Mesopotamian dictionary completed after 90 years’ work

A 21-volume dictionary detailing an ancient Mesopotamian language has finally been completed after 90 years’ work.

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary identifies and explains the words carved in stone and written in cuneiform on clay tablets by Babylonians and Assyrians in Mesopotamia between 2500 BC and AD100.

The project was first embarked upon in 1921 by James Henry Breasted, founder of Chicago University’s Oriental Institute, and has seen millions of index cards referencing 28,000 words in the Semitic Akkadian language compiled over the last 90 years.

The various meanings for each word are laid out in the 21-volume dictionary, as well as their context and means of use. The entry for the word “umu”, for example, meaning day, runs to 17 pages and covers its use in the Epic of Gilgamesh: “Those who took crowns who had rule of the land in the days of yore.”

Robert Biggs, a professor emeritus at the Oriental Institute, worked as an archaeologist on digs recovering tablets as well as on the dictionary, spending almost 50 years on the project. “You’d brush away the dirt, and then there would emerge a letter from someone who might be talking about a new child in the family, or another tablet that might be about a loan until harvest time. You’d realise that this was a culture not just of kings and queens, but also of real people, much like ourselves, with similar concerns for safety, food and shelter for themselves and their families,” he said. “They wrote these tablets thousands of years ago, never meaning for them to be read so much later, but they speak to us in a way that makes their experiences come alive.”

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