Cybernetica Mesopotamica

A Balzan Foundation Research Project

I. The Project

Project’s history

Giorgio Buccellati – November 2022

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The project has been in the making for a very long time, and the same is true of the title, Cybernetica Mesopotamica. I will give here a brief outline of the key phases of this long history.

A full assessment is made more difficult by the fact that the four major domains (theory, sites, texts and bibliography) have progressed along different trajectories and thus have different histories. These special and separate histories will be included in the pertinent websites, the first being the one devoted to the Critique of Archaeological Reason. The brief overview I give here is divided according to the four domains (see the side bar on the left), while the synopsis below will provide an overall chronological chart.

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History as reflection

It is worth dwelling on this long history because it points to the continuity and coherence with which the major goals have been pursued. This has been all the more significant as we constantly faced the challenge of having to adapt to the technological changes that were taking place very rapidly, outpacing our work on the data.

History serves thus as a reflection on what are the core merits and values of the project and, consequently, of the major goals that we have set for ourselves. Digital discourse, in particular, emerges in this light as more than just a concept: it is a “fil rouge,” a guiding principle that, even before being fully articulated, conditioned the single moments of growth and is finding its full maturity in the current, Balzan phase of the project.

Such degree of attention to the historical dimension of our project fits in well with the current renewal of interest in the value of gaining a sense of historical depth when dealing with the discipline (see recently Alaura 2021 Digging). More than a chronicle, I am accordingly offering here a self-evaluation of the process through which our project has grown and matured.

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Modes of publication

Any type of scholarly communication may be considered as properly published only when it is available to the public in a stable format. This is what gives a publication a proper bibliographical status. Both aspects are important to establish this status.

  1. The material has to be public: not only should it be accessible, if under certain limitations (purchase, housing in a library, etc.), it should also be reasonably "advertized," i.e., its availability should be made known through transparent channels.
  2. This availability should be stable, again under certain inevitable limitations, such as (in the case of printed material) the number of physical items produced or the channels through which it can be accessed (purchase, libraries, etc.)

With items in print, this happens in two ways: through the physical embodiment in a book, journal or the like; and through the action of a publisher who warrants both the quality of the product by means of an editorial oversight and its stable availability by means of proper distribution channels.

Conventional websites, for the most part, eschew both requirements in favor of an overriding fluidity: editorial oversight is minimal and generally not made known, and the stability of the content is sacrificed in favor of a continuing stream of updates. Even in the rare cases where these updates are documented (as in Wikipedia) there is no clear and self-standing bibliographical entity.

The solution is that of having archival versions that correspond to the editions of paper publications. This is what we intend to pursue within the Cybernetica Mesopotamica project..

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The Cybernetica Mesopotamica approach to website publication

To date, a full fledged use of the archival approach has been implemented only with one of our websites, It has been closed and “advertized” as such.

Many of the other websites in the system are close to completion, and this is one of the main goals of our current phase of the project, the Balzan phase. These websites are available but not “distributed,” i.e., they are going to be openly accessible even though they have not been fully closed and have not been advertized – i.e., they have not been “published.” They are “pro manuscripto” drafts.

In some cases, e.g. with the unit book A16 at Urkesh, the website has been closed even though it is not fully completed, nor has it been consequently “advertized”: the intention in this case is to preserve a given version for the benefit of future comparison and analysis.

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I distinguish four main periods or phases in the development of the project. Each one was conditioned by major changes in the hardware or the software, or both.

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Input was on 80 column cards with a keypunch machine; these were then stored in cardboard boxes and had to be kept in sequence. The output was on large fanfold paper, held together in bulky binders; the printer was in the main University computing center at UCLA, and outputs would come out of a slit in the wall at appointed times. All of this to indicate how cumbersome and complex the operation was. Even so, the conceptual significance was apparent: the amount of data one could manage had gone well beyond the critical mass one could muster with card files, typewriters and calculators. Our work with mainframe computers continued even after the introduction of portable computers, which characterized the next phase, because some of the large concordances remained anchored at first to the more powerful capabilities afforded by the mainframe computers.

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With portable computers the major changes were the direct access to input (through monitors) and to the output (through floppy disks and dot matrix printers that were also “portable”). Apart from the obvious logistic advantages, these changes afforded a much greater flexibility in handling data and in accessing the results of the work being done (through the monitors and the easily accessible printers). The conceptual significance of this should not be underestimated: it was the degree of control one could bring to bear on the data and their processing. The very term “processing” would have made little sense in earlier times.

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III. BROWSERS (1997-2011)

Conceptually, it was the introduction of a browser edition that made it possible to have a dynamic output such as was unthinkable previously. A fundamental change in hardware was the availability of networking, the World Wide Web in the first place, but also a Local Area Network. Also fundamental was the availability of digital photography and in general of the Graphical User Interface that made it possible to integrate visuals and audios. During this phase, large number of websites conceived as digital books were created within the Sites domain.

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By 2012 the hardware environment had stabilized, and the major changes that took place in the following years related to three major areas.

  1. Full system. – While in phase I the work was concentrated exclusively in the textual domain, and in phases II and III almost exclusivley in the archaeological domain, in phase IV the project became an integrated system that brought together all four domains. The bibliographical domain was introduced at this time, and the theoretical component was also articulated in detail, helping in highlighting the common threads that unified the various domains, in particular the notion of digital discourse which will be fully developed in phase V.
  2. Data editing. – While the notion of categorization and of grammar had been central to the whole effort since the beginning, a number of irregularities had entered into the actual application, which were not caught, particularly in the case of the archaeological domain. We began to concentrate on individual "digital books" pertaining to ceramics and to specific excavation units (see the Urkesh Global Record (UGR). We also took up a select portion of the Old Babylonian letters.
  3. Programming. – To maintain the system operational, the programs originally written in phases I and II needed to be rewritten in a current language. In addition, we needed new programs to deal with various aspects of each of the substantive domains (2, 3 and 4).

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The current phase comes as the natural outcome of the long history of the project. The Balzan Prize gives us the incentive and the means to consolidate both the theoretical underpinnings of the system and their practical implementation. This represents a major expansion of the project, supported by a committed staff and powered by an intense working rhythm.

Part III of this website describes in detail the goals for the current phase, and Parts IV and V serve to update on a regular basis the progress of the project.

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Synoptic chart

The following chart details in chronological order the key moments in the history of the project.

Each entry is linked to a section in the pages within each of the four main domains. Thus the chart serves as a synoptic table of contents for all the individual entries given below.

Entries highlighted in yellow refer to programs.

Entries in italics refer to printed papers.


Theory Sites Seals Texts Bibliography



first experiments
at the interface



Akk Gramm Studies
1976-90 ?

Seals project




Amarna, Ugarit





PA (QBasic)


Cybernetica Mes.

first computers




grammar & programs


Iconography OB Seals


distribution disks


static outputs


Grammar of OB


digital photography (MDOG 132)


LAN (MDOG 132)


dynamic outputs (websites)


graphic interface



OB dictionary


Altassyr. Glyptic

early statements


Archaeological Grammar

2 grant proposals


A16 digital book

2010- conservation




NEH proposal
2012 (video)


OB Royal Letters
2013- (eL)


CerPhas (Python)


BlockGen (AutoLISP)



PA (Perl)

Critique (CAR) 1

DABI (Python)

EnCAB (Python) ED III seals


Manual for beginners

MNI (Python)

PA (Python)

This phase is in progress, see The Balzan phase PA (Python) UGR Glyptic MORAL ? 2

MID (Python) OB Royal Letters OB letters

Urkesh sitewide

Urkesh Palace

Urkesh Temple Plaza

Urkesh Outer City

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