News The Project

This video illustrates the scanning action of the current laboratory model of the 3D surface scanner we have invented. It captures color, slope, and geometric data samples at 907 dpi, or 28 micron intervals.

"... A single CCD can be configured to obtain color image data for the artifact using conventional imagery, gross shape data using a three-dimensional scanning technique, and high resolution shape data using an amplitude modulated laser scanning technique."

Using the new hybrid 3D surface scanner we are developing, we have achieved, for the first time, 28 micron scans (equivalent to 36 scan points per millimeter, or almost 4 times sharper than currently available 3D surface scanners).

Capping 4 years' effort, the Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding, under the auspices of the Digital Hammurabi Project, successfully completed its efforts to encode cuneiform when, in June 2004, both the Unicode Technical Committee and the ISO 10646 WG2 unanimously approved the proposal.


3D feature detection techniques on meshes will allow us to perform better 3D registration and parameterization. Other applications include assisted hole filling in automated 3D scanning and automatic character recognition 3D cuneiform text.

We have developed a virtual 3D surface scanner that takes a 3D model and "scans" it in one pass, leaving, much as a real scanner would, holes in the data. This provides us with a completely hardware-independent means for calculating best-next-views and angles needed for subsequent passes of the scanner in order to fill in the holes.


Automated unwrapping and flattening of 3D models of cuneiform tablets - essentially mapping them onto 2D planes - will be useful for representing cuneiform tablets in traditional print media. The two major steps include locating the break lines and then re-aligning the resulting facets into a coherent 2D "map" of the tablet.

The world's first cuneiform email was sent March 31, 2001 by John Jenkins of Apple Computer to members of the Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding.

Digital Hammurabi is a major, cross-discipline effort originating at the Johns Hopkins University aimed at scanning, visualizing, and publishing very high resolution, three dimensional models of cuneiform tablets and at producing an international standard computer encoding for cuneiform text.

We will enable scholars to select tablets from cuneiform digital archives for use on their local computers where they can manipulate them at will, linking 3D cuneiform images to encoded cuneiform text. Scholars will be able to pan, tilt, rotate, magnify, and re-light these virtual tablets. [See provisional research results on our iClay web page.] They can produce "unwrapped" two dimensional projections of 3D tablets for print. They can generate accurate 3D plastic models of tablets. They can apply sophisticated and powerful text and corpora processing software toward concordance generation, morphological analysis, proximity and contextual searching, and automatic generation of critical apparatuses. Automated 3D character recognition will become a reality.

The Digital Hammurabi Project was awarded a $1,628,346, three-year grant by the U.S. National Science Foundation - a great start toward achieving our goals.

Specifically, we are working to:

1) produce a portable, non-contact, user-friendly, very high resolution 3D surface scanner that can scan all facets of an average cuneiform tablet in a few minutes while implementing resolutions down to 25 micrometers (i.e., 40 lines per millimeter, or 1000 dpi - about 4 times sharper than currently available scanners). [Although there will always be a need to personally inspect tablets for the more difficult readings, we expect high quality 3D renderings of cuneiform tablets will be adequate for tablet autopsy in approximatley 95% of the cases scholars encounter.]

2) develop new computer algorthims to stitch gigabytes of raw data together into coherent, virtual tablets for real-time, multi-resolution rendering, self-shading, and manipulation by researchers over fast Internet2 connections using software of our own design

3) coordinate a formal proposal to the Unicode Consortium for a standard Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform computer encoding (continuing ICE, the Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding) The encoding proposal includes characters from Sumerian, Akkadian, Eblaite, Hittite, Elamite, and Hurrian, but not Old Persian or Ugaritic.

4) establish mirrored petabyte-scale digital archives for virtual 3D cuneiform tablets targeted for rapid, real-time Internet2 dissemination

5) collaborate in the development of new international standards for 3D data aimed at data longevity and data integrity

6) collaborate in the development of new international standards for cuneiform text markup (XML metadata), aimed at feature comprehensiveness, data longevity, and data integrity

7) invent a completely new technology - automated 3D character recognition of cuneiform writing.

Though the full realization of these goals will take several years, our thrust during the three years of the initial NSF grant is to develop a working high resolution scanner, computer algorithms for multi-resolution rendering of 3D tablets, and the beginnings of a digital archive infrastructure.

We are applying the very latest computer technologies to these oldest of written documents in the hopes of making them more widely available to scholars and more accessible to better tools for philological research. We fully expect the new hardware and software technologies we develop to revolutionize cuneiform studies, not only by enabling plain text cuneiform transmission and analysis and by providing for 3D access to the world's tablet collections, but also by limiting physical contact with these valuable and unique ancient artifacts, while at the same time preserving Mesopotamia's cultural heritage through redundant archival copies of the originals, thereby ensuring their preservation into the future.

The 3D portion of the project is producing advances in hardware and software technologies, that are generating doctoral dissertations, research papers, and international workshops. The technological fallout is expected to enrich other disciplines beyond cuneiform research.

The encoding portion of the project has seen the active involvement of a broad spectrum of cuneiform scholars (specialists in the various languages, genres, and areas), Unicode experts, font architects, and software engineers and our proposal has been unanimously approved by the Unicode Technical Committee and the ISO 10646 Working Group 2.
Explanation of the Digital Hammurabi Logo
Each of the five Old Babylonian cuneiform signs in the animated Digital Hammurabi logo, HA, AM, MU, RA, and BI, illustrates a different aspect of the Digital Hammurabi project. The first sign, HA, is taken from a photograph of that sign on the famous Hammurabi law code stele and represents digital photography of the original cuneiform artifact. The second sign, AM, represents 3D scanning of the cuneiform sign using structured laser light. The pointilistic MU sign represents the 3D point cloud resulting from 3D scanning. The RA sign represents both the computational generation of the triangular mesh from the point cloud and the automated recognition of the sign as its Unicode character. Finally, the BI sign represents 3D visualization of the shaded cuneiform sign.

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