Communicating cuneiform: The evolution of a multimedia cuneiform database
S.I.Woolley, T.R.Davis, N.J.Flowers, J.Pinilla-Dutoit, A.Livingstone, T.N.Arvanitis
The Cuneiform Digital Forensic Project (CDFP) at The University of Birmingham
Our paper presents the work of the Cuneiform Digital Forensic Project (CDFP), an interdisciplinary project at The University of
Birmingham, concerned with the development of a multimedia database to support scholarly research into cuneiform, wedge-shaped
writing imprinted onto clay tablets and indeed the earliest real form of writing. We describe the evolutionary design process and
dynamic research and developmental cycles associated with the database.
Unlike traditional publications, the electronic publication of resources offers the possibility of almost continuous revisions with the
integration and support of new media and interfaces. However, if on-line resources are to win the favor and confidence of their
respective communitie s there must to be a clear distinction between published and maintainable resources, and, developmental
content. Published material should, ideally, be supported via standard web-browser interfaces with fully integrated tools so that users
receive a reliable, homogenous and intuitive flow of information and media relevant to their needs.
We discuss the inherent dynamics of the design and publication of our on-line resource, starting with the basic design and
maintenance aspects of the electronic database, which includes photographic instances of cuneiform signs, and show how the
continuous review process identifies areas for further research and development, for example, the “sign processor” graphical search
tool and three-dimensional content, the results of which then feedback into the maintained resource.
I - INTRODUCTION:
During the late fourth millennium BC there was a major technological breakthrough: cuneiform writing was invented. Previously,
writing on clay was primarily pictographic, probably done with a pointed implement that executed stylized drawings on the wet clay.
Cuneiform writing is much more like letterpress printing: the sharp corner of a triangular-sectioned writing implement was pushed
into the clay to make a three-dimensional wedge shape. All of the characters are composed of combinations of these wedge shapes.
The power of cuneiform is in its restriction. The pointed end of a drawing stylus can be freely guided, so drawn pictograms will vary
considerably from writer to writer, whereas the triangular end of a cuneiform stylus can only produce wedges, and one wedge is much
like another. The power of a writing system is in its versatility, which depends on an agreed stylization, easy differentiation, flexibility
and simplicity of the component elements: cuneiform was a great leap forward.
The resulting medium was long-lived and widespread. Cuneiform was, at times, the medium of communication of the whole of the
ancient near east, from Egypt to Iran, and was used until the beginning of the Christian era. Great libraries were created, and, since
clay is much less fragile than papyrus, vellum, or paper, much of this priceless record is still extant. If you burn a cuneiform library
you help to preserve the content.
The first generation of cuneiform scholarship, which accomplished the extraordinary task of finding out how to read this record,
depended largely on hand copies of cuneiform tablets for their data: chemical photography is expensive, and publication of chemical
photographs mu ch more so. Digital photography, on the other hand, and web publication are virtually free, and this is providing new
opportunities as well as posing a new challenge to the present generation of cuneiformists. In order to take advantage of this new
technology, the Cuneiform Digital Forensic Project (CDFP) at The University of Birmingham has brought together a team of experts
from widely differing disciplines in order to answer questions about cuneiform that had previously been impossible to investigate.
II - EVOLUTIONARY DESIGN:
At its inception three years ago, a fundamental objective of the CDFP was the development of an electronic, on-line cuneiform
database for scholarly research. This database system is now fully functional and is accessible via the Internet. It currently contains a
sample set of signs which have been used to test and demonstrate the system. Extensive population of the database is envisaged over
the next several years.
The design specification of our database evolved during the first 18-24 months of the project as we, a very diverse research team,
developed an important common understanding of the basic system requirements. The merging of perspectives involved in this
process was essential to the establishment of a shared vocabulary and a fluid design concept. As shown in Figure 1, this resulted in
the development of i) a maintainable system, i.e., the working multimedia cuneiform sign database, ii) developmental projects and iii)
plans for future research activities for more advanced functionality.
The generation and discussion of various prototypes significantly improved our team's early understandings of the overall
requirements. These prototypes took various forms from design drafts such as overview schemas, formal entity diagrams and
sketches of user interfaces to real software implementations, and, resulted in a working server implementation with an agreed set of
interfaces for data input, search and browsing. These prototypes provided important tangible examples for the team to discuss and
test; enabling content, indexing and interaction design and development to occur simultaneously. This dynamic design process also
encouraged creative discussion within the team for further extensions to the content and interface. New developmental projects
included the “sign processor” for graphical search queries and three-dimension content, while future research was planned for
scaleable delivery of content, metadata for object tagging, and personalizable and adaptive interfaces.
Figure 1: An overview of the design evolution and the establishment of three broad activities
i) maintenance of the working system, ii) development of new systems
and iii) research into future systems. Examples of each are shown in italics.
ideas for further research
ideas for further development
The first design definition
An on-line cuneiform sign list with exemplar images.
Refinement of specification
Formal specification of database entities and relationships.
Basic interface design for input, browsing and searching.
Investigation and selection of resolution requirements for photographic capture of sign
instances and investigation of solutions to simplify the logistics of image capture.
Iterative development and maintenance of the working database system
Generation and integration of content. Interface refinements. User authentication.
Configuration of a dedicated server with dedicated RAID (redundant array of inexpensive
disks) storage and DAT (digital audio tape) backup to provide reliable, robust and high-
capacity data archiving.
Development of new database extensions
The “sign processor” tool for graphical searching and 3D data capture and integration.
Research into future database extensions
Personalizable and adaptive interfaces.
XML support for improved presentation.
III – DATABASE DESIGN AND CONFIGURATION:
The levels at which a cuneiform sign can be classified provide the main structure of the database. We defined three levels : the sign,
allograph and instance, which are summarised in Figure 2 and described in detail in .
The top level of our hierarchy is the sign represented by the grapheme, a label that uniquely identifies the sign.
The intermediate level contains a set of allographs, consisting of each one of the valid representations of the grapheme. These are
simple graphics that represent the variations in sign construction, for example, variations across historical periods.
The instance represents the bottom level of our hierarchy, i.e. actual realisations of the sign in the clay. Instances are currently
represented by digital pictures.
Figure 2: A simplified entity relationship diagram of the cuneiform database
Each sign can have several allographs and each allograph can have many instances. Allographs are classified by periods which can be
selected by the user. Figures 3 and 4 show example screen captures from the current database for the symbol babû.
Having agreed the basic specification and discussed the future life-cycle of the cuneiform database, it became clear that the serving
system required a robust and high-capacity long-term archiving ability, capable of delivering high-bandwidth content. Since
extensive population of the database is planned over the next several years, an independent web server was configured with its own
disk storage facility and backup mechanisms. The database server currently employs JavaServerlet technology and presents data to
Internet users via standard web-browser interfaces.
Figure 3: The database entry for the sign babû
Figure 4: The Old Assyrian allograph entry for the sign babû
IV - THE SIGN PROCESSOR:
Any reference collection, particularly one as large as a cuneiform sign database, needs an index: a search tool. It is of course easy to
search lists of signs by their conventional names, and then work downwards in the hierarchy from name to sign to allograph to
instance, but that kind of search is only useful if the name of the sign is known. The student of cuneiform is often in the position of
looking at an instance of a sign on a tablet and not knowing which sign it is. He or she therefore needs a means of moving upwards
through the hierarchy: from (unrecognised) instance to allograph to sign. No conventional search technique will allow that, because
what is unknown is an unidentified graphic shape, and there are no purely graphic search engines. Therefore one had to be invented.
The “sign processor” is an extension to the original database design which will enable graphical search queries. As can be seen in
Figure 5, the sign processor allows users to draw instances of signs, taking advantage of the highly stylised nature of cuneiform: any
sign consists of groups of very few basic elements, which are combined in very simple ways.
Figure 5: The sign processor showing a graphical entry mode where the user has sketched the babû symbol
The user employs the simple tools and a point and click interface to produce a stylised representation of the unknown sign on a grid.
During this drawing process the computer creates an alphabetic representation of the resulting drawing (seen on the right of the
image). All allographs in the sign list will have been drawn using the sign processor and the alphabetic representation stored as part
of the data for that allograph. It thus becomes possible for the user to search for matches of the unknown instance. We are developing
loose or fuzzy search methods to assist this process. What is particularly useful is that a user of cuneiform will often be working with
broken tablets, and therefore fragments of signs; the sign processor will allow the input of partial signs and search for partial matches.
V - PHOTOGRAPHIC AND 3D REPRESENTATIONS OF CUNEIFORM TABLETS AND SIGN INSTANCES:
a- Photographic data capture: Our analysis of the tablets established a resolution requirement of approximately 0.025mm to support
forensic study of sign instances sufficient to distinguish between different scribal hands. However, we anticipated that users may,
more often, be interested in the general shape and size of the tablets, and a simple, low-resolution image may suffice. Other scholars
may be interested in reading the symbols and would therefore require more intelligible, higher resolution renditions, but not at the
same high resolution required by forensic analysis.
For our photographic experiments we used a 3.34 megapixel digital camera (the Nikon CoolPix 990) at The British Museum, using a
four-light bed with adjustable camera height and with tablets mounted on a sand tray to stabilize their orientation. The photography
of cuneiform tablets poses several challenges due to the densely compacted inscriptions on both sides, with text running over rounded
edges and frequently continuing along each side edge. This makes the complete photographic capture of tablet signs problematic
even with many exposures from different angles. Lighting proved problematic, not least because of repeated burns from the
directional spotlights. The depth of the imp ressions also made the selection of correct lighting both difficult and time -consuming.
Other challenges included the development of systems to preserve scale information and enable the correct attachment of catalogue
and context information.
b- Three-dimensional data capture: The problem with photographs is that the lighting and shadows are fixed and cannot be
manipulated by the viewer. When reading real tablets, experts tend to rotate them constantly: grossly in order to present all the signs
to inspection, but also subtly, in order to use light and shadow to bring out the indentations clearly. In order to duplicate the ‘viewing
experience’ on a computer, we investigated the provision of three-dimensional models of signs and tablets as an extension to the
database design .
There are a number of different techniques for capturing three-dimensional models of real objects, each offering different scanning
areas and resolutions. The Digital Michelangelo Project at Stanford University  involved scanning larger objects, e.g., Michael
Angelo's statue of David, at a resolution of up to 0.25mm using laser triangulation rangefinding. The 3D-Matic project  at the
Turing Institute and The University of Glasgow used ‘photogrammetry’ to give a resolution of 0.5mm.
Our stringent forensic resolution requirement of 0.025mm resolution over the entire surface of a cuneiform tablet (typical size 50mm
by 70mm by 20mm) was achieved using the Breuckmann OptoTOP scanner . With the assistance of Scientifica  (a distributor
of the Breuckmann system) we obtained high-resolution scans of some cuneiform tablets held at The British Museum. Figure 6 a.
shows the scanning operation in progress at the museum and Figure 6 b. shows an example of a captured tablet. The tablet depicted
belongs to a category of tablets known as “buns”. This one measures about nine centimetres across and is about three centimetres
thick. The inscription is an invocation for a long life addressed to the Babylonian king Samsuiluna, who reigned from 1749 to 1712
BC, and who was the son and successor of the famous Babylonian king Hammurabi, best known for his code of laws. This bun is
from an ancient scribal school. The master would write on the inscription on one side and the pupil would have to memorize it and
write it on the other side without peeking.
Figure 6: a.) (left) Three-dimensional capture of tablets in The British Museum archive and b.) (left) an
example of a rendered three-dimensional scan of a cuneiform tablet with a resolution of 0.005mm.
Our high-resolution three-dimensional scans contain all the information required to fully represent a cuneiform tablet. However, the
resulting file sizes are typically over 100MBytes. Files of this size are extremely difficult to manipulate in real-time and are unsuited
to communication over the Internet, for example, even at the maximum transfer rate, a 28.8kbits/second modem connection (i.e.,
3.6kBytes/second) would require almost 8 hours to download a small tablet. This would be a very inefficient means of delivery and
wasteful of network bandwidth particularly for users only requiring a low-resolution model. In order to satisfy the needs of various
users, scalable delivery is desirable. A typical scenario would be this: the user first obtains a model of the entire tablet at a low
resolution. Then, if the user chooses to zoom in on a specific region, additional information is transferred to increase the resolution of
the area of interest. The important difference between this technique and standard delivery mechanisms is that the user would not
need to download an entire high-resolution model in order to zoom in on a small area.
c- Three-dimensional visualization and manipulation: Standard three-dimensional viewers download complete datasets rendering
them on the screen depending on the user’s chosen viewpoint. When used as a mechanism to view three-dimensional models such as
cuneiform tablets, the user can select which part of the tablet to look at, zoom in and out, and rotate the tablet in all three axes.
Examples of our scanned bun tablet are shown in different viewers in Figures 7 and 8.
Figure 7: The bun tablet at the highest scan resolution of 0.005mm shown is the Solidview Lite 3D viewer. This freeware
viewer allows manipulation of the tablet and a single light source (the controls for rotation, translation and zoom, and, light
positioning are shown on the right-hand-side).
Figure 8: The bun tablet at a scanned resolution of 0.01mm shown in the Polyworks 3D viewer. This viewer allows
manipulation of the tablet and up to four light source (ambient, diffuse or spectral). The lights can be easily manipulated with
the mouse - two different settings of north-west vs. south east illumination are shown left and right, respectively.
Some three-dimensional viewer interfaces can be confusing, particularly to novice users. If, for example, left-right movement of the
input device produces rotation of the tablet, when the user may have been expecting a lateral movement in the viewing window. An
additional complexity is added when illumination is taken into account; for correct viewing of the cuneiform tablets the user must be
able to alter the position of one or more light sources to create the shadows to provide the necessary depth information. However, our
simple experiments with high-resolution scans clearly demonstrated the benefit of three-dimensional models over photographic
representations of instances and we plan to continue working on methods to integrate three-dimensional instances with the image data
of the sign list database.
VI - FURTHER RESEARCH AND FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS:
In addition to developmental activities, the team have identified several areas which would benefit from further research. Any results
from these activities could, after development, be integrated into the maintained database system. The items of further research of
particular relevance to electronic publishing are summarized below.
It is very important that the three-dimensional datasets are traceable throughout the entire capture, storage, delivery and manipulation
process. There are several pieces of information associated with the electronic representation of each tablet, for example the
catalogue number, physical dimensions, excavation details, storage location, ownership, etc. This “data about data” is called
“metadata” and needs to be robustly connected, or “tagged”, to the data it describes. As the user manipulates the data and zooms in,
metadata referring to, for example, the physical size and location of the selected subset should be available.
Support of the new XML (extensible markup language) cuneiform standard is also considered important for future web publications
. Issues of copyright also require consideration when making high-resolution electronic scans of copyrighted artifacts. It may
be necessary to provide mechanisms to scale delivery of scanned models based on user privileges. For example, public access could
be given to low-resolution data, and access to the high-resolution models limited to authorized experts. To prevent copyright
infringement, it is important that this information is also closely coupled to the data itself. Techniques such as digital watermarking
could be used, although there are no standards at present.
An interesting area of new research in interface design involves the personalization and adaptation of interface settings and behaviors
based on user models. We plan to investigate the potential for intelligent and adaptive interfaces to support user requirements and
We have presented a summary of the maintenance, development and research aspects of our database, highlighting three separate
activities whose interactions form an evolutionary development path for the database. An important limitation of these interactions is
that new functions are researched and developed independently of the maintained system prior to integration, so that untested
experimental content or functions are never presented to the database user.
A notable project in on-line cuneiform publication, which may be of interest to readers, is The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative
(CDLI), a joint project between UCLA and The Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, (online at http://early-
cuneiform.humnet.ucla.edu). The aim of the project is to develop an electronic resource making 3rd millennium B.C. cuneiform
tablets available on the internet. Full image data sets of the Hermitage, with its substantial archives of pre-Sargonic Lagash (ca. 2400-
2350 B.C.) and Ur III (ca. 2050-2000 B.C.) administrative documents, and of all collections of tablets deriving from the period of
proto-cuneiform (ca. 3200 -3000 B.C.) are in the process of being made available on the CDLI pages. The pages also provide links to
many useful resources.
Our sincere thanks to curators in the Department of The Ancient Near East at The British Museum for their help and support, to
Professor Mike Sharples for his discussion on the design and assessment aspects of our work, and, to Scientifica for their assistance
with the three-dimensional scans taken at The British Museum.
1. T.N.Arvanitis, T.R.Davis, N.Hayward, A.Livingstone, J.Pinilla-Dutoit, S.I.Woolley, 2000, "The Work of the Cuneiform Digital
Forensic Project", VAST: Virtual Archaeology between Scientific Research and Territorial Marketing, Arezzo (Italy), 24-25
2. S.I.Woolley, N.J.Flowers, T.N.Arvanitis, A.Livingstone, T.R.Davis and J.Ellison, 2001, "3D Capture, Representation and
Manipulation of Cuneiform Tablets", IST/SPIE Electronic Imaging 2001 San Jose, 21-26 January 2001, Vol. 4298 (0277-
3. The Digital Michelangelo Project, Stanford University, USA; http://graphics.stanford.edu/projects/mich/
4. 3D-Matic Research Laboratory, The University of Glasgow, United Kingdom; http://www.faraday.gla.ac.uk
5. Breuckmann GmbH; http://www.breuckmann.com/english/optoTOP.html
6. Scientifica Ltd.; http://www.scientifica.uk.com/
7. A.Livingstone, S.I.Woolley, T.R.Davis, T.N.Arvanitis, 1999, "XML and Digital Imaging Considerations for an Interactive
Cuneiform Sign Database", Electronic Publication of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Conference), The Oriental Institute of the
University of Chicago, October 8-9 1999 (full paper - http://www.eee.bham.ac.uk/cuneiform/files/cuneiform_chicago.ppt)
8. R.Cover (editor), 2002, "Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative to Use XML Encoding for Third Millennium"; http://www.oasis-
Summary of the Cuneiform Digital Forensic Project (CDFP) authors:
Drs Sandra Woolley, Nicholas Flowers, Javier Pinilla-Dutoit and Theodoros Arvanitis are digital imaging/networking/database
engineers in the Department of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering at The University of Birmingham. Dr Tom Davis is
the CDFP forensic handwriting expert in the Department of English Literature and Dr Alasdair Livingstone is the CDFP leader and
assyriologist in the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology.