comprehensions of these ancient texts and to management and archival practices in the Ashurbanipal library.