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Archaeologists use artificial intelligence (AI) to translate 5,000-year-old cuneiform tablets

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A team of archaeologists and computer scientists have created an AI program that can translate ancient cuneiform tablets instantly using neural machine learning translations.

In a paper published in the journal PNAS Nexus, from the Oxford University Press, the researchers have applied the AI program to translate Akkadian texts with a high level of accuracy.

Akkadian is an ancient East Semitic language, was once spoken in various regions of ancient Mesopotamia, including Akkad, Assyria, Isin, Larsa, Babylonia, and possibly Dilmun.

The language is preserved on clay tablets dating back to 2500 BC that was written using cuneiform, a script adopted from the Sumerians using wedge-shaped symbols pressed in wet clay.

According to the researchers: “Hundreds of thousands of clay tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script document the political, social, economic, and scientific history of ancient Mesopotamia. Yet, most of these documents remain untranslated and inaccessible due to their sheer number and limited quantity of experts able to read them.”

The AI program has a high level accuracy when translating formal Akkadian texts such as royal decrees or omens that follow a certain pattern. More literary and poetic texts, such as letters from priests or tracts, were more likely to have “hallucinations” – an AI term meaning that the machine generated a result completely unrelated to the text provided.

The goal of the neural machine translation (NMT) into English from Akkadian is to be part of a human–machine collaboration, by creating a pipeline that assists the scholar or student of the ancient language.

Currently, the NMT model is available on an online notebook and the source code has been made available on GitHub at Akkademia. The researchers are currently developing an online application called the Babylonian Engine.

PAP

https://doi.org/10.1093/pnasnexus/pgad096

Header Image Credit : Mbzt – CC BY 3.0

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Archaeology

Inside the tomb of the First Emperor

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The tomb of the First Emperor, also known as the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, is the burial complex and mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin Dynasty and the first emperor of a unified China.

According to the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian (a historian from the Han period), Qin Shi Huang was born in 259 BC in Handan, the capital of Zhao.

He was given the name of Ying Zheng or Zhao Zheng – Zheng being his month of birth “Zhengyue”, the first month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

Around 246 – 247 BC, the 13-year-old Ying Zheng succeeded his father to the throne of Qin and reigned for 36 years as Qin Shi Huang until his death in 210 BC.

Qin Shi Huang’s reign brought about the unification of China and an end to the Warring States period in 221 BC. He constructed a series of walls to connect fortifications along the empire’s northern frontier (the precursor to the Great Wall of China) and built a national road system and the Lingqu Canal.

Although some historians see Qin Shi Huang’s rule as one of tyranny, he did enact several major economic and political reforms to standardise the Chinese states incorporated into his Empire and worked to completely abolish the feudal system of loose alliances and federations.

During his life, Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with immortality and sought the elixir of life. He sent ships in search of Penglai mountain on an inhabited island, where an ancient magician known as Anqi Sheng was said to reside. Qin mythology believed that immortals resided on the mountain and knew the secret to everlasting life.

It was this obsession with immortality that would be Qin Shi Huang’s downfall, as many historians propose that he died from prolonged poisoning due to regular consumption of an elixir containing mercury. Mercury exposure would undoubtedly cause a decline in function of the central nervous system and result in severe brain and liver damage.

Qin Shi Huang was buried in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, a large complex commissioned when he first became emperor. The mausoleum is located in present-day Lintong District in the city of Xi’an, and was constructed over 38 years using 700,000 workmen (based on historical text).

The structure of the mausoleum is situated beneath a 76-metre-tall hillock (mound) shaped like a truncated pyramid, however, due to soil erosion the pyramid now stands at 47 metres tall. The base of the pyramid measures 515 x 485 metres and covers an area of just under one square mile.

Excavations around the complex have discovered around 7,000 (estimates suggest up to 8,000) statues of terracotta warriors, horses, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians, and around 100 wooden battle chariots placed to serve the emperor in his afterlife.

Archaeologists have steered clear of excavating the tomb beneath the hillock due to concerns of the irreparable damage that would be caused to the structure, and the accelerated degradation of the tomb contents when exposed to contaminants such as air pollutants, temperature oscillations, changes in humidity, bacteria and fungus.

This is evidenced with the terracotta warriors, as when they were first excavated, the painted surface present on some examples began to flake and fade within seconds of exposure to the dry air of Xi’an’s climate.

What is known about the tomb interior comes again from the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, who describes how workmen constructed palaces and scenic towers for a hundred officials within the interior of the hillock. They poured bronze to cast the emperors outer coffin and filled the tomb with rare artefacts and treasures from across China.

Using non-invasive techniques such as geo radar and gravimetre investigations, archaeologists have determined that the “palace” measures 140 × 110 × 30 m3, while the central coffin chamber measures 80 × 50 × 15 m3.

Most interestingly, is Sima Qian’s account of Mercury being used in the tomb to simulate the hundred rivers, the Yangtze, Yellow River, and the great sea, which sat below a representation of the heavenly constellations.

In 2016, a study using lidar mapping was conducted around the mausoleum to detect traces of mercury concentrations. The study found elevated concentrations up to 27 ng/m3, significantly higher than the typical general pollutant level in the area which was found to be around 5–10 ng/m3.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) continues to follow a process of research and evaluations to develop a protection plan before any long-term excavations can take place in the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.

Header Image Credit : Alamy (Under Copyright)

Sources :

Zhao, G., Zhang, W., Duan, Z. et al. Mercury as a Geophysical Tracer Gas – Emissions from the Emperor Qin Tomb in Xi´an Studied by Laser Radar. Sci Rep 10, 10414 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-67305-x

An Integrated Geophysical and Archaeological Investigation of the Emperor Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum https://doi.org/10.2113/JEEG11.2.73

This content was originally published on www.heritagedaily.com – © 2023 – HeritageDaily

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Megathrust earthquakes possible cause of Teōtīhuacān decline

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A new study, published in the journal Science Direct, suggests that a series of megathrust earthquakes led to the decline and possible abandonment of Teōtīhuacān.

Named by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs as Teōtīhuacān, and loosely translated as “birthplace of the gods”, Teōtīhuacān is an ancient Mesoamerican city located in the Teōtīhuacān Valley of the Free and Sovereign State of Mexico, in present-day Mexico.

The development of Teōtīhuacān can be identified by four distinct consecutive phases, known as Teōtīhuacān I, II, III, and IV.

It was during phase II (AD 100 to 350) that the city population rapidly grew into a metropolis and saw the construction of monuments such as the Pyramid of the Sun (the third largest ancient pyramid after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza), the Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead, and the Ciudadela with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (also known as Temple of the Quetzalcoatl).

An analysis of several pyramids within the city has revealed evidence of Earthquake Archaeological Effects (EAEs), potentially linked to seismic loading. The study has focused on the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Old temple and New temple), and the Sun and the Moon pyramids, in which visible EAE’s can be observed.

According to the researchers, the EAE’s are likely caused by megathrust earthquakes, for which five destructive ancient earthquakes have been estimated to have struck Teōtīhuacān between the Tzacualli – Miccaotli (AD 100–150), and Metepec (AD 600 ± 50) stages, by matching EAEs and archaeological dates.

Based on the spatial pattern of the EAEs and the orientation of the dipping broken corners (DBC) or chip marks, it is theorised that a series of seismic shocks struct the city from the SW to the NE, indicating a possible origin of a seismic source in the Middle American Trench caused by repetitive megathrust earthquakes.

At least, two strong destructive earthquakes (Intensity VIII-IX) affected Teōtīhuacān in antiquity that impacted the development of the architectural styles. The first one occurred between the years AD 1–150 (Miccaotli phase), and the second one occurred in AD 455 ± 50 (Late Xolalpan-Early Metepec phase).

This was followed by three further damaging earthquakes, for which the latter two occurred around AD 650 before the abandonment of the city the following century.

“This proposal does not conflict with other existing theories for the Teotihuacan abrupt collapse, considering that the sudden overlapping of natural disasters like earthquakes could increase internal warfare (uprising), and civil unrest,” said the study authors.

Header Image Credit : Shutterstock

Sources : Science Direct | Teotihuacan ancient culture affected by megathrust earthquakes during the early Epiclassic Period (Mexico). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2024.104528.

This content was originally published on www.heritagedaily.com – © 2023 – HeritageDaily

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