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Israeli Scholars Use a Modern Methods to Help Reconstruct an Ancient Culture


Ariel, Israel, November 02, 2020 --(PR.com)-- New research from Ariel University’s Shai Gordin, a senior lecturer from the Israeli Heritage Department, and his co-author Dr. Ethan Fetaya of Bar Ilan University have found a unique way to restore broken words in ancient texts written on clay tablets in the cuneiform script and in the Akkadian language (the oldest known Semitic language, mother to Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic.) Published in the recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) Gordin and his co-authors used available digitized texts for training advanced machine-learning algorithms to restore daily economic and administrative documents from the Persian empire (sixth to fourth centuries BCE). As the amount of digitized texts grows, the model can be trained to restore damaged texts belonging to other genres, such as scientific or literary texts.

When asked on the importance of this research, Dr. Gordin responded: “The quickest impact in fact is pedagogical since students of Akkadian can use this tool to train in reading and restoring ancient texts. Moreover, historians with less formal training in Akkadian can try and enter Akkadian text and get results which are citable in their research and publications. For scholars of ancient Near Eastern history this tool can help with their work on text editions and going back to earlier publications in an attempt to restore broken sections of texts.” He continued, “The documentary sources for the political, economic, and social history of ancient Mesopotamia constitute hundreds of thousands of clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script. Most tablets are damaged, leaving gaps in the texts written on them, and the missing portions must be restored by experts. This is an exciting first step for a large-scale reconstruction of a lost ancient heritage.”

Dr. Gordin, who is the founding director of the Digital Humanities Ariel Lab (DHA-Lab), said that these tools and techniques will be integrated for student learning and use in Ariel University’s English digital humanities certificate program. “The documentary sources for the political, economic, and social history of ancient Mesopotamia constitute hundreds of thousands of clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script. Most tablets are damaged, leaving gaps in the texts written on them, and the missing portions must be restored by experts. By training the future researchers of tomorrow with this new technology we are able to advance our understanding ancient texts and discover the missing gaps.”

Yet this research is not limited to the study of the Akkadian language, according to Dr. Gordin, “the model can be trained on other types of ancient corpora. Such training needs to be done with similar formats at the moment, thus, ancient languages similar to Akkadian in form and function are better suited than later types of languages and texts. But we are considering how to make further use of this algorithm as a more general historical tool for textual criticism - namely, it will be more open for uploading different formats. But we are focusing more on ancient history at any rate, since there is the place where heritage is mostly in danger of being lost for good.”

This research was supported by the Ministry of Science & Technology, Israel for the project “Human-Computer Collaboration for Studying Life and Environment in Babylonian Exile” and as part of Shai Gordin's Babylonian Engine initiative.

Dr. Gordin is available for interview and further comment.

Image available. Please contact Ariel University for link to image.

Image description/Caption:
Reverse side of Neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablet YBC 3831 with upper broken section. Courtesy of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Yale Babylonian Collection. Photography: Klaus Wagensonner.

Dr. Shai Gordin:
Shai Gordin is historian of the Ancient Near East at the University of Ariel and founding director of the Digital Humanities Ariel Lab (DHA-Lab). His research focuses on the languages and cultures of the first and second millennium BCE, and how we can create a better human-machine interface for the historical sciences and the humanities in general. His contribution to this effort is an open-source initiative called the Babylonian Engine a portal with different tools and resources for studying and manipulating ancient texts.
Contact Information
Ariel University
Nicole Greenspan
972-547740227
Contact
www.ariel.ac.il

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