University of Pennsylvania Museum Awarded $302,000 from National Endowment for their Humanities for Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project

Project to Create World's First Dictionary of the First Written Language Gets Re-Defined in New Age of Internet Communications Technologies

02 APRIL 2002, PHILADELPHIA, PA—The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology's Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project was awarded a two-year, $302,000 grant from the National Endowment of Humanities, an independent federal agency.

"We are extremely grateful for the support that this grant provides, and also for the vote of confidence which is represented by the positive outcome of the Endowment's vigorous peer-review process," noted Dr. Jeremy A. Sabloff, the Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

"The Museum is committed to this unique and important project, a natural outcropping of more than one hundred years of UPM research and exploration. Three million dollars of our current $55 Campaign for the 21st Century is earmarked to endow the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project, so that future generations will know more about some of humankind's earliest written thoughts, dreams, and achievements."

Founded in 1976, the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary Project set out on a mammoth mission: to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of Sumerian, the world's oldest written language. The original goal, in an age before the internet and personal computers, was to produce an 18-volume Sumerian dictionary, a hard-back opus to incorporate all data then known, published and unpublished, from every possible source.

Now, according to Dr. Stephen Tinney, Associate Curator in the Museum's Babylonian section and the Dictionary Project's current Director, the project will be implemented as a web-based work, also published on CD-ROM. The dictionary will be updated and augmented as new Sumerian writings are deciphered and scholarship at the Museum and around the world progresses.

"New technology, and new ways of communicating with our fellow scholars around the world, have given us an opportunity to re-conceive of the dictionary project, not as a static, finished end-product but as a process-a changing, evolving work-in-progress, " Dr. Tinney noted. "Unlike the Sumerian state, we don't have a vast labor-pool which we can press into service for us. Instead, we have to work smarter, leave the heavy lifting to the computer, and exploit the power of the net."

Sumerian is a unique language, unrelated to any other known language, living or dead. Sumerians first created their cuneiform writing in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), long known as "the cradle of civilization," more than 5,000 years ago. "Cuneiform" (literally, "wedge-form") refers to the technique of inscribing the characters on clay tablets. These clay tablets, hundreds of thousands of which are known to have survived, in whole or in fragments, contain the world's first epics, the first recorded histories, the first medical prescriptions, the first accounting ledgers and even the first known stories of creation.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has a long history of research and excavation work at ancient Mesopotamian sites. UPM sent the first U.S. expedition to the Near East-to Nippur, in Iraq-in 1887, and continues work in the region today. The Museum houses more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets, including the largest collection of Sumerian literary tablets in the world.

Dr. Samuel Noah Kramer, who worked in the Museum's Babylonian section from 1943 through 1968, was a pioneer in deciphering the Sumerian tablets-and in sharing his discovery of Sumerian culture with the public, in popular books History Begins at Sumer and The Sumerians that remain classics today. His successor, Dr. Ake Sjoberg, founded the Pennsylvanian Sumerian Dictionary Project, and continued the tradition of painstaking scholarship as he and others worked to unlock the secrets of an ancient language-and civilization-that flourished five millennia ago.

The National Endowment for the Humanities grant will support the efforts of Dr. Tinney's Sumerian Dictionary Project team, including Dr. Philip Jones, Research Specialist, and Dr. Tonia Sharlach, Research Specialist. Dr. Ake Sjoberg, officially retired in 1996, continues to contribute substantially, as do Dr. Erle Leichty, Curator of Akkadian Language and Literature, and Dr. Barry L. Eichler.

The Museum's Campaign for the 21st Century, launched in 2001, seeks to raise $55 million to strengthen UPM's archaeological and anthropological research and public education efforts locally, nationally and internationally, and renovate the Museum's landmark buildings. For more information about the Campaign, contact Suzanne Becker, Director of Development, at (215) 898-4031.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at


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