Digital analysis deciphers how the ancients thought

Together with her research group, Saana Svärd wants to find out what people living in the ancient Near East were thinking. They are turning to methods from the digital humanities for help.

Saana Svärd’s research team is facing quite the challenge. They need to find out what people who lived in the great empires of the ancient Near East thought of themselves as members of a group.

The Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires, which will launch in early 2018, has received an eight-year grant from the Academy of Finland.

New approaches

The Centre of Excellence consists of three research groups that study the mental processes and identities of ancient people from three perspectives. The groups are enlisting new methods to supplement traditional research tools.

Svärd’s group employs methods from the digital humanities. Jason Silverman is studying the topic from the broadest possible perspective: his group focuses on what research can tell us about social identities in general terms. Antti Lahelma’s group is delving into the material side of empires and identities by turning to archaeology.

The goal is that within a few years, the Centre of Excellence will include roughly thirty researchers through a variety of connections.

 “So far the study of ancient cultures in the Middle East has been fairly conservative in terms of methodology, but now, every one of our research groups is making new methodological innovations,” says Svärd.

Digitising clay tablets

Svärd’s group, which has embraced methods from the digital humanities, has enlisted tools commonly used in language technology and social network analysis.

Chronologically, the research begins with the first great Mesopotamian empire, the Neo-Assyrian Empire in approximately 800 BCE, and extends to the beginning of the Common Era.

An immense amount of text is recorded on clay tablets. The fact that many of the texts have been transcribed in their original language and digitised during the past few decades means that it is possible to use digital tools to process the material.

Language reveals the speaker

Svärd has already conducted the first experiments in cooperation with Krister Lindén, research director in language technology.

 “The texts on the clay tablets can be studied through digital methods almost in the same ways as contemporary languages,” Svärd explains.

Svärd plans to use language technology to discover word clusters which feature terms that describe different peoples.

 “The language was a conceptual system which structured the way people thought. It can help us gain access to the mental processes of these people.”

The research will also carry out an analysis of social networks to determine the relationships between different people. From the texts, Svärd hopes to discern the kinds of groups that people belonged to.

The webpage of the Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires