By William Harms
Photo by Jason Smith

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is one of the most important and unique contributions of the Oriental Institute to understanding the civilizations of the ancient Near East.”
—Gil Stein
Director of the Oriental Institute

The University of Chicago was less than 30 years old when the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project began in 1921.

Now, after 90 years of labor and contributions from scholars around the globe, the sprawling project is finally complete. All along it’s been an ambitious effort to identify, explain, and provide citations for words written in cuneiform on clay tables or carved in stone by Babylonians, Assyrians, and others in Mesopotamia between 2500 B.C. and A.D. 100.

The massive job also has linked generations of researchers in Hyde Park and elsewhere, often serving as a touchstone and helping to define academic careers over many decades. Work on the project has been a constant since 1979 for Martha Roth, editor-in-charge of the dictionary and dean of Humanities.

“I came to the University in 1979 as a postdoc with the idea of staying here one year,” says Roth, who had completed a dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the project. “The editor then, Erica Reiner, said the project would be done shortly and that there would be no future for me. Every editor of the dictionary had told the Director of the Oriental Institute that it would be a 10-year job."

The project continued at its careful pace, however, and a faculty position opened up for Roth so she could stay at UChicago. When she took over as editor-in-charge in 1996, Roth, like her predecessors, predicted the project would be done in 10 years. She was closer to the mark, however, as the final draft was prepared for circulation among scholars and eventual printing in 2007.

“I feel proud and privileged to have brought this project home,” says Roth, who specializes in ancient legal history. “I feel this will be a foundation for how to do more dictionary projects in the future.”

“The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is one of the most important and unique contributions of the Oriental Institute to understanding the civilizations of the ancient Near East,” says Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “The dictionary is not simply a word list. By detailing the history and range of uses of each word, this unique volume is in essence a cultural encyclopedia of Mesopotamian history, society, literature, law, and religion. It is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of Mesopotamian civilization.”

Speaking with the BBC World Service, scholar Irving Finkel of the British Museum’s Middle East department called the dictionary’s completion “a heroic and significant moment in history.”

The adventure begins

The historic project began in 1921 with James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute and one of the country’s premier Middle Eastern archaeologists. Although never intended to be a project to take generations of scholars to complete, it was from the beginning an auspicious undertaking.

Breasted envisioned the Oriental Institute in very broad terms and said its mission was “essentially an organized endeavor to recover the lost story of the rise of man.” The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary was to be a major part of that work.

Although originally named after the Assyrian language, scholars found that Assyrian was a dialect of another Semitic language, Akkadian. It is all of the Akkadian-language record, including its several dialects through time and across the ancient Near East, which is actually what the dictionary documents. The work is not a dictionary in the common sense either, but more of an encyclopedia with entries for each word denoting various meanings and referencing the contexts and ways in which it was used.

In the final volume, for instance, the word umu, meaning “day,” covers 17 pages and documents its use, for example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh to describe time long ago: “Those who took crowns who had rule of the land in the days of yore.”

The massive amount of information the dictionary includes is one reason why it took so long to complete. There are also many more practical reasons as well. It was started before computers were used and is based on data sets of millions of index cards, which contain references to citations of words and references. New clay tablets are constantly being recovered and their contents published, thus making a dead language come “alive” with new and previously unknown words and with new citations and usages of known words. The faculty members in addition to working on the dictionary also were teaching classes, publishing scholarly articles and books, attending committee meetings, and doing all the other things professors do at a research institution.

The early days of the project, then in the basement of the University’s Haskell Hall, were devoted to writing and sorting the first index cards. When the Oriental Institute moved to its current location at 58th Street and University Avenue in 1931, a large amount of space on the third floor was devoted to the project and specifically constructed and reinforced to support the dozens of filing cabinets for the index cards.

After World War II, the exodus of scholars from Europe brought new scholars to the project. A new team of scholars including I.J. Gelb, Thorkild Jacobsen, Benno Landsberger, and A. Leo Oppenheim gave the project fresh vigor. Under the editorship of Oppenheim, the team was joined by Reiner in 1952. Ultimately, she remained involved in some way with the production of each of the 21 volumes, beginning with the first, devoted to words beginning with the letter H and published in 1956.

For the next 55 years, another 20 volumes have appeared as they have been written, reviewed, edited, shipped in gallery form to scholars around the world, and finally printed and bound.

Oppenheim, Reiner, and then Roth formed a three-generation coherent perspective as successive editors-in-charge. Each in turn brought a deep understanding of the project that helped younger scholars when they encountered problems discerning the meaning of a word.

“I never felt overwhelmed,” says Roth, the Chauncey S. Boucher Distinguished Service Professor in Assyriology. “We always had a number of volumes underway in various stages of production, so there was a momentum to the project.”

A civilization at your fingertips

Probably no other ancient civilization is as well documented as that developed between the Tigris and Euphrates in what is now Iraq. Because its people were engaged in trade, developed professions, wrote literature, and established rules of law, the information recorded on clay tablets tells a great deal about the way they lived. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is a guide to their world.

“Much of the Mesopotamian legal vocabulary and the basic concepts of law and justice would be very familiar to people today,” says said Jerrold Cooper, Professor Emeritus in Semitic Languages at Johns Hopkins University. “Looking at one of the earliest CAD volumes, D (1959), you will find the word for legal judgment, dīnu, which, like “case” in English, can refer to a legal case or lawsuit, but also to the verdict or judgment in the case, as well as to a judicial proceeding and to law in general,” said Cooper, PhD’69, speaking at a June 6 conference.

“Then as now, one of the primary responsibilities of the government was to provide justice and protection to its citizens,” he says.

McGuire Gibson, professor at the Oriental Institute and one of the leading archaeologists of Mesopotamia, says the dictionary is an invaluable reference to teams in the field.

“I kept a copy at our dig house in Nippur,” he says of a site where he worked in southern Iraq. “When you find tablets, it’s important to know where they are found and what they say. In reading them, you can learn where they came from and something about the trading system that was going on.” For expeditions, he routinely brought along cuneiform experts who had worked with him on the dictionary.

Robert Biggs, Professor Emeritus at the Oriental Institute, who has been working on the dictionary since the early 1960s, is one of those scholars who joined Gibson on the digs.

Biggs is a specialist on Babylonian medicine, which is reflected in many texts, and on omens, which are also common and frequently contain references to how to read a sheep’s liver in order to divine the future. One of Biggs’ favorite memories from working on the dictionary was the discovery of the meaning of two previously not well understood words for parts of the liver, an important finding for interpreting the omens.

Working on an archaeological dig, where he could hold a freshly excavated tablet in his hands, put him in touch with the civilizations documented in the dictionary in a way nothing else could, he says. “You’d brush away the dirt, and then there would emerge a letter from someone who might be talking about a new child in the family, or another tablet that might be a loan of money until harvest time. You’d realize that this was a culture not just of kings and queens, but also of real people, much like ourselves, with similar concerns for safety, food, and shelter for themselves and their families.

“They wrote these tablets thousands of years ago, never meaning for them to be read so much later, but they speak to us in a way that makes their experiences come alive for us,” he says.

Originally published on June 20, 2011.