Nahr El Kalb Cuneiform inscriptions, Lebanon

Lebanon’s history is long and rich as a result of its location at the centre of the ancient world. It was a crossroads and meeting place for many civilizations. The country contains sites and objects of great importance that reveal this history – one of the most articulate sites is Nahr El Kalb, inscribed in UNESCO’s ‘Memory of the World’ list in 2003.

The Factum Foundation for Digital Technology in Preservation worked with the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, APSAD, local specialists and academics in an effort to record the deteriorating stele at Nahr El-Kalb. The Stele have suffered since the building of a major highway on the foundations of a Roman road that used to run along the promontory where they are situated.

“It is a site suited, like few others, to contemplate the past and the interlinking of the fates of human beings”

Hugo Winckler, Das Vorgebirge am Nahr el-Kelb (The Promontory of Nahr el-Kalb) (1909)

Documenting and Studying the Cuneiform inscriptions of the Neo-Assyrian, Neo Babylonian and Egyptian reliefs at Nahr El Kalb using high-resolution Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry can provide a way for academics to study the surface of reliefs and inscriptions remotely and in great detail. 3D scanning has a central role to play in the study of historic artifacts but it is only in recent years that the cameras and the software have been available to produce recordings with enough 3D information to be used for epigraphy and forensic study. Photogrammetry is a low cost, highly portable and un-intrusive method to record 3D data in the field. It can also function as a way to document relatively inaccessible places that are at risk of destruction. This documentation project is an example of how new technologies can be used to record ‘At Risk’ Cultural heritage and provide a tool for study, monitoring and preserving vulnerable sites.

Photograph by Weissbach, taken from ‘A History of Egypt: From the Earliest Times to the Persian Conquest’ C. Scribner’s sons, 1912

A short description of the Site, Neo-Assyrian and Neo Babylonian Stele prior to a detailed Epigraphic stud by Rocío Da Riva, University of Barcelona

‘It has been argued that carving a rock relief is like founding a city in a frontier landscape: it symbolizes the conquest of the natural surroundings, the colonization of a territory and the act of civilizing previously wild regions. One of the best examples of the symbolic versatility of landscapes is the monumental ensemble of Nahr al-Kalb in the Lebanon, recently studied in its entirety by an interdisciplinary research team’ (Maïla-Afeiche, 2009)*’

The site of Nahr el-Kalb is located 12 km northeast of Beirut close to the Mediterranean coast. The historic and archaeological site lies along the Ras el-Kalb promontory, as well as in the Nahr el-Kalb valley. The rich human history of the site is partly due to its geography, and partly to the developments of Lebanese history since Prehistoric times. A total of 22 stele and inscriptions are carved both in the Ras el-Kalb and in the valley slopes. The oldest inscriptions date to the XIII century BCE and were commissioned by the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, the most recent stele dates to 2000 AD. Between these two moments and for more than three millennia, a series of monuments on the promontory and on the valley slopes bear witness to the presence of several political powers with military and economic interests in the area: Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans, Mamluk and Ottoman Sultans, Napoleon III, British and French colonial powers in the XX century. There are also two inscriptions carved after the Independence of Lebanon. The Mesopotamian cuneiform inscriptions from Nahr el-Kalb date to the time of the large territorial empires of I millennium BCE (Iron Age period), and they fall into two groups: Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian.

The Neo-Assyrian inscriptions (Nos 6, 7, 8, 13, 15 and 17). Inscriptions 6 and 7 are located near the river on the southern slope of the valley, inscription 8 was carved nearby, but it has disappeared. Inscriptions 13, 15 and 17 are situated on a higher level of the Ras el-Kalb, not far from the ancient Roman Road, associated to Egyptian inscriptions Nos 14 and 16. The inscriptions and their reliefs are very eroded and, with the exception of No. 17, no attempt at a transliteration has been made. Taking into account Assyrian military involvement in Lebanon and the Levant, these inscriptions can be tentatively dated between the beginning of the IX century BCE and the end of the Assyrian Empire in the second half of the VII century BCE. Inscription No. 17 bears the name of Esarhaddon and mentions the Egyptian campaign, so a terminus post quem of 671 BCE can be established for the monument.

The Neo-Babylonian inscription (No. 1) belongs to the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE). The monument is located on the lower part of the slope of the northern promontory, very close to the river. There are four fragments of the inscription in situ, and a fifth one in the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. Some of the fragments are written in Old Babylonian script and others in Neo-Babylonian writing, so one would assume that there was originally a double inscription, with the same text written in both contemporary and archaising script, as is usual in other Neo-Babylonian royal inscriptions. The monument has no relief preserved, but as a good part of the original inscription is missing, one cannot rule out the presence of a carving with the figure of the king, similar to the ones found in other sites in Lebanon (Brisa or Shir as-Sanam). The precise moment at which the monument was produced is uncertain and no external or internal elements in the inscription provide any information on its chronology. Different dates for the composition have been proposed, but as the chronicles of the Babylonian Chronicle Series refer to Nebuchadnezzar campaigning in the Levant nearly every year, any moment in his 43-year reign is a possible date. A detailed analysis of the contents of the Nebuchadnezzar inscription at Brisa has revealed a possible late date for its composition, perhaps in the last decade of the king’s reign, between 572 and 562 BCE. And one would assume that the text in Nahr el-Kalb was carved more or less at the same time.
The site of Nahr el-Kalb is of the utmost importance to understanding the events of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East in the last four millennia. Nahr el-Kalb is not only an open-air book of Middle Eastern history, but also a place of social and cultural memory. No effort should be spared to assure the preservation of the site.

* Bibliography: Maïla-Afeiche, a.-M. (ed.), Le Site de Nahr el-Kalb. Beirut. 2009.

The Stele:

  1. Stele of Pharaoh Ramses II (1276 BC)
  2. Stele of Pharaoh Ramses II (1270 BC)
  3. Stele of King Esarhaddon (681-699 BC)
  4. Stele of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C)
  5. Assyrian Stele x4
  6. Stele of Sultan Barquq (784-801 H/1382-1399)
  7. Stele of Emperor Caracalla (211-217 AD)
  8. Stele of General Gouraud (July 25, 1920)
  9. Stele of Emperor Napoleon III (1860-1861)
  10. Memorial for the French War Dead (1919-1927)
  11. Capture of Damascus, Homs and Aleppo (October, 1918)
  12. Occupation of Beirut and Tripoli (October, 1918)
  13. Stele of Governor Proculus (382-383 AD)
  14. Unidentified Stele.
  15. Stelae of the Ottoman Bridge (1319 H/ 1901)
  16. Capture of Damour and Damascus (June-July, 1941)
  17. Railway Stele (December 20, 1942)
  18. Stele of the Evacuation of the Mandatory Forces (December 31, 1946)
  19. Stele of the Liberation of South Lebanon (May 24, 2000)


The Objectives of the collaboration between Factum Foundation, APSAD and the Ministry of Culture are:

  1. To record the six neo-Assyrian, a neo-Babylonian and three Egyptian stele in 3D and colour, the remaining 16 Stele will be systematically photographed at high-resolution.
  2. To process, digitally retouch and archive the data in a range of standard file formats and as raw and processed data. This archive will be handed over to the Ministry of Culture for Lebanon who will own all copyright on current and future applications. APSAD and Factum Foundation will use this data for academic study and to monitor the condition of the Stele.
  3. To write a full report of the project and to make this information freely available.
  4. To use the data to help in the transcription of the damaged cuneiform on the Neo Assyrian Stele. This work will be done by Rocío Da Riva.

3D Rendering of the Stelae to Esarhaddon 688 – 699 BC, Recorded by Alex Peck on 15th May, 2015

The Recording and Processing

On May 15th a photogrammetric recording was made of the Stele to Esarhaddon and the Stele to Nebuchadnezzar II. A series of 300 images were taken using a Canon EOS5D Mark III with a 50mm lens. The recording took 3 hours and the data was uploaded to the Factum server and backed up on an external hard drive. The data was processed by Alex Peck in Madrid – the processing took 8 days using Agisoft software.

Work on the archive is ongoing and will be improved as software modifications and innovations are made. This work has already demonstrated how low-cost, highly portable equipment in the right hands can capture large amounts of data in short periods of time. The resolution of the 3D data is about 150 microns – this level of information provides compelling and important documentation, essential for an in-depth and comprehensive study of important historical artifacts and in order to monitor the speed of their decay.

This digital information can be transferred using standard file sharing platforms like ‘We Transfer’ or ‘Drop Box’. Correct naming and archiving of the data is critical if large amounts of data are being stored for any time before the photographs are processed into 3D files. The time consuming part is the processing of the data to align and extract 3D information from many high-resolution photographs – a task that requires powerful computers and a skilled technician.

This initiative has demonstrated that ‘at risk’ sites can be systematically recorded. This work was recently mentioned on Sky News as a way to rapidly capture 3D information. It has been designed as a pilot project that could be widely applied. A workshop to demonstrate this is being held in conjunction with the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage in Bahrain. The aim is to record as many sites and objects from Mauritania to Iraq as possible over the next few years.

Epigraphy- extracting the text

By applying a variety of post processing techniques and filters to the 3D data it is possible to extract the cuneiform text from the heavily eroded surface of the Stele. The use of multi-directional lighting and computer vision technologies can significantly aid in the transcription on the worn cuneiform text on the Stelae of Esarhaddon will lead to new historical insights and in-depth knowledge about the site and the Neo Assyrian presence in the region. This work is dependent on academic scholarship and will be coordinated by Professor Rocío Da Riva, a cuneiform specialist at the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Barcelona.

Left, an epigraphic study of the Stelae of Esarhaddon by Franz Weissbach in 1922. Right the Stelae as it looked on 15th May 2015

Raking light renderings of a small section of the Stelae of Esarhaddon revealing the Cuneiform captured at a resolution of about 150 microns in 3D and colour using photogrammetry. There are various tools we can use to enhance the visualisations that are required by Academics and conservators.