In Popular Culture

In Popular Culture: The Future of Ancient Near Eastern Studies

In this second issue of ‘In Popular Culture’, I talk with Sabina Franke about the challenges and opportunities of bringing the Ancient Near East to public attention. She gathers the main conclusions from the workshop ‘The Future of Ancient Near Studies’ she organized on this topic, and shares her experiences teaching and telling about the Ancient Near East.

“I have to admit that it took me years to be able to understand more or less the basic ideas, concepts, and lines of thoughts in the ANE and to realize that it is perfectly OK to simplify and to tell the stories behind the text. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing!'”

Please tell us a bit about yourself!

From very early on I was interested in languages. Therefore I started my university life with Arabic and Turkish studies in Saarbrücken and Bonn. But soon I got fascinated with cuneiform script and culture and gave up on the modern languages. With a Fulbright scholarship I spent two years at the University of Pennsylvania studying with Ake Sjöberg, Erle Leichty and Barry Eichler – a memorable experience. After a short stay in Munich I moved to Hamburg where I got my PhD in 1989. I still think it was a lasting influence on my attitude towards Assyriology that I spent six campaigns digging in Syria.

While I was still a student in Hamburg, Gernot Wilhelm offered me the opportunity to teach, and this has been a prime interest ever since. I taught at universities in Würzburg, Hamburg, Salzburg, Rostock, Bielefeld, Kiel, Aarhus, and Göttingen, but now mainly in Hamburg. When my children started school, I also offered classes on the Ancient Near East in their schools and began giving as many lectures as possible on diverse aspects of the Ancient Near East. For general readers, I recently edited an Anthology of Ancient Near Eastern literature. Also, I have been organizing archaeological excursions to Turkey for interested people. Basically, I consider myself now an Ancient Near Eastern Scholar in a very broad sense.

At the 2015 Rencontre in Berne and Genève, you organized a workshop entitled ‘Die Zukunft der Altorientalistik’, or ‘The Future of Ancient Near Eastern Studies’. The workshop focused on what we can do to bring the cultures of the Ancient Near East to public attention. Why this particular topic?

For some years I have been teaching general courses at the Helmut-Schmidt-Universität in Hamburg. It is one of the two universities run by the German Army where future officers have to attend also liberal arts and ethics courses. If I am lucky, two or three in a course might have heard of the Tower of Babylon (in their religious education class! – never in history classes!).

Also, when I am asked to speak about my profession, hardly any younger person has an idea about the cultures of the Ancient Near East. The general knowledge about the civilization of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, not to mention Hurrians, Urarteans or Elamites, and of their impact on and similarity with our modern world has almost completely disappeared. But the young people are the ones on whom we will depend to continue the study of the Ancient Near East.

There is a rather recent, additional reason: In recent years, we have welcomed refugees from Iraq and Syria in Europe, many of them children and young adults. Yet they know very little about their own pre-Islamic past. Especially for them, it is essential that we communicate the importance of their own early history and culture as part of their identity as well as to convey how well connected to Western civilizations it has continued to be throughout the centuries.

“To resurrect the cultures that are left to us, we have to tell the stories that connect to our listeners. And that is not always easy.”

The proceedings of the workshop were published in the latest edition of Altorientalische Forschungen. In your introduction, you describe a dwindling public interest in the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Why is it, do you believe, that the broader interest in the ancient cultures is disappearing?

What does the general public associate about the Near East nowadays? Terror, war, fighting, destruction, religious problems, danger, ISIS (Daesh), destruction of ancient sites: in short problems and more problems. Khorsabad has been destroyed, but who in our days actually knows and can explain that we have lost – in my opinion – the most impressive and ingenious Assyrian palace ever built? Who realizes and explains what plundering or destroying archaeological sites means for our future understanding? Most people cannot bear the gruesome stories propagated in the media anymore – they close their eyes and let it happen.

In addition, specialists on Mesopotamia and Syria “compete” with Egyptologists who have pyramids, temples with lively scenes, inscriptions, and mummies to show, when we have largely cuneiform tablets and mud bricks to display. To resurrect the cultures that are left to us, we have to tell the stories that connect to our listeners. And that is not always easy.

What general conclusions did you yourself draw from the workshop?

It was good to see that there is the realization, especially among the younger colleagues, that something has to be done. My intent was to show what can be done and how to do it, to show that there are some ideas that can be taken up easily and that everyone of us can get involved.  

I also found the results from the British Museums comforting, in that cuneiform tablets in a modern display do attract attention. I was also much impressed by the outreach programs that are done in the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. The problem however is the funding: you cannot expect a young scholar to finance this work without any chance of earning a living in museums or academia.

When talking to the public, we might first broach the famous remains in our field: the Code of Hammurapi, Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon, Assyria and its stunning reliefs, stories about  Gilgamesh, Enki and Inanna, maybe even about Enmerkar and Lugalbanda, daily life (always very much of interest) including aspects of religion, justice, trade, and irrigation.

But I have to admit that it took me years to be able to understand more or less the basic ideas, concepts, and lines of thoughts in the ANE and to realize that it is perfectly OK to simplify and to tell the stories behind the text. As Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: “Easy reading is damn hard writing”!

What obstacles and advantages do Assyriologists face when communicating their results to a broader audience?

If assyriologists or Near Eastern archaeologists talk about their work, people are normally very curious because most of our work is unknown to them. I find it always amazing to see how many of them had wanted to become an archaeologist. Why not use popular figures like Indiana Jones to tell the adventures of assyriologists and archaeologists?

To reach the public we have to start by connecting their life as it is today with the life 4000 years ago: school children love the stories about the Sumerian school, they like to write on clay and listen to the stories. Adults do too; but then you can, for example, expand on the advantages of globalization, long distance trade, the problems of a country without any commodities, the building with mud brick, the import of Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan to Iraq. Then you almost certainly face the question: “How did they do it?” Or you might end up with astonished reactions like “I never knew that”, “That’s amazing”, and the like. Very often, making analogies has been despised and considered not scholarly. But drawing comparisons means to connect people and their experiences.

In that sense, one of my favorite stories comes from Mari (ARM 27,1, see W. Heimpel, Letters to the King of Mari, p. 411, 2003): “When Asqudum audited the palace, he assigned 12 men to 1 plow. And they were not enough, as 15 men are barely enough for 1 plow. The seedbed preparation in front of the plows is much (work). And the agents saw (then) that the workload was much. Now agents arrived and assigned 10 men to the plows. In the past, 12 men were not enough for one plow, how can 10 men now be enough?!” Anyone listening to this passage will instantly recognize parallels to modern work-life.

The general public is interested in general ideas and new insights, the main line of the argument and a reasonably clear answer and anchors to what they already know. We, however, are taught to discuss every detail, all eventualities and possibilities. Therefore we have to strive hard to skip the details and concentrate on the essentials. This type of work should not belittled in the academic world.

The papers in the workshop dealt with very different media of communication – schools, museums, board games, theatre. Is there any media that you yourself find particularly promising?

Personally, I am a strong believer in individual contact. Sometimes young adults still come up and tell me that I have taught them many years ago to write their name in cuneiform and discussed with them the adventures of Gilgamesh. So I gather that my own enthusiasm made a lasting impression. But in the end, of course, we will need all media, and communicators can use the one that works best for them. But first, we have to be present far more in the public as well as to interest computer and media people to facilitate and participate in our mission.

Assyriologists today face a number of challenges in their daily work, including cutbacks at a number of universities. Why should already hard‑pressed researchers focus on communication as well?

Very simple: it is the public that funds our work! Very often they ask good questions that are worth listening to. If they don’t know what, how, and why we research, they are hardly likely to want to pay for it? Also, don’t we believe that our work has some relevance for the public?

What do you believe is the future of Ancient Near Eastern Studies?

If we really want to have a future among the many competing fields, we have to accept that popularizing work is necessary and essential and not some lesser work. In short, we cannot only depend on the private commitment of some of us but need professional public relations to survive.

“Personally, I am a strong believer in individual contact. Sometimes young adults still come up and tell me that I have taught them many years ago to write their name in cuneiform and discussed with them the adventures of Gilgamesh. So I gather that my own enthusiasm made a lasting impression.”

Picture courtesy of Dr. Sabina Franke.