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Here from China to read ancient tablets

PhD student Xiaowen had never been abroad before. Now he is in Copenhagen to help find the meaning behind mysterious ancient Assyrian texts

As a child at school he had looked in wonder at the mysterious Chinese Bronze Age etchings on bones and tortoise shells, wondering about the people who had carved them.

»I imagined ancient people holding them, poised to carve them, 4000 years ago,« says Xiaowen Shi, who is from Changchun in a region North-east of Beijing.

The inscriptions had opened up a world to someone with his interpretive skills and imagination. But then life took over. Xiaowen grew up and got a job working as a school teacher. Eight years teaching teenagers and Xiaowen needed a radical change.

»There were no challenges in my life,« he says, »so I went for the examination at the university.«

See Assyrian tablets and more of Xiaowen Shi’s work on our photo gallery here.

Interpreting tablets

It was then that he seriously started getting interested in the cuneiform writing, he says, referring to the earliest known writing system in the world which emerged in the Sumerian civilization in the fourth millennium BC.

He is now doing his PhD in Assyriology at the Department of Cross-Cultural Studies ToRs in Copenhagen.

Through inscriptions written in the ancient Akkadian cuneiform script, he is working out the relationships between families in Anatolia, an economic colony of the Assyrian Empire in the period 2000 BC to 1750 BC. Anatolia is now a region in Turkey.

Shekels of silver to be lent

As we talk, he gestures towards the screen showing a database of the inscriptions mostly found on tablets. To the left is something in Akkadian, to the right is Xiaowen’s interpretation and notes:

He reads up from the screen:

»Peruwa lends 24 shekels of silver to…a pure Anatolian family… half should be returned at harvest time, half should be returned in the second year«.

In China, it was Xiaowen’s contact with Danish professor Mogens Trolle Larsen, an authority in his field, that motivated him to come to Copenhagen in the first place.

Now, Professor Larsen’s book lies prominently on the desk in front of his screen.

Danes serious about schedules

It was a big step in to the unknown to come to Copenhagen. Xiaowen brought his wife, an economist, and his five-year old daughter here. So far, his wife has not been successful at finding a job.

»Right now this is not a big issue. But I foresee a problem down the line, as she like me, needs the chance to develop and use her subject,« Xiaowen confides.

For now, Xiaowen relishes the differences in work habits.

»It was the first time I had travelled abroad, and there were a lot of things I found surprising. The bicycle paths, the people drinking beer on the street, looking as if they enjoy themselves. In China I never saw that! « he says.

»And my colleagues are very serious about their schedules. This is something that I have learned from them,« he smiles.

Words of Chinese wisdom

In the meantime, Xiaowen Shi says that he will try to follow the choice words of advice offered to him by his teacher, professor Wu, before he left China.

Xiaowen should keep »working hard and keeping the sense of duty in mind,« he said.

See Assyrian tablets and more of Xiaowen Shi’s work on our photo gallery here.

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