The Cuneiform Forensics Project

The Cuneiform Forensics Project is an interdisciplinary coalition of scholars, based at Brooklyn College, who are interested in studying the material remains of the Ancient Near East in a new way. Cuneiform is the oldest known pre-alphabetic writing system of Ancient Mesopotamia, the region between and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that now includes parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Cuneiform was in use for several thousands of years and was the basic writing system for more than half a dozen languages. Cuneiform has been the focus of interest of Assyriologists, the scholars who read cuneiform and understand the languages that are written with it. The reason why we are even aware of the existence of cuneiform is that it was written into durable clay tablets and slabs,

Forensics, in contrast, is the study of material remains associated with personal identification and/or behavior, the physical evidence we unknowingly leave behind as we go about our lives. Originally a topic of interest confined to the legal system, we are fusing forensics with Archaeology, the discipline concerned primarily with uncovering and studying the remains of things made by people, whether of buildings, tools or plowed agricultural fields.

Our project developed by recognizing a simple, if regrettable fact: our museums hold hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and similar remains, each made by hand and inscribed with a message of some kind, by a person who lived thousands of years ago. The vast majority of these objects came to our museums not by academic means but via a dubious market in undocumented antiquities that had been torn from their archaeological context. Most of the rest were excavated decades ago by archaeologists whose methods were crude by today's standards. At any rate, since they usually have no archaeological context, cuneiform tablets have rarely been the focus of archaeologists' attention.

So we are turning to cuneiform tablets as physical objects, using new technologies to look for the physical evidence of human behavior preserved on them in additional to language. We are interested in examining "hand writing" as a means of identifying individuals and/or cuneiform writing styles, fingerprint impressions that may have been left on the tablets, reconstructing how the pen-like stylus was used to make the cuneiform wedges, and the raw materials used in manufacturing tablet clays, where they came from and what that means about communities.