Reading Between the Lines: The Challenges of Cuneiform Literature and Network Analysis

John Lynch
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
Near Eastern Languages and Cultures

The literature of ancient Mesopotamia, written in the cuneiform script on clay tablets, would seem at first glance to lend itself well to network analysis. Since the primary context of written literary texts was apparently the scribal school, certain literary texts survive in dozens of copies from multiple locations, which could theoretically be compared through network analysis to provide data for unanswered questions about authorship, transmission, and composition.

In practice, however, I have discovered that cuneiform literature presents certain challenges that are not easily resolved using the currently available technology. For example, the presence of additional lines, or lines in a particular order, are potentially very significant indicators of the relationship between two or more texts; but the “bag of words” method of corpus analysis does not easily isolate such subtle groupings. Using the corpus of texts that I analyzed for my dissertation, I will illustrate some of the limitations that I have encountered, and solicit advice from the institute participants for ways to circumvent or resolve these challenges.

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