By Sridhar Pappu

Martha Roth can see the end. She knows of course that other editors of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary have seen the end. James Henry Breasted was sure he saw it in the 20s, I.J. Gelb in the 40s, A. Leo Oppenheim in the 50s. But if Roth has anything to say about it, she’ll be the dictionary’s last editor.

Breasted started the CAD in 1921–one of the grand academic endeavors of the 20th century. When it’s finished it will have 26 volumes that capture, in every nuance and context, every word of Akkadian, a language alive in various forms for 2,000 years, dying out around 100 AD in what is now Iraq.

Since the 1930s, the CAD’s headquarters have been on the third floor of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Six huge olive drab file cabinets filled with index cards–at last count, in 1970, more than two million of them–run across the width of the main room. Shoved into one corner is a gray tornado fan, and hidden somewhere, supposedly, is the duplicating machine that once produced the pale blue text on so many of those cards. A long mahogany table sits on one side of the room, and the fluorescent lights are encased in yellowed plastic that softens the light and gives everything in the room a tinge of antiquity.

Roth started working on the dictionary in 1979 and became its latest editor in 1996. “I’m just a baby,” she says. “Twenty years is nothing. Only millennia, as we like to say, count around here.”

In a way, the dictionary grew out of a scandal. In 1891 Yale’s great Semitic scholar William Rainey Harper came to Chicago to head John D. Rockefeller’s brand-new university. At the time, Middle Eastern studies, particularly Assyriology, were the rage, and universities were competing fiercely to build prestigious programs. J.P. Morgan had given Yale 1,000 shares of U.S. Steel to set up an Assyriology professorship, and the University of Pennsylvania was funding large excavations in the Near East, bringing back 30,000 tablets from Nippur and Ur between 1888 and 1893, and building a museum to house them. Everyone hoped to attract the best scholars. “There were very few people who did this stuff,” says Bruce Kuklick, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930. “So the schools fought. Today they’d have their choice of scholars, who are desperately looking for employment.”

Harper set up an Assyriology program headed by his brother Robert Francis Harper, a renowned Assyriologist. He also persuaded socialite Caroline Haskell to donate $100,000 to build a museum for Near Eastern artifacts, which opened in 1896. In 1903 Robert Francis persuaded Rockefeller to help fund an expedition to the ancient city of Bismaya, in what is now Iraq. Kuklick writes that Harper’s field agent, Edgar Banks, struggled from the start with the heat and the rats and the demands for bribes from officials of the Ottoman empire. The following year he would be charged with smuggling antiquities–something he claimed Harper had ordered him to do.

Excavators smuggled artifacts all the time, but Banks made the mistake of getting caught. The university was in a humiliating position, and Rockefeller decided his family’s wealth would be better spent elsewhere. Unable to attract funding for further expeditions to the Near East and barred by Ottoman officials from excavating in areas they controlled, the U. of C.’s Near East studies program was suddenly moribund.

But Robert Francis Harper’s disgrace allowed James Henry Breasted’s career to take off. A failed pharmacist and divinity student from Downers Grove, Breasted had studied under William Rainey Harper at Yale. In 1895 Harper brought him to Chicago to be a professor in Egyptology–the first such position in the country–though Breasted’s interests remained far broader. His accomplishments helped the university regain the prestige it had lost. From 1905 to 1907 he led expeditions to Egypt and the Sudan, and he spent several years working on the Berlin Egyptian Dictionary. In 1916 he published Ancient Times: A History of the Ancient World, a general history written for a popular audience that was widely read.

One of the people who read the book was the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the son of the U. of C.’s founder. She and Breasted met and became friends, and by 1919 Breasted had persuaded her husband to hand over $100,000 to create the Oriental Institute, a place that would bring together people from all the social sciences to study the ancient world. They would be able to study architecture, languages, and art in a way that isolated professors could not. Breasted promised to draw upon the best researchers and professors around the country, giving them access to the institute’s materials in return for letting the school use their names.

Breasted saw the study of the ancient Near East not as an arcane scholarly endeavor–inquiry for the sake of inquiry–but as a way to go “backward up the centuries” to the sources of civilization. Fully grasping what civilizations had been like in their earliest, purest form would help set humankind on the path to good, would help solve the world’s problems. “It’s a kind of parallel religion,” explains Matthew Stolper, a professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization at the U. of C. “He’s looking for the field to replace, not just to be related to, the events of the Bible. This is the start of his vision–the meaning, really, behind his philology.”

Breasted saw the Near East as the greatest source of civilization, a region where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, like the Nile and the Indus, had made it possible for people to create a sustainable communal life. It was, Roth says, a land of firsts–the world’s first cities and empires and bureaucracies, its first law codes and banking systems. Most important, Mesopotamia gave us the written word.

This first writing system, cuneiform–from the Latin word cuneus, for wedge–was invented by the region’s first powerful culture, the non-Semitic Sumerians, during the fourth millennium BC. They used reeds to press their wedge-shaped letters into soft clay tablets, which were dried in the sun to make them last. Excavators have found letters written by the Sumerians, even epics, including the story of Gilgamesh. Sumerian scribes also made lists of their words, grouping them thematically or alphabetically. When the Akkadians, a Semitic people, displaced the Sumerians in the late fourth millennium BC, they incorporated their literary and written tradition, giving rise to the world’s first bilingual dictionaries–lists and lists of Sumerian words placed next to their Akkadian translations.

For 3,000 years Akkadian culture flourished. Their language, says Roth, became “the language of diplomacy, treaties, and royal correspondence among the rulers of Anatolia, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Iran. It was the language in which our earliest law collections, literary epics, medical treatises, astronomical observations were all written. Much of what we consider the legacy of Western civilization comes to us from Mesopotamia–filtered through Greece and Rome.”

In time the Akkadians were conquered by the Persians, the Macedonian Greeks, the Romans. Now they were the ones being assimilated. By the end of the first century their language had died out, cuneiform had been replaced by Aramaic script, and clay tablets had been replaced by ink and papyrus.

Centuries later, European explorers began excavating the ruins of once grand cities and unearthing tablets covered with wedge-shaped inscriptions. Thomas Hyde labeled the inscriptions “cuneiform” in 1700. From 1811 to 1820 Claudius James Rich, an agent for the East India Company, mapped the ruins of Babylon. No one could decipher the inscriptions until Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, a British army officer, began decoding a series of inscriptions carved into the face of a cliff near Behistan, Iran, in 1835. The main inscription, from the time of Darius I, was in three languages and two different scripts, apparently three translations of the same text: a Babylonian dialect of Akkadian in Mesopotamian cuneiform, Elamite in Mesopotamian cuneiform, and Old Persian in Old Persian cuneiform. Old Persian had been used in Iran until around 330 AD and was still close enough to contemporary Persian that it could be deciphered.

By 1846 Rawlinson and Edward Hincks had translated the Old Persian, which fortunately has a minimal number of symbols–36 syllable signs, five word signs, and one word-divider sign. They then began taking proper names in the Old Persian and comparing them with their counterparts in the Babylonian dialect. Matthew Stolper, who worked on the CAD from 1980 to 1990 and who spent several years in the 70s excavating sites in northwestern Iran, explains the general process: “Chances are the Babylonian spelling of Darius begins with D, maybe with Da–it does. Chances are the Babylonian spelling of Ahuramazda begins with A–actually it doesn’t. Then try to plug those values in for other uses of the same sign and see what you get. Then try out likely forms for things like pronouns and common verbs–‘I killed,’ etc. Soon you get inconsistent results. You know that there are word signs pretty quickly. In the phrase ‘Darius the King declares,’ repeated about 70 times in the inscription, the sign group that represents ‘king’ in the Old Persian corresponds to a single sign in the Babylonian. Next you have to figure out that some signs can represent syllables in some positions or words in others. And then you have to contemplate the horrible possibility that some signs can have more than one syllabic value.”

Akkadian turned out to have more than 600 distinct characters, most representing more than one syllable and many representing more than one word. By 1857 Rawlinson and Hincks had managed to translate 150 signs and 200 words.

The ability to begin translating some of the millions of documents the Akkadians had left behind helped fuel the fascination with Assyriology. For years it was European scholars who did most of the work in the field, but after the Civil War they began to be joined by Americans, among them Robert Francis Harper.

In October 1921, two years after receiving Rockefeller’s donation for the Oriental Institute, James Henry Breasted put five people to work on an Akkadian dictionary in the basement of the Haskell Museum–they would move into the institute when it was completed, in 1930. Only small glossaries and dictionaries of the language existed, and he believed an updated, comprehensive work was critical for scholars.

His models included the Oxford English Dictionary (which would take 70 years to finish) and the Berlin Egyptian Dictionary (which was begun in 1897 and published in five volumes, the first in 1926 and the last in 1931). His work on the Berlin dictionary had taught him how to organize such a massive project; he wanted to list every known word of Akkadian and its etymology in six volumes filling some 3,000 pages.

For many years the process of researching the dictionary remained pretty much as Breasted had envisioned it. The staff or student researchers would take each known cuneiform document, translate it, and break the translation into 50-word sections. Each section was typed on a master file card, the cuneiform on the left–he had special typewriters made–and the translation on the right. The typed cards were proofread, and the master card was reproduced about 50 times on the duplicator–one card for each word.

The researchers would then “parse” each of the 50 cards, beginning by underlining one word of a section of text and writing that word on the upper left corner of the card so it could be filed alphabetically. They would check off boxes on the card that indicated the grammatical form in which the word was used in the particular bit of text (singular or plural, masculine or feminine, nominative or genitive or accusative, noun or pronoun or adverb, etc), the dialect and period of the text (Old Akkadian, Old Assyrian, Old Babylonian, Middle Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, etc), the area in which the original document had been found (Nuzi, Amarna, Elam, etc), the type of document the section was from (letter, legal document, literature, proverb, etc)–87 boxes in all.

“God, how many hours people spent marking off those parts of speech,” says Stolper. “Of course, somebody that’s writing an entry now pays no attention to them. People aren’t even aware what’s there.”

Determining the meaning of a word wasn’t easy, because the language had evolved across time and across cultures. Israel Shenker writes in his book about dictionary making, Harmless Drudges, “A common Akkadian verb like epesu can delay the dictionary for weeks. Epesu has meanings such as to act, to treat, is, happens, to construct, to practice (as witchcraft), to sacrifice (as a bull).” Moreover, new words and meanings were constantly being found as new texts were unearthed in the Near East and rediscovered in museum basements–thousands of them every year. The researchers often hit dead ends; sometimes, says Martha Roth, you know a word describes a textile, but that’s as far as you can go.

Breasted and everyone else assumed that when they’d finished the cards, entries in the dictionary could be quickly written by looking through the stacks of cards for each word, and the dictionary itself could then be swiftly compiled–it would essentially write itself. They estimated the entire project would take no more than a dozen years to complete. But the huge and ever-increasing quantity of texts and the laborious process of categorizing the words in them took far longer than he’d predicted. A couple of years before his death in 1935, he said in exasperation, “It is as yet hardly possible to hazard a guess which would be of any value as to the length of time required to complete the Assyrian Dictionary.” Nevertheless, he hazarded another ten years.

Progress on the dictionary continued to be slow through the 30s, and the staff came no closer to being able to publish the first volume. Then came World War II, and many of them went off to war.

For several years the project lay dormant. It was revived in 1945 by Thorkild Jacobsen, who’d led numerous field expeditions, and John Wilson, director of the Oriental Institute. In 1946 I.J. Gelb became the editor. Well aware that university administrators were angry that so little progress had been made in 25 years, the staff came up with a ten-year plan: five more years of research, then five years to publish. Nine years later, having failed to produce a single volume, they decided that volumes would be published as soon as they were ready, not all at once. Gelb thought that would take only ten more years. A year later, in 1955, he resigned as editor and went back to doing research of his own.

A. Leo Oppenheim took over as editor that same year. Born in 1904 in Vienna, he’d finished his PhD in Assyriology at the University of Vienna in 1933. He and his wife left in 1938 after Austria became part of the Third Reich, and he took a nonteaching job in Paris at the College de France. When Paris fell in 1941 they moved to the U.S., where he found work in the reference department of the New York Public Library, then an assistant professorship at the Iranian (now Asia) Institute. Visiting appointments at Johns Hopkins and at Dropsie College in Philadelphia followed. In 1947 he came to Hyde Park to work on the dictionary.

Once he became editor, Oppenheim pushed to publish a first volume. Roth says he chose H as the first because he and the other scholars thought the number of file cards for words beginning with that letter would turn out to be around average (they were right). Words beginning with H also had caused fewer categorizing problems, so they thought they were further ahead with that letter. When translated into the Roman alphabet, Akkadian has only 23 letters, but it has, for instance, three types of S and two types of T, which makes those letters harder to classify. Oppenheim’s plan was to move backward from H, then on through the rest of the alphabet–the pattern that’s been followed, more or less, ever since.

“His predecessors and his colleagues were extraordinary scholars interested in the intricacies of lexicography,” says Roth. “Oppenheim came in and said the only way to write a dictionary is to write it–and he went out on a limb and he wrote it.” Within a year he’d completed H and G.

Oppenheim also changed the basic focus of the dictionary from etymological to encyclopedic. Ancient words, he believed, meant nothing without their cultural context. He saw himself as a cultural anthropologist whose subjects happened to be dead, rejecting the traditional humanities approach to ancient civilizations as sterile and patronizing. He saw the dictionary as a way to tell the story of the Mesopotamian culture through its words. If someone looked up the word “barber,” he wanted them to be able to learn who a barber was in ancient Mesopotamia and who would go to a barber. That of course required the staff to do much more than underline text and check boxes; they had to check numerous sources to fill in context as they wrote their first drafts.

Once all the words in a volume were defined and put in context, every reference had to be checked and every passage verified. Every word was also checked against the various other Akkadian dictionaries. Galleys were then sent to scholars all over the world for comment, then revised before being sent to the publisher.

From 1955 to 1973, when he retired, Oppenheim oversaw the completion of 13 volumes, nearly one every year and a half. By 1969 he and his staff had published 3,113 pages and 7,181 total entries. At that point the university had spent nearly $1 million on the project. When Oppenheim died in 1974 a university press release said that the dictionary was “expected to be done by the 1980s.”

Erica Reiner, who’d started working on the dictionary in 1952 as a student, took over as editor after Oppenheim left in 1973. She was similarly driven to publish and managed to complete seven more volumes before she retired in 1996.

She oversaw the shift to computers in compiling the words and texts, but computers made the task only marginally easier. The staff still had to work with the file cards–very rare words had only a handful of cards, but common words had thousands–and those cards frequently had to be updated as texts were better translated. New cards were still created, though the boxes were gradually dropped. In time the cards became even simpler–a card written in 1989 might have just the page number in a book for a citation. That saved time early on, though it also forced the person defining the word to return to the source when it came time to write an entry.

Blatant mistakes are apparently rare in the completed volumes. But scholars often argue over how words should be defined and over the accuracy of the context the words are put into. Stolper says, “People who don’t work here constantly say, ‘When will this scandal at the CAD stop? These morons at Chicago, they couldn’t get this right.'” But beginning with Oppenheim, the dictionary’s editors have been willing to define words with authority. As Reiner put it, “We stick our necks out.”

Roth, who came to the U. of C. in 1979 to take a position as a “dictionary slave,” was first introduced to Assyriology as an undergrad at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Drawn to its myths, she fell in love with its totality. She began studying cuneiform and went on to do graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, where she could examine the thousands of ancient clay tablets in the school’s extensive collection from the 1880s, even keep them on her desk.

When she began working on the dictionary she saw it as a kind of revelation. “When you work on a dissertation or are taking classes, you work on one text or one area of text,” she says. “So then here, all of a sudden, you pick up your head and see a historical annal, you read about a king’s battle, you read a piece of Gilgamesh, you read a letter from a kid asking for money. You’re just all over the map.”

Stolper, who started working on the dictionary shortly after Roth did, had a similar response. “When you’re reading a Greek or Latin text you’re reading something that’s been handed down through the educational tradition of man from the Alexandria library,” he says. “You’re sort of reading something that is a magnificent achievement, and you’re figuring out how you got it. Here, you know you’re the first person to read what’s going on for 3,000 years–and that’s really cool.”

For ten years he helped write the drafts of a few volumes and went over corrections and galley proofs. But in 1990 he decided to go back to teaching and research, though he became a member of the dictionary’s editorial board. “I guess you want the whole text–you want the whole text in a larger context,” he says. “What I discovered as I tried to crank out manuscript is that every now and then you come across that, but a lot of the time you’re dealing with sentence fragments and syntax.”

Roth became the dictionary’s assistant editor in 1986 and took over as editor when Reiner retired in 1996. “Since 1921 the editors have always talked about the dictionary being done in ten years,” she says. “When I took it over in 1996 I really did say I was going to do it in ten years.”

She has two full-time research associates and a manuscript editor/project manager who oversees grant writing, deals with the publisher, and sees that the manuscript is in presentable shape. Since 1976 funds for the project have come not just from the university but from a series of grants. The latest grant, $470,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, pays for the research associates and for contributing scholars, who come from around the world and stay for three to six months.

“I’m committed to finishing the job as it was organized and conceived by my predecessors,” says Roth. “I’m a product of a different age and a different training and a different point of view. There’s no question that it would be done differently now if I were planning it. It’s always going to be seen as ‘Oppenheim et al’–and it’s appropriate for that to be the case. I know it sounds corny, but I really do feel very privileged to be a part of the project.”

She doesn’t mind all the years spent on endless details. “This is the thing that people in the quick-fix world sometimes don’t understand,” she says. “Dictionary making is a series of small decisions, small questions, small answers that ultimately add up to one big thing. But the small, frequent eureka moments do sustain us.”

And she believes the CAD is a very big thing. “This dictionary is important because it documents an entire culture and civilization that served as the fount of much of Western civilization,” she says. “It was the civilized world that the Greeks encountered and from which they borrowed much that makes us who we are. It was the world from which the Western religions–Judaism, Christianity, Islam–all emerged.”

It is a work for scholars. Some things just are. But over the years the CAD has tried to display a very important story–one that in many ways provides a basis for our own. It’s just taken a long time to tell.

The CAD, says David Owen, a professor of Near East studies at Cornell, “is certainly one of the great achievements of the last century. There’s no doubt its impact is profound. It opens up the world of Mesopotamia in a way that’s never been done before–through the study of words and the texts from which they came. One just looks forward to having the last few volumes of the dictionary published while we’re still alive.”

Volume R was released on April 7.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.