Semantic Network Analysis and Cuneiform Intellectual History

Eduardo Escobar (right foreground) and Laurie Pearce (left foreground) at DHBSI, August 2015

For Eduardo Escobar, a PhD student in the Near Eastern Studies department, technology provides both a key theoretical concept and a set of practical tools for his dissertation on cuneiform “recipes” from between the second and first millennium BCE. These “recipes” are documents that share a predictable structure for transmitting procedural knowledge from an expert to a novice. To support and present his research claims and related findings about his corpus, Escobar leverages technology as it is understood in a modern context, through his adoption of tools and methods associated with digital humanities.

As one component of his dissertation, Escobar will develop a digital critical edition for a subset of his corpus, and publish it through the ORACC (Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus) consortium, which has developed widely-adopted standards for the online publication of cuneiform texts. The critical edition will include network analysis tools to decipher probable meanings of technical terms that appear in recipe texts. These terms have remained opaque even in comprehensive reference works such as the The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. The interface Escobar is developing will allow scholars to visualize recipes within a semantic network of related texts, examine the various contexts where a particular term appears, and use the intersection of those contexts to better ascertain the meaning of poorly understood terms.

The Digital Humanities at Berkeley program, a partnership between the Dean of Arts and Humanities and Research IT, has supported Escobar in developing the methodological and technical skills necessary to implement the network analysis aspect of his dissertation. In Fall 2014, Escobar met with digital humanities consultants to discuss which course at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria would be the best fit for his research interests. Escobar was awarded a tuition scholarship for DHSI, and in June 2015 he joined colleagues from around the world in the course “Data, Math, Visualization, and Interpretation of Networks: An Introduction”. In August 2015, Escobar deepened his knowledge of network analysis by attending the course “Data Workflows and Network Analysis” at the inaugural Digital Humanities at Berkeley Summer Institute (DHBSI).

While the application of network analysis in Escobar’s dissertation is focused on semantic networks of technical terms, his broader research interests have allowed him to explore the method’s use in other contexts as well. In Spring 2015, Escobar received a small research grant to work with Laurie Pearce, a lecturer in Near Eastern Studies, on a project that explores the intersection of their individual research agendas. This project examines how and where the astronomer authors of Escobar’s recipes appear within the historical social networks Pearce has developed through her Berkeley Prosopography* Services project. Though prosopographical work is performed in a variety of fields, the problem of constructing biographies is particularly prominent when studying ancient societies, due to the relative scarcity of available texts. While these biographies may be incomplete, they are enriched by understanding the contexts in which these figures move about: what kinds of texts did they write? In what records do they appear? Who writes about them? Who were they holding transactions or contracts with? Escobar’s research on Babylonian astronomers is enhanced by understanding how they also participated in society as legal scholars, authors of literary works, and owners of land.

The transformative impact that digital tools and methodologies have had on Escobar’s research has inspired him to develop new tools that will support both research and teaching in his discipline. In December 2015, he received a grant from the Student Technology Fund to build a script that will scan cuneiform texts for the most frequently used signs, outputting a statistical dataset of those signs most used by scribes. This tool will have significant applications for cuneiform pedagogy and research. “Students learning cuneiform for the first time are often intimidated by the vast range of choices they face when transliterating a text from the original script. Advanced scholars of cuneiform, in contrast, have often relied on analog tools for analyzing text data, thus, lacking the time to analyze substantial text corpora,” explained Escobar. “In both cases, a ‘plug-and-play’ tool that decodes cuneiform signs to their base values will prove itself invaluable to both novices and experts on campus and off.”

* A prosopography is the result of (a) the collecting of name instances in texts, along with related data, such as family relationships, and attributes, such as titles, roles, age, and gender; (b) the disambiguating those name instances into individuals; and (c) the presentation of the results in a structured, searchable format. The creation of a prosopography is not an end in itself, but rather a methodology for collecting and organizing data that supports complex and interesting research questions.