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New AI tool 'fragmentarium' brings ancient Babylonian texts together

Enrique Jiménez uses AI to make texts that are thousands of years old readable. Now the Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literatures is making his platform accessible to the public.
Enrique Jiménez
Enrique Jiménez
originally studied classical philology. Today he is an expert in Babylonian literature and uses AI to reconstruct Babylonian texts.
How should we live when we know we must die? This question is posed by the first work of world literature, the Gilgamesh epic. More than 4,000 years ago, Gilgamesh set out on a quest for immortality. Like all Babylonian literature, the saga has survived only in fragments. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to bring two-thirds of the text into readable condition since it was rediscovered in the 19th century.

The Babylonians wrote in cuneiform characters on clay tablets, which have survived in the form of countless fragments. Over centuries, scholars transferred the characters imprinted on the pieces of clay onto paper. Then they would painstakingly compare their transcripts and - in the best case - recognize which fragments belong together and fill in the gaps. The texts were written in the languages Sumerian and Akkadian, which have complicated writing systems. This was a Sisyphean task, one that the experts in the Electronic Babylonian Literature project can scarcely imagine today.

Digitization of all surviving cuneiform tablets

Enrique Jiménez, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Literatures at LMU's Institute of Assyriology, and his team have been working on the digitization of all surviving cuneiform tablets since 2018. In that time, the project has processed as many as 22,000 text fragments.

"It's a tool that didn't exist before, a huge database of fragments. We believe it can play a vital role in reconstructing Babylonian literature, allowing us to make much faster progress." Aptly named the Fragmentarium, it is designed to piece together fragments of text using systematic, automated methods. The designers expect that the program will also be able to identify and transcribe photos of cuneiform scripts in the future. To date, thousands of additional cuneiform fragments have been photographed in collaboration with the British Museum in London and the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.

Blue Planet

Sumeria's marshy city of Lagash was built on mounds and interlaced with waterways

© Emily Hammer
Ancient Lagash
The traditional model of early Mesopotamian urban development holds that cities were compact settlements that expanded out from a central monumental religious complex. However, a recent remote-sensing survey of the ancient Sumerian city of Lagash in present-day southern Iraq has established that it was composed of several discrete sections, each bounded by walls or waterways. The survey was conducted by University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Emily Hammer in conjunction with Lagash Archaeological Project directors Holly Pittman and Augusta McMahon. It included drone photography of the entire 750-acre site.

The results revealed that some of the people of Lagash, which dates largely to the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.), lived on a pair of elongated mounds, each surrounded by substantial walls. One of these mounds, in the east, measured 100 acres, and the other, in the west, covered 220 acres. People also lived on an unwalled mound in the north that spanned 140 acres and was crisscrossed by waterways. A much smaller fourth mound in the northeast was dominated by a large temple.

Comment: See also: Crannogs: Neolithic artificial islands in Scotland stump archeologists


Remapping superhighways travelled by first Australians

© Flinders University
New research has revealed that the process of 'peopling' the entire continent of Sahul — the combined mega continent that joined Australia with New Guinea when sea levels were much lower than today — took 10,000 years.

Sophisticated models combined recent improvements in demography and models of wayfinding based on geographic inference to show the scale of the challenges faced by the ancestors of Indigenous people making their mass migration across the supercontinent more than 60,000 years ago.

The ancestors of Aboriginal people likely first entered the continent 75,000-50,000 years ago from what is today the island of Timor, followed by later migrations through the western regions of New Guinea.

According to the new research, this pattern led to a rapid expansion both southward toward the Great Australian Bight, and northward from the Kimberley region to settle all parts of New Guinea and, later, the southwest and southeast of Australia.


The Eye of the Sahara


Eye of the Sahara
© NASA – Public Domain
Eye of the Sahara.
The structure is an eroded elliptical dome of sedimentary rock, that ranges in age from the Proterozoic (2500 to 538.8 million years ago) within the centre, to Ordovician (488.3 to 443.7 million years ago) sandstone around its periphery.

The dome has a diameter of 40 kilometres (25 mi), with an interior comprised of intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks, including rhyolitic volcanic rocks, gabbros, carbonatites and kimberlites.

The rhyolitic rocks have been interpreted as lava flows that are part of two distinct eruptive centres formed from the remains of two maars, a low-relief volcanic crater caused by a phreatomagmatic eruption (an explosion caused when groundwater comes into contact with hot lava or magma).


Karahan Tepe

Karahan Tepe
© Berna Namoglu – Shutterstock
Karahan Tepe is a site close to Gobekli Tepe, and roughly the same age (see Karahan Tepe - The Sister site to Gobekli Tepe) it was discovered in 1997 but not surveyed until 2000. This revealed basin like pools carved in hard rock, and a collection of tools such as adzes, chisels, beads, stone pot fragments, grinding stones and pestles.

There were also arrowheads, scrapers, perforators, blades etc, made of flint or obsidian. This suggested to the archaeologists the people of Karahan Tepe were essentially hunter gatherers - or they practised animal husbandry. A lack of farmed vegetation was the biggest surprise.No evidence of cereals for example, or legumes. Nothing.

The site is now classified as pre pottery and pre-Neolithic, and is dated between 10,000 and 6500BC. This corresponds to nearby sites such as Gobekli Tepe and Sefer Tepe etc. What is clear is that the site was intentionally built by the inhabitants as the wider site is said to contain circular homes. The ritual complex and ceremonial structures have been found cut into the bedrock.

Георгиевская ленточка

'There is no God here': How the conflict between the Orthodox Christian Church and the Soviet Union helped define modern Russia

russian orthodox church bolshevik revolution lenin
© RT
105 years ago, the Bolsheviks were excommunicated

"Madmen, come to your senses, stop your bloody massacres. What you are doing is not only cruel - it's a satanic deed, for which you'll burn in the fires of hell in the life to come, and will be damned by posterity." With these words, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon, addressed the people in February 1918. The speech was a response to anti-religious pogroms happening all over the country.

It marked the beginning of a long conflict between the Soviet government and the Orthodox Church, which reverberates in Russian society to this day. A religious believer who also sincerely supports Communist ideals and feels nostalgic about the USSR is a seemingly contradictory and exotic type of person, but rather common in Russia. A famous example being the politician Gennady Zyuganov, who believes Jesus Christ himself was a Communist.


Researchers identify oldest bone spear point in the Americas

The Manis bone projectile point represents the oldest direct evidence of mastodon hunting in the Americas.

The Manis site mastodon rib
© Center for the Study of the First Americans, Texas A&M University
The Manis site mastodon rib with embedded point to the left.
A team of researchers led by a Texas A&M University professor has identified the Manis bone projectile point as the oldest weapon made of bone ever found in the Americas at 13,900 years.

Dr. Michael Waters, distinguished professor of anthropology and director of Texas A&M's Center for the Study of First Americans, led the team whose findings were published this week in Science Advances.

The team studied bone fragments embedded in a mastodon rib bone which was first discovered by Carl Gustafson, who conducted an excavation at the Manis site in Washington state from 1977 to 1979.

Using a CT scan and 3D software, Waters and his team isolated all the bone fragments to show it was the tip of a weapon — a projectile made from the bone of Mastodon, prehistoric relatives of elephants.

"We isolated the bone fragments, printed them out and assembled them," Waters said. "This clearly showed this was the tip of a bone projectile point. This is this the oldest bone projectile point in the Americas and represents the oldest direct evidence of mastodon hunting in the Americas."

Waters said at 13,900 years old, the Manis point is 900 years older than projectile points found to be associated with the Clovis people, whose stone tools he has also studied. Dating from 13,050 to 12,750 years ago, Clovis spear points have been found in Texas and several other sites across the country.


Earliest evidence of humans hunting elephants

Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser
© Lutz Kindler, LEIZA
Professor Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser standing next to a life-size reconstruction of an adult male European straight-tusked elephant (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle.

Neumark - Nord was first discovered in the 1980's, revealing the remains of at least 70 straight-tusked elephants over a decade of excavations in a gigantic lignite pit, which had been well preserved over the last 125,000 years in the fine-grained lake sediments present there.

The European straight-tusked elephant was the largest land-living animal at the time - with shoulder heights of up to 4 metres and body masses of up to 13 tonnes. The animal by the scientific name of Palaeoloxodon antiquus, was characterised by its unusually long and essentially straight tusks.

Palaeoloxodon antiquus roamed the landscapes of Europe and Western Asia in a period 800,000 to 100,000 years ago. It was the largest land mammal of the Pleistocene epoch, a period that began three million years ago. Straight-tusked elephants were not only significantly larger than today's African and Asian elephants, but were even bigger than the also extinct woolly mammoth.

It has been unclear to date, whether prehistoric hominins actively sought out and killed such elephants or simply scavenged from the carcasses of animals that had died a natural death

A zooarchaeological study by researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), the Leibniz-Zentrum für Archäologie (LEIZA), also based in Mainz, and Leiden University in the Netherlands, analysed an assemblage of European straight-tusked elephant remains from Neumark - Nord.

This revealed that Neanderthals deliberately hunted down and slaughtered European straight-tusked elephants in much larger social groups than had been previously assumed, whose meat and fatty tissue represented an important source of nutrition.


5,000-year-old tavern still stocked with food discovered in Iraq

5,000 year tavern iraq
© Lagash Archaeological Project
Researchers discovered an ancient tavern at Lagash in southern Iraq.
Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of an ancient tavern that's nearly 5,000 years old in southern Iraq, the University of Pennsylvania announced last week. The find offers insight into the lives of everyday people who lived in a non-elite urban neighborhood in southwest Asia around 2700 B.C.E.

Inside the public eating space — which included an open-air area and a kitchen — researchers with the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pisa found an oven, a type of clay refrigerator called a zeer, benches and storage containers that still held food. They also found dozens of conical-shaped bowls that contained the remains of fish, reports CNN's Issy Ronald.

The tavern was discovered at Lagash, a 1,000-acre archaeological site that was a bustling industrial hub with many inhabitants during the Early Dynastic period. Researchers say Lagash was one of the largest and oldest cities in all of southern Mesopotamia.


50 years after leaving Vietnam, the US keeps getting involved in wars without understanding them

kissinger vietnam leader
US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (R) shakes hand with Le Duc Tho, leader of North Vietnamese delegation, after the signing of a ceasefire agreement in Vietnam war, 23 January in Paris
In January 1973, the US signed an agreement that saw it pull out of Vietnam, abandoning its South Vietnamese partners. In August 2021, history repeated itself in Afghanistan.

Vietnam being one of the theaters of the Cold War, the US decided to intervene to face the progression of communists in the country. According to the domino theory, Vietnam needed to stay within the Western sphere of influence. For the sake of democracy all over the world, obviously.

The year 1965 was the beginning of a massive US involvement. Until then, Washington had limited itself to sending supplies and about 900 military observers and trainers. But after the controversial Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, the American engagement became way more serious. At its peak in 1969, the US intervention included more than 540,000 troops on the ground. However, the large scale 1965-68 Operation Rolling Thunder, during which the US dropped 864,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam, ended up a failure. The surprise Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese was also a failure, but it seriously damaged South Vietnam's infrastructure and the US' reputation as a trustworthy ally.

By the end of the '60s, the US population had grown tired of the conflict, and more and more protests against the war were organized throughout the country. President Richard Nixon had campaigned in 1968 on the promise to end the war in Vietnam with peace and honor - the idea was to gain time and arm the South Vietnamese in order for them to defend their positions on their own. However, Nixon had failed to deliver this peace and, in 1972, was facing re-election. As the Americans had already proved during WWII when they constantly postponed the opening of a second front in Europe, a 'democratic war' is always closely linked to elections and internal political fights.