In the Spotlight reprise: University of Helsinki

In the Spotlight 2
The spotlight falls on the University of Helsinki, where Saana Svärd and Aleksi Sahala tells us about a major new research centre, automated word analysis, a passion for methodology, a macabre motto, and the transformation of Assyriology in Finland.

The students have always been wonderful and smart. I think it’s because nobody goes through Assyriological training who does not have good motivation to do it. – Saana Svärd

Alongside my studies, I also worked as a music producer and composer for about ten years, and during my most active years I toured in Japan, Australia and Canada several times. Music is still an important hobby for me. – Aleksi Sahala

Dr. Saana Svärd, docent in Assyriology

Please tells us something about yourself!
I got my PhD in Assyriology in 2012 and the title of docent of Assyriology in 2015, both from Helsinki. I am also a docent in Cultural History of the Near East at the University of Turku. I am currently shouldering administrative responsibility for Assyriology at the University and leading two projects, Construction of Gender in Mesopotamia from 934 to 330 BCE and Deep Learning and Semantic Domains in Akkadian Texts. I will begin directing a new Centre of Excellence (funded by Academy of Finland) called Ancient Near Eastern Empires in January 2018.

What makes Assyriology your passion?
Well, two things, really. First, I think it’s truly amazing how much we can learn about people who lived such a long time ago. The idea of the past as “the farthest land” has always resonated with me, and Mesopotamia is about as far as we can get. Second, it’s a very rich and diverse field of study. Because the field has always been small, there’s no lack of challenges and new topics – new and interesting things are constantly being done.

What is something you would like to work on, if you had all the time and funding in the world?
I don’t think there is any one topic I would like to work on forever. I do think that gender studies are an underworked focus area within the discipline of Assyriology, so I would like to continue my work relating to gender. In addition to that, there are many other topics of interest. My most recent endeavor is to work together with scholars of language technology. In general, I suppose different kinds of methodological approaches could keep me entertained until retirement. Other fields of study are a constant source of inspiration for me. In many ways, the new Centre is my dream project, with enough scope to really get significant results as a research team.

What would you regard as your ‘masterpiece’ so far?
Well, ‘masterpiece’ is a strong word – I don’t think any piece of research is ever truly finished; there is always more work to be done. I suppose my volume Women and Power in the Neo-Assyrian Palaces is something I certainly used a lot of time and effort on. I’m also very happy with a new volume I co-authored with Dr. Charles Halton coming out in September: The First Female Authors. It was nice to write a volume which had space both for primary sources (texts authored by women in Akkadian and Sumerian) and theoretical discussions.

In June, the Academy of Finland granted multi-million funding for a new Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires, to be directed by you. Can you tell us more about this exciting news?
Sure! ANEE is established for years 2018-2025 and its main question is: How do changing imperial dynamics impact social group identities and lifeways over a millennium? We concentrate on Neo-Assyrian, Neo-Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, and early Roman / Parthian control. There will be several recruitement calls for fixed term positions during its lifespan (doctoral students, post doctoral researchers and university researchers).

ANEE consists of three research teams, each of which has a methodologically specific approach. Team 1 (led by me) develops and uses the digital humanities approaches (especially social network analysis and language technology), using these to supplement the more traditional Assyriological approaches. Team 2 (led by Jason Silverman) tests and refines theoretical models from the social sciences for ancient evidence, integrating anthropological approaches to archaeology with sociological readings of textual and archaeological evidence. Team 3 (led by Antti Lahelma) investigates the impact of each empire on ancient local communities inhabiting the imperial fringes and provides a sustainable future for this heritage.

Can you tell the readers something about the University of Helsinki?
Founded in 1640, when Finland was still part of the Swedish Empire, it’s today among the top 1% of the world’s research universities. It has about 32 000 students in four campuses. The Arts Faculty is at the Center Campus, which I love, because it is great to get to work in the historical old centre of Helsinki.

When it comes to our field, every country has its own traditions. What do you feel is typical for Assyriology in Finland?
That’s of course Neo-Assyrian studies. Helsinki was established as the international centre for Neo-Assyrian Studies by Professor (now emeritus) Simo Parpola and his team in the 1990s. The State Archives of Assyria project is still on going, now publishing under the auspices of the Foundation for Finnish Assyriological Research.

Could you tell us a bit about the students at the university? How do they generally come to study Assyriology?
The students have always been wonderful and smart. I think it’s because nobody goes through Assyriological training who does not have good motivation to do it. Unfortunately, we are now at a turning point, as beginning this academic year, we cannot have new students who would be majoring in Assyriology. However, I will do my best to reverse this in the coming years. The new Centre will hopefully give us some leverage there.

How are Sumerology and Assyriology generally perceived in Finland outside of the university?
The general population views them favorably, I think. They are considered somewhat exotic, but in a positive sense. For the current government, though, they are not that valuable, as there is presently great emphasis on research that can lead to measurable economic increase.

Assyriology faces many challenges across the world. How is the situation in Finland? And is there something colleagues can do to help?
Assyriology has only ever existed in Helsinki in Finland, and in Helsinki, situation is unstable at the moment. The ongoing research projects (CSTT in the theological faculty and some projects in the Faculty of Arts) have enabled people to pursuit Assyriological research. However, the new degree structure that is beginning this autumn means that after 2020 it will no longer be possible to have a degree in Helsinki in Assyriology or Egyptology. Nonetheless, we are still teaching Assyriological courses and I am at the moment hesitantly optimistic that the new Centre will mean that we will eventually be able to launch an MA program in Ancient Near Eastern studies. International support might be important at some point, and I will definitely reach out to colleagues at that time.

If you could change one thing about the field of Assyriology, what would it be?
Personally, I would like to see more methodological and theoretical diversity and more research co-operation with other fields. The strength of Assyriology is our unique access to primary sources. This makes Assyriologists potentially very valuable to other fields and I feel that we are not always taking full advantage of that.

Aleksi Sahala, PhD-student in Assyriology and Language Technology

Please tells us something about yourself!
My background may be a little unexpected. I got my first degree in Electronics, and I had plans to pursue an engineering degree in Information Technology. However, during my second year in Polytechnic I decided to quit it and begin my studies in Language Technology. Alongside my studies, I also worked as a music producer and composer for about ten years, and during my most active years I toured in Japan, Australia and Canada several times. Music is still an important hobby for me.

Currently, I’m a PhD student in the University of Helsinki. I am also writing a textbook of Sumerian language in Finnish, which will be published in 2017 by the Finnish Oriental Society.

Why did you choose to study the Ancient Near East?
By accident. My interest in the Ancient Near East was triggered by Prof. Simo Parpola’s course on the Sumerian language, which I attended just for the sake of linguistic curiosity. Subsequently I took some Old Babylonian and Standard Babylonian, and in the end I had so many credits in Assyriology it was natural to make it my minor subject.

How does one apply to study at the University of Helsinki? Is it difficult to get in?
Unfortunately, currently University of Helsinki does not accept students for a major in Assyriology. In order to study Assyriology you can apply to any subject and just attend the Assyriological courses for a minor. The difficulty of getting in depends very much on the major subject. For example, to study the modern Middle Near East you have to do an entrance exam; last year roughly 10-15% of the applicants were accepted.

How are Near Eastern courses taught at the University of Helsinki?
Most of the introductory courses are still taught every year. They involve class room lectures, assignments and a final exam. Advanced courses are offered every now and then, but normally they are completed by reading a selection of books and passing the exam.

You are engaged in a joint degree, combining philology with Language Technology. What have been your experience so far taking an interdisciplinary approach to Assyriology?
I wrote my Master’s Thesis on automated analysis of Akkadian verb morphology and developed a parser that can recognize and analyze most of the Akkadian finite verbs. After that I have worked for various projects (like State Archives of Assyria) and developed minor tools, mostly for converting files from one format to another.

Currently I’m working for a project called Deep Learning and Semantic domains in Akkadian texts, where my goal is to build semantic domains for Akkadian words by using different computational methods from Finite-State Automata to machine learning. This is also the subject of my PhD dissertation.

What does a regular day in your studies at the University of Helsinki look like?
I often had a very flexible schedule as I had only a couple of lectures weekly. In Language Technology, practically all courses were available online, and we were expected to complete various programming assignments. In Assyriology, maybe 80% of the courses were done by reading relevant books and by attending the exam. Now as a PhD student I’m mostly focused on working, learning the new methods and improving my math skills.

What does the typical student in Helsinki do when it comes to social activities?
It’s difficult to say what would be typical. Each subject has their own student organizations which have their own events, activities, excursions and parties. Then there are also faculty-wide organizations with bigger events, where you can meet people from other study programs as well. Going to sauna, having a picnic or fine dining—there is probably something for everyone.

Are there perhaps any fun facts you can tell us about you department, or about the University of Helsinki?
When I began my studies at the department of General Linguistics, it was located in the old department of Anatomy. There was one classroom in the building that was used for anatomical pathology in the early 20th century. On the hallway there was a motto hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae (“This is the place where death delights in helping life”). Even if one never had a single course in Latin, every student of General Linguistics and Language Technology who began their studies before the department moved knows what it means, and probably remembers it for the rest of their lives.

The student featured in the previous Spotlight passed on the question: ‘What kind of job do you want to get after studying Assyriology?’
I would like to be a researcher and focus on Sumerian phonology and Emesal dialect. However, I wouldn’t mind a secure job as a programmer, either.

What would you like to know from other students in other countries?
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?

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