LMU: Reconstructing masterpieces of ancient Near Eastern literature using artificial intelligence

Paper is a helpful invention – it has been used to transmit written language for some 2,000 years. But how do you read ancient Babylonian texts that were imprinted into clay tablets in Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform in the three millennia BC? Many of the longer works only survive in fragments. Professor Enrique Jiménez from the Faculty for the Study of Culture is working on the reconstruction of such texts using artificial intelligence (AI).

AI-powered methods have proved especially useful, for instance to find parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the greatest literary work of ancient Mesopotamia. Through partially automated sequence alignment, Professor Jiménez and his team were able to assign ten new and previously unrecognized fragments to this significant text. Furthermore, the Assyriologist is currently working on a literary text hardly any of which has been identified yet, a kind of compendium of parodies. This text has remained unread since antiquity and is completely new to academia. “I’m therefore discovering new pieces and new passages of text every day I work on it,” says Jiménez.

It’s fascinating to see before my very eyes the text being pieced together out of unassuming shards of clay tablets and coming back to life after lying forgotten for millennia.

Comments are closed.