The University of Hamburg has not had a full professorial chair in Assyriology since 1999. But now, Cécile Michel and her PhD-student Wiebke Beyer are breathing new life into cuneiform studies in Hamburg. As President of the IAA, Michel shares her thought on the joys, potentials, and challenges of the organization – and what must be done if Assyriology is to stay current.
I feel a lot of emotion when deciphering new cuneiform tablets in Ankara, being the first to read these four millennia old texts. I like to understand the past societies of the Near East and their everyday lives, to draw portraits of individuals who lived so long ago, not only through their writings, but also through their material and natural environment. – Cécile Michel
I am so lucky as to work on my favourite topic – palaeography – and my favourite material – letters – to learn more about literacy in the Old Assyrian period. – Wiebke Beyer
Please tells us something about yourself!
I am a French Assyriologist, senior Researcher (Directrice de Recherche) at the CNRS in the team Histoire et ARchéologie de l’Orient Cunéiforme (HAROC), which is part of Archéologies et Sciences de l’Antiquité (ArScAn), in Nanterre (15 minutes west of Paris by metro). ArScAn is a Joint Research Unit under the auspices of CNRS and of two Universities: Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and Paris Nanterre.
I am working mainly on cuneiform sources from the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE, both Babylonian and Assyrian, and I am interested in a wide range of topics. Trained on the Mari tablets, I have been working for more than 25 years on the Old Assyrian tablets preserved at the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilisations. I am a member of the Kültepe excavation team. During the years 2000s, I have built up strong relationships with colleagues in Copenhagen, as a member of the Old Assyrian Text Project, and through a collaboration with the Centre for Textile Research. I am currently heading an international research network on Ancient Textiles from the Orient to the Mediterranean.
In 2015, I was invited to join, as PI, the Sonderforschungbereich 950 (DFG), Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC). And since 2016 I have been Professor at Universität Hamburg (Germany), an honorific title which goes with certain teaching duties.
What makes Assyriology your passion?
When I was a child, I loved to decipher secret codes and I wanted to become an archaeologist. I started to participate in excavations at the age of 14, and for fifteen years spent most of my summers at excavations in the centre and south of France. However, when I discovered cuneiform writing, I decided to become a philologist and a historian. I feel a lot of emotion when deciphering new cuneiform tablets in Ankara, being the first to read these four millennia old texts. I like to understand the past societies of the Near East and their everyday lives, to draw portraits of individuals who lived so long ago, not only through their writings, but also through their material and natural environment. This explains why I am so delighted to go every summer to Kültepe, a unique laboratory for interdisciplinary researches!
Assyriology is an exotic discipline which provokes interest and curiosity. I love to learn, but I also enjoy transmitting knowledge, not only to students, but also to the wider public. I organize a lot of scribal schools for children, teenagers or adults, make tablets, give lectures, organize events, etc. It is a great joy to be able to share one’s passion.
What is something you would like to work on, if you had all the time and funding in the world?
There are many topics that I would like to work on, and one life will certainly not be enough. But first, I wish to find time to finish the many works in hand: a book on Assyrian and Anatolian women, the volumes containing the edition of the archive of Aššur-taklāku and his family excavated in 1993 at Kültepe (about a thousand of tablets, envelopes and fragments), a work on Old Assyrian school texts, curriculum and literacy, etc.
Many colleagues currently working on Kültepe and its area attended the 3rd Kültepe International Meeting which took place at the beginning of August on the site. They represent a wide range of disciplines: archaeology, ceramology, zooarchaeology, paleobotany, palynology, anthracology, dendrochronology, dendroecology, paleoclimatology, isotope analyses, archaeometallurgy, geophysics, geometallurgy, geo and archaeo-magnetism, art history, philology, epigraphy, paleography, history, computer science, etc. I would love to gather all these colleagues to work on one or two houses to be excavated in the lower town in order to have an in-depth view and complete reconstruction of this little spot, its inhabitants and their everyday life.
What would you regard as your ‘masterpiece’ so far?
I am not very sure to have a masterpiece, I am just trying to produce honest work based on data provided by texts, combined with data coming from other archaeological sources. I have worked on many different topics, all of them with great interest: decipherment of new texts, archival studies and prosopography, trade and economy, social and gender studies, historical geography, chronology, contacts between populations and migration phenomenon, material culture (food, animals, textiles, stones, etc.), the materiality of the text, writing and computing, literacy and education, etc.
I take a lot of pleasure in acquiring new knowledge when working with colleagues from other disciplines, and I believe that this is a way to do good science. This was the case, for example, when I published an article with an astronomer proposing an absolute date for the Sun eclipse mentioned in the Mari Eponym Chronicle, when I worked with a zoo-technician on pigs, with textile specialists to quantify the textile production of Assyrian women and their contribution in the long-distance trade to Anatolia, with mathematicians within the ERC advanced grant Mathematical Sciences in the Ancient World (2011-2016), and as of 2014, with specialists of manuscripts from Asia, Africa and Europe within the CSMC at Hamburg.
What have been your best experiences as President of the IAA?
It is difficult to answer since I will be the IAA President for one more year, and hope to have more wonderful experiences! I have tried to put new energy into the association by building up an active team within the Board. We have shared responsibilities to aim at greater efficiency. Working together with this team is great. For example, we were able to renew the IAA website in order to address the outside world. I was also glad that my proposal for the IAA Dissertation Prize was accepted, and I am very grateful to all the board members who accepted to read about 2.000 pages each, and write reports on the dissertations they were in charge of. I believe that this new prize, added to all the others for young scholars, is something very important for our disciplines.
Last but not least, the discussion on professional ethics that we had during the last RAI in Marburg was a first step toward an open discussion among scholars who defend very opposite views. The IAA gives me an overview of the state of our disciplines worldwide, which is very important when we wish to defend a position or a department in a specific university. Assyriology and Near Eastern archaeology can be practiced only at the international level.
What are the main challenges in being affiliated with two universities, Nanterre and Hamburg? How do you divide your time between the two?
I am first of all affiliated with the CNRS, and much involved in the National Committee of Scientific Research: I head the Scientific Council of the CNRS ‘Human and Social Sciences’ Institute. This is an interesting but time-consuming task which gives me an overview of the state and organization of all these disciplines in France. Then, I am affiliated to Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University where I have a Master seminar on material culture and a PhD student who works on the political history of Anatolia during the early 2nd millennium BCE. I am also involved at Paris Nanterre University where I organize a yearly masterclass for Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships applicants, and I teach Akkadian at the Institut Supérieur d’Egyptologie Khéops in Paris.
Five or six times a year, I am in Hamburg to participate as PI in the activities of the CSMC, to give lectures, to work with Wiebke, my PhD student there who is preparing a PhD on Old Assyrian paleography, and to teach an intensive winter class on cuneiform culture. When I am not in Hamburg, I have regular Skype meetings with Wiebke to discuss the progress of her work.
There are some advantages to having more than one affiliation: when I cannot carry on a project in one place, I can still try to do it in the other place!
The main professorship in Assyriology at Hamburg was closed in 1999. What is the situation today?
The professorship in Assyriology was closed in 1999, but Sabina Franke went on giving some lectures on Mesopotamia in the department of Old Testament studies. When the CSMC colleagues asked me to join their project in 2015, I told them from the beginning that I accepted their invitation with the idea in mind to work for the reopening of the professorship in Assyriology. This is the very first point I told to the University president. The mention “Assyriology” is again listed at the University, and we are working to update the library. I give a general introduction to Mesopotamian culture, Akkadian, and cuneiform. And as of a few months ago, Wiebke shares an office with Farouk Ismael, former Professor of Assyriology in Aleppo, who obtained a Gerda Henkel fellowship. So the presence of Assyriologists is gradually increasing in Hamburg.
How is Assyriology generally perceived outside of the universities in France and in Germany? Have you noticed any differences between the two countries in this regard?
When I started to study Assyriology, in the late eighties, very few people were interested in the ancient history of Iraq and Syria; ancient Egypt has always been much more popular, especially in France! But the succession of wars which affected the Near East since the nineties, the looting of Baghdad museum in 2003 and more recently the destruction of antiquities by DAESH have led people to take an interest in the history and archaeology of ancient Mesopotamia. Ten years ago in Nanterre, we organized a small exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the decipherment of Akkadian cuneiform. Ten years later, the exhibition is still running in many places in France, it went to Baghdad Museum in 2011, and its booklet has now been published in ten languages.
I have been asked by the magazine Pour la Science (French equivalent of the Scientific American, or German Epoc) to take charge of one of their blogs, ‘Brèves Mesopotamiennes.’ I am often asked to give lectures for a wider public, to participate in science fairs, open days (in France and Germany), to organize scribe schools, and when I cannot do it, teachers can download all what is necessary to do it themselves on a website I built (écriture cunéiforme et civilisation mésopotamienne, also in English, Mesopotamian World, and German with Wiebke, Die Welt der Keilschrift).
I do not see any difference between the two countries. In general, there is a great interest for ancient Mesopotamia and cuneiform writing, even though it is extremely poorly taught at school.
What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities ahead for the IAA?
The IAA must act as “a representative body for the fields of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology in relationship to national, international and private institutions and the general public.” This means that the IAA must defend and protect every university department of Near Eastern Studies or every position of Assyriology or Mesopotamian archaeology worldwide. This can be done only with the help of the local colleagues, and collaboration with other associations. In France, in order to face the threat against the studies linked to Antiquity and dead languages, many associations have joined a network: Antiquité-Avenir, Réseau des associations liées à l’Antiquité, which is very active. The IAA is a member of this network, which means that we participate in its many activities. In case of threat to a position or research unit in France, it can be an efficient support. The best way to promote our disciplines nowadays is to disseminate our knowledge about the Near East, and the IAA has an important role to play in this matter, not only via its website. The association must encourage its members to increase their contacts with a wider public by any means.
The IAA must also be careful about what is going on in the Near East and react when necessary. This is why we have published several statements since the summer of 2014. These statements have been relayed in the French press and in some other countries. Also, we need to agree on some professional ethics. The CNRS has an ethical committee which has produced some charters addressed to researchers. I asked them to investigate the case of researchers working in countries during time of war, and they invited me this autumn to a round table discussion dedicated to this matter. So, there is still a lot to do for the IAA.
If you could change one thing about the field of Assyriology, what would it be?
I would like to impose to every government to include into the teaching programmes for secondary schools some bits of archaeology and history of the Ancient Near East, and of the beginnings of writing. I would also include some hints about the sexagesimal system and its origins in math courses. This would not only be a great help for Assyriology in universities, but such a cultural education would also considerably reduce barbary and looting.
Please tells us something about yourself!
I grew up in the southwest of Germany close to the French border. I began my studies in Assyriology in Mainz and finished my MA in Leiden, where I started to specialize in the Old Assyrian period. Now I am so lucky as to work on my favourite topic – palaeography – and my favourite material – letters – to learn more about literacy in the Old Assyrian period.
How does one apply to study at the University of Hamburg?
I’m a project assistant of the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, so I had to send an application including a PhD proposal to the head of the project. When she accepted me as her assistant and PhD-student, the matriculation was rather a formality.
Why did you choose to study the Ancient Near East?
After finishing a vocational training, I begun my studies with the idea of ending up in a publishing house. Searching for a secondary subject I was intrigued by the catchphrase ‘oldest script of the world’ written in the prospectus of the university. And shortly after, the study of the Ancient Near East and its script became my major subject.
What has been your experience as a student of the Centre for Manuscript Cultures?
To work and study here has advantages and disadvantages. In Hamburg there are only very few Assyriologists – to be precise, three, including me. So I miss the dialogue with peers. On the other hand, working in a centre with many different disciplines is an extraordinary opportunity to think outside the box, and to see my own studies from a new perspective.
What does a regular day in your studies look like?
I spend most of my working day in my office. There I have more or less everything I need, my books, my materials, my computer. My project work is at the same time the topic of my PhD. So I can mainly focus on my own research. In addition, I have to fulfil some tasks for the Centre. During the semester we have several working groups, and I’m an associate editor of a small online publication.
What does the typical student in Hamburg do when it comes to social activities?
I’m not sure what typical students are and do. But I guess, in Hamburg they have manifold opportunities to entertain themselves or be entertained. The university offers many cultural and sportive activities. In addition, Hamburg has many places, hotspots, and parks where student often gather and enjoy their time.
The student featured in the previous Spotlight passed on the question: ‘In Helsinki, some small subjects such as Egyptology and Assyriology have had hard times during the past five years due to cuts in funding. How do you see the future of related subjects in your university?’
Since there is no institute for Assyriology here anymore, it seems quite difficult for small subjects in Hamburg. In general, I have the impression that often these small academic disciplines have only a chance to ‘survive’ if they can relate to other disciplines and attract students from there.
What would you like to know from other students in other countries?
I’m always curious why students are interested or passionate about their subject. Where are they from, and why are they studying at a specific university?