In The Spotlight: California

Dr. Niek Veldhuis, Researcher/Teacher, University of California, Berkeley

I will never forget the defense of my dissertation. I got through all right, but I have never been so nervous in my life!

Can you tell the readers something about yourself?

I grew up in the Netherlands, in a small town called Almelo, close to the German border. I studied Theology and Semitic Languages in Groningen and Nijmegen – it was a long-winded route, but eventually I wrote my dissertation on Old Babylonian education with Dr. Vanstiphout (or Stip, as we called him).

Could you describe a regular day in your life?

Unlike most of my colleagues at Berkeley, I spend most of my working days in my office, between my books. That is where I have (almost) everything at hand; the things I need for class preparation, for research, and for my work as Head Graduate Advisor (called Director of Graduate Studies at most other universities). There are many things I like to do for fun – including reading cuneiform texts (in particular the ones that are entirely irrelevant to anything I am working on), but also playing beach volleyball, singing in a choir, reading Dutch novels, and hiking the California trails.

Describe the research-life at Berkeley. Is there anything typical for Berkeley?

I feel very lucky to have Chessie Rochberg and Laurie Pearce as my colleagues at UC Berkeley. In addition, Jerry Cooper, who retired from Johns Hopkins at Baltimore, now lives in Berkeley and is involved with our cuneiform program. Research is not only driven by the faculty, but also by the graduate students, who bring their own ideas and questions. I love the interaction, the struggle to bring clarity, the opposition of different ideas and approaches.

Are you involved in any projects?

I am involved in a number of digital projects, including the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus (ORACC) and the Digital Corpus of Cuneiform Lexical Texts (DCCLT). For ORACC I serve on the steering committee with Eleanor Robson and Steve Tinney; we meet on line or in person and set out the lines for future developments. DCCLT is my own child, so to say. I am the director, do the grant writing and oversee work done by others, but I also do a lot of the data input myself. Laurie Pearce’s Berkeley Prosopography Services is an attempt to use computing power for detecting patterns in databases of administrative texts. I am involved in the development of that tool – but more on the sidelines.

What moment in your scientific life will you never forget?

I will never forget the defence of my dissertation. In the Netherlands this is a very formal and rather scary occasion where you dress up in tuxedo and answer questions by professors in gowns in front of all your friends, family, and peers. Some professors tend to get rather nasty and that happened to me, too. I got through all right, but I have never been so nervous in my life.

Berkeley Campus
Berkeley Campus

What was the hardest thing you had to go through to get where you are now? In other words: What are the hardships of becoming successful in Assyriology?

The most difficult obstacle I faced was myself. In the early nineteen nineties I went through a dark period and battling myself was hard work. It is an episode I am very proud of – I fought myself out of a hole and started a new chapter that began with my dissertation.

What makes Assyriology your passion?

What I love is the never-ending puzzle – things fall into place, and all of a sudden the picture starts to make sense. That may be something as small as a single word or sign that resisted decipherment for so long; or it may be something as large as the role of scribal education in Mesopotamian society. I am interested in questions that relate to the possibility of understanding a culture in which the world is conceptualized radically differently. Such questions are discussed in anthropology, history of science, religious studies, sociology, history, and too many other fields to even try to keep up. Luckily, I have some smart graduate students who share those interests and who keep me on my toes.

Who do you look up to, or did you look up to when you where a student?

I admire Miguel Civil, who masters Sumerian like nobody else today. In addition he has a deep knowledge of Semitics, relates lexicography to material culture in a very smart way, and reads the texts in the social context in which they were produced. There are few all-round scholars like that in any field, and Miguel had to create most of the tools for his research by himself.

If you could make a change in the manner of research in the field, what would you like to do/incorporate/introduce?

I would like to learn much more about the history of our field, its connection with Bible studies; its background in colonialism; its unfortunate intellectual separation from archaeology; and so on. We conceptualize our data set as “literary texts,” “religious texts,” or “archival texts” and read them in ways that are immediately related to (not to say contaminated by) our disciplinary history. The white European males of means who created Assyriology are still in our heads. I am convinced that other perspectives and conceptualizations, such as gender studies or post-colonialism, could enrich the Assyriological discussion beyond recognition.

What would you regard as your ‘masterpiece’ until now?

I just finished my book on the lexical tradition (it will come out in the GMTR series) – it starts with the archaic lexical tablets and goes through more than three millennia of history. I try to understand the social role of the lexical texts in the intellectual and scribal life of each period. It was a big challenge and connected many things I had been working on before – and now I have to wait and see what people say!

What is something you would you like to do or work on, if you had all the time and funding in the world?

If I had all the time and funding in the world … I would love to write a Sumerian grammar for dummies. I believe that the structure of the Sumerian language is simple and straightforward and that much of the discussion today focuses on details, very complex details, leaving out the broader issues of sentence syntax. We have thus made Sumerian grammar “difficult” and I do not think it needs to be. But I would also love to study in much detail the social and economic history of the Old Babylonian period, in order to contextualize the intellectual developments of that time. Or the proverb collections; or the medical corpus; or the model contracts; or … Once you’ve managed to fall in love with lexical texts you realize that anything can be fascinating, if only you spend enough time with it.

What advice could you give to the current students in Assyriology, maybe wanting to become scientists themselves?

My advice: share data and think hard about the validity, the applicability, and the history of the concepts you use in framing your research.

Jay Crisostomo, PhD-Student, University of California, Berkeley

Can you tell us something about yourself?

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y name is Jay Crisostomo; I am a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. I am currently writing my dissertation on bilingualism and scholarly practices based on a group of Old Babylonian lexical lists.

I have lived in the Bay Area (Berkeley is across the San Francisco Bay from the city of San Francisco and north of the city of Oakland) for five years. I am married with two children, a girl (4) and a boy (2 months).

Tell us something about Berkeley

Berkeley has a strong intellectual tradition. It was founded in 1868 as the flagship campus of the University of California system. Berkeley is known as one of the best institutions of public (state-funded) education in the US (many of the top universities in the US are privately endowed universities). It is also famous for its involvement in social and political issues such as the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.

Assyriology may be studied within the Department of Near Eastern Studies. While not as well-known as other US bastions of Assyriological study, Berkeley has had a continuous line beginning with H. F. Lutz in the 1920s to Anne Kilmer and Wolfgang Heimpel and now to Niek Veldhuis and Francesca Rochberg. Since Berkeley is geographically far removed from the larger tablet collections and prestigious programs in the eastern US and was not involved in some of the early excavations, the program has been relatively small. There are currently three graduate students specializing in cuneiform languages. We have a modest tablet collection housed in the Hearst Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. We also have a good working library for graduate student use.

Currently, one of the program’s strengths is intellectual history. Professor Veldhuis specializes in lexicography; Professor Rochberg specializes in astronomy and history of science. Berkeley is also home to a number of digital cuneiform projects, most notably the Digital Corpus of Cuneiform Lexical Texts, Dr. Laurie Pearce’s Hellenitistic Babylonia: Texts, Images, Names, and Berkeley Prosopography Services. As such, Berkeley is one of the leading institutions for the online publication of texts and analytical tools for Assyriological study.

One of the best parts about Berkeley is the ability to engage with other disciplines at the highest levels as necessary for research

What courses are available at your university and what courses do you take?

Berkeley offers the typical cuneiform language courses (Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite) and material culture with occasional courses/seminars on topics of interest (for example, Professor Rochberg offers a course on ancient astronomy). One of the best parts about Berkeley is the ability to engage with other disciplines at the highest levels as necessary for research. For example, my dissertation utilizes methodologies from the fields of linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and history; my coursework allowed for extensive interaction with faculty and students in each of these fields.

Undergraduate (Bachelor) programs in the US typically provide a broad education. Students are often required to take courses in numerous fields (e.g., a course in the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities) to provide this breadth. Some students begin their programs with a major determined, but many decide/change later. Berkeley offers a major in Ancient Near Eastern civilizations where an undergraduate can take courses in the cuneiform languages and begin exploring Assyriology as a possible future.

Students who desire further specialization would then proceed to a Master’s program or a PhD program. Sometimes, these graduate degrees differ widely from earlier degrees. One could therefore come to Assyriology as a PhD student having previously earned a Bachelor’s degree in computer science or biology (assuming they had some training in Assyriology that would lead them towards that career goal).

I am currently writing my dissertation and so am not currently taking courses. In the US, students typically take 3–4 years of coursework before sitting comprehensive exams. After passing those exams, they must then formulate a dissertation proposal and begin writing. At that stage, they are no longer required to take courses and may concentrate on finishing their dissertation. I am currently in that stage and am not officially taking courses.

Do you think Assyriology is a popular/well known subject in the United States/California?

Although many in California have a passing familiarity with Mesopotamia as ancient Iraq or “the birthplace of writing/civilization”, the subject is far from popular. Mesopotamian civilization is required curriculum for California elementary school students (6th grade, ages 10–12), but the subject is explored only superficially over a two-month period. Most museums in California have only (at best) modest collections of ANE material, so the public is not regularly exposed to Assyriology.

There is, however, a large statue of Ashurbanipal erected outside the San Francisco Civic Center, near the Asian Art Museum. This statue was a gift from the local Assyrian community and provides a small measure of Mesopotamia to the public.

What does a day in the life of a student look like?

I tend to be a bit of a workaholic. In the past (before the birth of my son), a normal week consisted of three 10 hour-days and two 14 hour-days at the office plus whatever time I could find in the evenings at home; weekends would usually be lighter work days spent at home. During my coursework, I would spend most of that time preparing for courses (as a student or teacher); now, the majority of my time is devoted to my own projects/research and writing. Interspersed within that week is time for physical fitness, social activities, family time, external reading, or the like. 

Why did you choose to study Assyriology?

I came to Assyriology from a background in Hebrew Bible. Once I was exposed to the magnitude of data and possible research questions, there was no turning back.

One of the pleasures and frustrations of studying Assyriology in the US is correcting a number of misconceptions about our material stemming from the US occupation of Iraq or based on assumptions such as how cuneiform evidence can support or weaken religious or political positions. Regardless, when people find out what I do, they are often interested.

What are your ambitions?

I plan to finish my dissertation within the next year or two. I would like to find a university job that allows me to continue pursuing interesting Assyriological questions.

What is your favourite subject?

My research questions ultimately deal with language or social history. There is so much about the cuneiform languages and cultures that has yet to be meaningfully understood and so much data to draw on. Not only are there so many unanswered questions for Assyriology, but I think that Assyriology has much to add to the broader intellectual discussions regarding language and social history.

Are you involved in any student-activities?

I was previously involved in the planning of a visiting lecture series, the Berkeley Memory and Identity working group. I currently work on a number of digital cuneiform projects connected to ORACC and Berkeley Prosopography Services.

While not in any organized capacity, I consider time spent with my colleagues in Near Eastern Studies and related programs—both professionally and socially—to be a fundamental part of my scholarly development. Between work and family responsibilities, I rarely have time for more university-related activities.

What are the opportunities in your country to continue studying Assyriology? For local students and for those from abroad as well?

In the US, there are very few universities—only 8 or 9—where one can earn a doctorate specializing in Assyriology. Admission to any of these doctoral programs is naturally highly competitive, especially since all of these programs are nested within departments which also provide degrees in fields such as Arabic, Hebrew literature, biblical studies, or Egyptology.

What would you like to ask another Assyriology-student in another country or region?

What do students perceive to be the future of Assyriology? That is, on what types of projects and questions does this next generation of Assyriologists think we should spend our time and funds?