Tuesday, March 04, 2014

News: Archive.ology: start with (clay) dinosaur bones, spice with love

Archive.ology: start with (clay) dinosaur bones, spice with love
By A.J. Cave
Dr. Matthew Stolper

Once upon a time people used something called paper for writing all sorts of things, from love letters to secret sauce formulas to stockholder reports. It was when writing was just word-winding. 

They say some hyper competitive Silicon Valley companies (there was no other known kind) even went as far as hiring detectives to sort through paper trash of their competitors to patch together highly guarded business secrets.

This paper was made of trees that grew wild in the nature-in places people of old used to call forests. There were all sorts of round trees and all kinds of flat paper.
Something called deforestation saw to the end of these green forests and paper became rare and eventually extinct.

People didn’t stop writing, they wrote even more. But instead of real paper, they started to use old software programs that nostalgically looked like pages of white paper on computer screens, but they were really nothing more than zeroes and ones, stored on primitive hard drives.

As everyone knows those clunky computers eventually became obsolete too when we started to use glasses and tablets and watches and other things to record our blinkings and doings and thinkings.

Now and then one of those ancient paper archives called Libraries that have miraculously survived shredders and recyclers are discovered here and there. Page-turning paper-lovers from all over the world immediately converge on the discovery pits to make sure these antiquated archives don’t turn into dust during excavations...


...In 2006 Dr. Matthew Stolper, one of handful of specialists on Elamite language in the world, cleared his plate, assembled a stellar team of scholars from a number of American and European universities, embarked on the never-ending quest for (much) needed grants, and took on the emergency task of digitization of the Achaemenid archive-known as the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project (PFAP).

And here we are. 

Under Matt Stolper’s steadfast watch and with the moral support of his faithful friend, Baxter the Beast, the initial phase of cleaning, conserving and digitizing the archive is finally reaching critical mass and the next phase of making sense of the mass of generated data is kicking in-the old sprinkling of the water of life on dead bones.

In the process, surprising new discoveries have come to light, among them finding the footprint of Udusana (Greek: Atossa), the quintessential Achaemenid royal woman (queen), who, according to the classical writers, was the eldest daughter of Cyrus the Great, the chief wife of Darius the Great, and the powerful mother of Xerxes (Persian: Xsayarsa, or Khshayarsha). Triple Crown of Persian royalty.
These Persian administrative records, roughly 30,000 or so pieces from a single archive, dating from 509 to 493 BCE (from 13th to 28th regnal years of Darius the Great, about 16 years, with some references to the 7th regnal year)-conceptually likened to the bones of a dinosaur-have led to not just an understanding of the routine imperial administrative infrastructure, but all sorts of interesting things like art, language, religion, and society of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, that was unknowable merely from the traditional biblical and classical sources.

The sort of raw data that the large cuneiform archives like the Persepolis Fortification Archive have been yielding is “Big Data”-datasets that are getting too big to process using classical computing techniques. Big Data is now being used in computer technology circles to refer to the latest advances in aggregating massive amounts of data from various sources and enabling researchers to mine and map data in amazing new ways-see what no one has seen before, ask questions no one has answered yet.

On the academic side of the coin, Big Data research will eventually exponentially expand the newly-minted field of Digital Humanities.

While virtualization and visualization of archival data from the Achaemenid royal chancelleries will not give us historical answers-at least not to what we think-it will, however, provide a richer context for understanding and interpreting the Big Data we have accidentally inherited and luckily recovered.

This Big Data is also the playground of writers like me who troll the archival treasure troves for historical backstory to turn boring administrative records into sizzling stories about the adventurous lives and scandalous love affairs of the Persian royal sons and daughters-kings and their queens who once ruled the world-the real royal games of the only throne that really mattered. Masters of Asia.

Achaemenid scholars have been spending years carefully reconstructing a clay dinosaur to restore Persians to the history of the world, and the Persian storytellers thankfully ride this paper-beast to restore the Persians to the story of the world.
Dr. Stolper, now retired as of the end of 2013, is continuing as the head of the PFA Project, crisscrossing the globe on a mission to evangelize the immense impact of the ancient archive on Persian Achaemenid history and heritage.

In recognition of his lifelong achievements and his tireless efforts in preserving and promoting the integration of knowledge from the Achaemenid Administrative Archives into mainstream classical and ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies, there would be a celebration at the Oriental Institute tentatively scheduled for 28 April 2014.

These types of events are normally planned for the local colleagues, students and patrons of the institute. This one, however, might just turn out to be a greater gathering of the friends of the Persepolis Fortification Archive Project, die-hard supporters of Persian history and heritage, and the who-is-who of the Persian Achaemenid studies.

Tell Parnakka (probably the paternal uncle of Darius the Great and the first chief of the imperial administrative archives at Parsa) to order more Shiraz wine for the feast. Persians are coming.

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