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Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Assyriology at SOAS

The study of the pre-Islamic Near East takes place in several of the colleges of the University of London, the main effort being shared between the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and University College London (UCL), which now includes the Institute of Archaeology. The archaeology and ancient history of the region are taught at UCL, as too is Egyptology. Levantine languages such as biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Ugaritic are also taught at UCL, and biblical Hebrew at King's College London, too, but the base for tuition and research in Assyriology and in the languages of ancient Anatolia (and also Persia) is the Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East at SOAS.

The first Assyriological appointments in the University of London go back to 1904, when the great cuneiformist T. G. Pinches, previously of the British Museum, took up a lectureship at University College and the Cambridge scholar C. H. W. Johns was appointed to the staff of King’s College. Johns resigned in 1910 and was succeeded in the honorary post at King's by successive members of the British Museum staff, first L. W. King (until 1919) and then, jointly from 1924, C. J. Gadd and Sidney Smith. However, teaching in Assyriology did not begin in earnest until much later.

The first step toward undergraduate tuition was taken in 1948 when SOAS appointed Sidney Smith, newly retired from the British Museum, to a new Chair of Semitic Languages. He was joined in 1953 by H. W. F. Saggs as Lecturer in Akkadian. Two years later Smith was succeeded as Professor of Semitic Languages by Gadd, also newly retired from the British Museum. A year after Gadd’s retirement in 1960 the School appointed D. J. Wiseman, also from the British Museum, as Professor of Assyriology. In 1964 Wiseman and Saggs were joined by J. D. Hawkins, then Fellow in Hittite. Saggs had meanwhile become Reader in Assyriology. A position in Akkadian became vacant when he left for the Chair in Semitic Languages at Cardiff, and between 1966 and 1981 it was filled in turn by A. R. Millard (recently retired as Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages at Liverpool), J. N. Postgate (now Professor of Assyriology at Cambridge), M. J. Selman (shared with Hebrew) and Johanna Firbank.

The early 1980s witnessed Wiseman’s retirement and Firbank’s resignation. The savage cuts imposed at that time on university funding meant the loss of both posts so that for several sessions the field of ancient Near Eastern studies was represented at the School only by Hawkins’ position in Ancient Anatolian Languages. However, 1985 saw these lean years ended when funds were found for a new-blood lectureship in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, to which A. R. George was appointed. For the following twenty years teaching in Akkadian was shared between George (now Professor of Babylonian) and Hawkins (who became Professor of Ancient Anatolian Languages), with George also teaching Sumerian (in tandem with Professor M. J. Geller of University College) and Hawkins also teaching Hittite. Both also contributed to courses in Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, where they became Honorary Visiting Professors.

Following the retirement of Hawkins in 2005, the School was able to appoint in his place Daniel Schwemer, previously at the University of Würzburg. He joined us as Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, a post part-funded by the Mellon Foundation, but in 2011 he answered the call to become Professor of Altorientalistik at Würzburg. In order to maintain the School’s tradition of research and teaching in Hittite, Mark Weeden was appointed half-time Lecturer in Ancient Near Eastern Studies. After several years of teaching Akkadian, Frans van Koppen became a Teaching Fellow in Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

For 50 years (1961-2011) one of the two co-editors of IRAQ, the journal of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, held a position at SOAS, first Wiseman, then Hawkins and George. The London Diary for the Ancient Near East, a periodic list of lectures, seminars and other London events, is also produced at SOAS.