An AP story by Sharon Cohen brings us the big news in Assyriology:
The year: 1921. The place: The University of Chicago. The project: Assembling an Assyrian dictionary based on words recorded on clay or stone tablets unearthed from ruins in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, written in a language that hadn’t been uttered for more than 2,000 years. The scholars knew the project would take a long time. No one quite expected how very long.
Decades passed. The team grew. Scholars arrived from Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, Berlin, Helsinki, Baghdad and London, joining others from the U.S. and Canada. One generation gave way to the next, one century faded into the next. Some signed on early in their careers; they were still toiling away at retirement. The work was slow, sometimes frustrating and decidedly low-tech: Typewriters. Mimeograph machines. And index cards. Eventually, nearly 2 million of them.
And now, 90 years later, a finale. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary is now officially complete – 21 volumes of Akkadian, a Semitic language (with several dialects, including Assyrian) that endured for 2,500 years. The project is more encyclopedia than glossary, offering a window into the ancient society of Mesopotamia, now modern-day Iraq, through every conceivable form of writing: love letters, recipes, tax records, medical prescriptions, astronomical observations, religious texts, contracts, epics, poems and more. …
An early 10-year completion deadline was soon deemed unrealistic. “Scholars always underestimated how difficult it would be,” Roth says. “People always expected the project would end in their lifetime. What can I tell you? That’s not always the way it goes.”
There was much to research, much to record. By 1935, scholars already had 1 million index cards. It would take more than 30 years before the first of the 21 volumes was published. Most cover a single letter. The entire collection spans about 10,000 pages and 28,000 words. The definitions are more fitting for an encyclopedia; they provide cultural and historical context, similar to those in the Oxford English Dictionary.
“It’s not such a word means king,” Roth says. “It’s a matter of understanding the thousands and thousands of references to the word king in every document in every period.”
Here‘s the Assyrian Dictionary Project website, which was last updated December 22, 2010 and does not mention the completion. But I guess if you’re working on a millennia-old language and your dictionary has been in the works for almost a century, you have a different sense of time and urgency than ordinary folks. Besides, they may still be celebrating.