This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

Tablets loom large in Jay Crisostomo’s life. There’s the iPad Pro he uses to check his Twitter feed and to communicate with colleagues around the world. And then there are the more-than-3,000-year-old clay tablets that are his obsession.

The tablets—cuneiform texts primarily from modern-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria—detail the history and culture of ancient Mesopotamia. Cuneiform is the world’s earliest writing system, and Crisostomo, an assistant professor in LSA’s Department of Near Eastern Studies, has been unraveling its secrets since he went from seminary to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Assyriology.

It was Crisostomo’s early dream of becoming a Protestant pastor that led to his interest in the ancient world. As a teen growing up in Wisconsin, he learned ancient Hebrew to better understand the Bible. Soon he wanted to know more about the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers known as Mesopotamia, a civilization dating back to at least 3400 BCE. What Crisostomo learned fired his imagination, and from that point on he was hooked. 

 Now Crisostomo uses twenty-first-century technology to bring others into that world. Fluent in ancient Sumerian and Akkadian as well as cuneiform, the writing system scribes used to record those languages in soft clay with reed pens, Crisostomo wants to address what he thinks has been “a real failure in our field—the ability to communicate what’s so exciting about it.” Crisostomo shares new developments in Assyriology on Twitter, and he’s part of a massive online project aimed at publishing the entire corpus of known cuneiform texts—as many as a half-million—in searchable digital editions.

The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (ORACC) features both transliterations and translations in English of ancient Mesopotamian writings with links to glossaries for individual words. The idea is to make this material accessible to anyone who wants it—whether they’re a cuneiform expert, a historian, or a schoolteacher. It’s a huge leap from the days when Assyriologists published their work in untranslated print editions accessible only to other scholars.

Tweets from 3400 BCE

Click on a link in ORACC’s huge database, and you can find ancient Mesopotamians buying and selling real estate, shaping public policy, exploring mathematics, and rhapsodizing about love and sex. Crisostomo admits there are times when he reads one of these texts and thinks, “Someone could have just tweeted that.” Countless inscriptions by rulers, for instance, “basically just boast about how big their ‘nuclear button’ is—I went into this city, I slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people—that sort of thing.” 

Of all the skills Crisostomo brings to the field, perhaps the most admirable is his ability to conceptualize the long-ago world of Mesopotamia, says Assyriologist Niek Veldhuis, who advised Crisostomo at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s always an enormous challenge,” Veldhuis reflects. “You have to cross this enormous gap of 2,000 to 3,000 years. Simply translating the texts is only a first step. The second step is thinking about what it really was that people were saying or trying to do by writing this tablet. Jay has made wonderful progress in doing that.”

The one-time seminary student concedes that in some ways he has come full circle. “When I wanted to be a pastor,” Crisostomo recalls, “what I loved about it was the research and the teaching—the ability to sit down with an ancient text, read it, think about it, interpret it, and then go and tell people about it. As a teacher now, that’s exactly what I do.”

Crisostomo likes to remind his students that by studying the ancient Middle East they can get “a good sense of the world beyond the United States and the world beyond Europe.” Studying Mesopotamia helps make the region seem less foreign, and that’s a good thing, Crisostomo says.

He hopes his students find his subject as exhilarating as he does. But more than that, he hopes they understand the tremendous diversity of people who have contributed to the project of human civilization. That, Crisostomo insists, may be the “most important, most relevant aspect of what I do.” 


Photo: ©Trustees of the British Museum