1) there has been no standard computer encoding for cuneiform text; 2) the tablets are scattered in collections around the world, making for expensive, time-consuming, and, at times, difficult access; 3) due to cuneiform’s multi-tiered three-dimensionality (pillow-shaped tablets, wedges pressed into damp clay, and writing that runs onto all edges of a tablet) 2D photography is inadequate for archiving or editing cuneiform tablets. To this day cuneiformists still rely on hand copying the tablets, a very labor-intensive, time-consuming, subjective, and error-prone process.
Scientists, professors, engineers, students, and staff members at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, Whiting School of Engineering, and Krieger School of Arts & Sciences have developed and invented world class hardware and software tools for three-dimensional scanning, visualization, and text entry of cuneiform tablets, the foundational documents of world history and world culture.
Funded in large part by a 4-year, $1.65 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant in 2002, the Digital Hammurbi team has invented a 3D surface scanner that scans cuneiform tablets at 4 times the resolution of any comparable technology (over 900 dots per inch). We have developed computer algorithms uniquely tailored for cuneiform tablet reconstruction and 3D visualization. And we have successfully overseen the adoption into Unicode of the first international standard for the representation of cuneiform text on computers.
These enabling technologies will revolutionize cuneiform studies. With high-resolution 3D scans we have, for the first time in history, archival-quality representations of cuneiform tablets, allowing us to preserve them faithfully, and to protect them digitally from vandalism, erosion, and careless handling. We can print 3D plastic models of tablets; we can digitally flatten them for 2D print publication; we can visualize them in new ways; we can digitally manipulate cuneiform text, and finally, we can publish 3D virtual tablets to anyone, anywhere in the world, over the Internet.