Peter Damerow and the Max Planck Society

Peter Damerow was a vital figure in the decipherment of proto-cuneiform, while his work on numbers and numeracy have only recently been updated. He was instrumental in the ongoing digitalization movement that swept Assyriology in the 2000s and 2010s. He was a visionary, and so his move towards digitalization began in the 1990s as he was deciphering proto-cuneiform. His death in 2011 was a blow to the Assyriological community, but this was not all. His research touched numerous academic spheres and so his lose reverberated across the academic communities. At his passing, Prof. Damerow left his own research archive at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (MPIWG). Rooms, cabinets, and shelves contained all data he compiled in producing his remarkable scientific output. He kept everything – books, lecture notes, files from the CDLI project, exhibition props, and much more.  

Over nine months, beginning in March 2019, Robert worked to catalog and preserve these objects. There were three main tasks to do:

  1. To catalog display objects held in Prof. Damerow’s possession for eventual handover to the library.
  2. To catalog and upload hard-drives and other digital objects produced by Prof. Damerow, online if possible, and onto hard disks for presentation to the IT team and to Dept. 1.
  3. If time remained, to go through his physical items – lecture notes, books, and props.

The first and second tasks were by and large completed by the end of 2019. The third task, however, could not be met. There was simply too much! No attempt could be made to catalog the remaining physical objects produced and possessed by Prof. Damerow.

The current project focuses on the third task, and at a critical moment. With the closure of Department 1 of the MPIWG scheduled for 2024 and the transfer of Jürgen Renn to direct the MPI-GEA came the transfer of boxes and boxes of Peter’s items. To be precise, four rooms were filled. These need to be organized and catalogued. They need to be properly housed. The current project is designed to do just that in three phases:

  • Phase 1 will catalog the objects held by the MPI-GEA. This will consist of going through each box and producing a catalog of its contents. It’s expected that thousands of entries will be made before this time-consuming task is complete.
  • Phase 2 will physically organize the archive. This must necessarily follow step 1 and will consist of emptying the boxes and situating them in each room or in storage as appropriate.
  • Phase 3 will digitalize all objects. This will be time consuming and resource intensive. The objects of academic and personal value to Peter will be imaged, whether scanned or photographed, and uploaded online.

Phase 1 and 2 will be completed in one year. The third phase is optional and will only be completed after the first year if resources can be gathered for this.

This project is not related to any particular research theme at the MPI-GEA because it concerns all themes. Organizing this legacy will afford research on a seminal figure whose work preceded and informed the ideas behind the MPI-GEA, and it will offer research and insight into the history of the Max Planck Society in general. Prof. Damerow’s collection gives a rare glimpse into the life and work of a prolific researcher during a pivotal period in German academia’s development, and, indeed, in Germany’s development as a nation. He worked to study knowledge and its acquisition at a time when the world was changing. Moreover, his work certainly impacted that change. Peter Damerow not only left behind his life’s works, but he left a paper trail – a true rarity in the history of science.


Peter Damerow, legacy, epistemic change, digitalization

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