A team of Israeli experts has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) model to translate ancient cuneiform characters into English.
After spending years studying cuneiform writing, one of first known writing systemsand trying to understand ancient Mesopotamian texts, a group of researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and Ariel University seek to translate the ancient and difficult language akkadian automatically and accurately.
Cuneiform is translated as “wedge-shaped” because in ancient times it was written using a pencil sharpened from reed to make a wedge-shaped mark on a clay tablet.
The scientists developed two versions of the AI model: one that translates Akkadian from cuneiform representations of Latin alphabet signs, and another that translates from Unicode representations of signs.
As a result, the first version, which uses Latin transliteration, produced better results. This means that the model can produce translations comparable to those produced by an average machine translation from one modern language to another.
Old Akkadian clay tablet dated between 2350 and 2200 BCE. C. Credit: British Museum.
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For experts, in most cases translation could be used as a first step in the text. The authors propose that machine translation can be used in a “human-machine collaboration”, in which human researchers correct and refine the output of the model. Given that there is a cultural gap of more than 2,000 years in translation from ancient Akkadian, this is a remarkable achievement.
The clay tablets inscribed on cuneiform script documents the political, social, economic and scientific history of ancient Mesopotamia. This new technology has the potential to revolutionize the study of ancient history by making it more accessible, as archaeologists say they have found hundreds of thousands of these cuneiform-written clay tablets dating back to 3,400 BC. C., far more than the limited number of experts who can read them can translate.
Cuneiform tablet with records of beer rations for workers. Credit: Artefacts-Berlin.de / Wissenschaftliches Material.
The researchers’ findings were published in the journal Nexus PNAS.
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