In The Spotlight: Copenhagen University

We are happy to announce that this issue of Mār Šiprim again features an interview with a researcher and a student from one university for our “In the Spotlight” section. In our two previous issues, we were unfortunately unable to publish this recurring item. We are very grateful to Dr. Nicole Brisch and Sophus Helle from the University of Copenhagen, to have answered questions about their academic lives and the ins- and outs of this University.

Dr. Nicole Brisch, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen

Nicole BrischI was originally interested in archaeology, perhaps due to my father, but then was told that I was good at grammar, and so I switched my focus to Assyriology

Dr. Nicole Brisch is an associate professor at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at Copenhagen University. She obtained her degree in Assyriology at the University of Berlin, with minors in Near Eastern archaeology and European prehistory. She then went on to the University of Michigan, where she received her PhD in Near Eastern Studies under the supervision of Piotr Michalowski. Dr. Brisch is a very diverse researcher with many different topics of expertise, and she almost did not become an Assyriologist at all: “I was originally interested in archaeology, perhaps due to my father,” she explains, “but then I was told that I was good at grammar, and so I switched my focus to Assyriology.” Besides having an interest in both Archaeology and Assyriology, dr. Brisch is both an Assyriologist and a Sumerologist. Her research interests include Mesopotamian literature, the socio-economic history of the Ur III period (ca. 2100-2000 BCE), and Mesopotamian religion. She is the author of Tradition and the Poetics of Innovation: Sumerian Court Literature of the Larsa Dynasty (c. 2003-1763 BCE) (2007) and the editor of Religion and Power: Divine Kingship in the Ancient World and Beyond (2008, 2nd printing 2012). Her current research is concerned with ritual and divinity in early Mesopotamia and economic aspects of religion.

What moment in your scientific life will you never forget?
I suppose my PhD was the most significant moment. I had a tough committee, but they were all fair. And a friend gave me as a present a paperweight with an inscription that said: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

What makes Assyriology or Sumerology your passion?
There are many things, of course, but what I love most about Assyriology is the intellectual challenge that studying this field poses. There is always something to think about and to research, and more often than not it is not straightforward but complicated and diverse.

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

Right now I am applying for funds to start a project on the interaction between religion and economy in early Mesopotamia. A lot of research has been done on religion or on economy, including temple economy, yet these two areas have never been explored together as a unit.

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

There are several scholars that I greatly admire for their brilliant contributions to Assyriology. One of them is my PhD advisor, Piotr Michalowski, who has worked hard to make Assyriology part of an interdisciplinary dialogue and who always finds a new perspective on texts that are well known. Even if one doesn’t always agree with him, he forces one to think and to take a closer look.

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

I’m really proud of my first book, which took a lot of work and presented a great challenge, but was also really exciting.

What does a regular day in your scientific life look like?

I spend most of my workdays in my office at university. Our institute’s library is conveniently right outside my office (in our new facilities), but the Royal Library in Copenhagen also delivers books directly to my desk. I usually teach 2-3 classes per semester, this semester I taught Beginning Akkadian and Beginning Sumerian. I often meet with my Egyptological and archaeological colleagues for lunch. It is important for us to maintain good relationships within the department, especially within the former Carsten Niebuhr section.

Can you tell the readers something about the University of Copenhagen, and especially the department to which Assyriology is connected?

Assyriology at Copenhagen is now part of the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional studies (Tværkulturelle og regionale studier), which is part of the Humanities Faculty. We are traditionally close to the subjects in the former Carsten Niebuhr section, especially Egyptology and Near Eastern archaeology, but there are many other fields that are now part of our department, for example, Religious Studies, Eskimology, Chinese and Japanese Studies, Indology, etc.

My office door is open most of the time for students to come by and ask questions, we try to give our students the feeling that they can always come and talk to us.
As for connections to other universities, we just made an Erasmus agreement with Würzburg and we already have one with the Freie Universität Berlin, and the university is currently strengthening its connections with Leiden University, too. I also collaborate with Dominique Charpin in Paris for my ‘Sattukku’ project and with Eleanor Robson at UCL, with whom I’ve worked before.

What would you say are the strong-suits of Copenhagen University?

We have a long tradition in Assyriology at Copenhagen, beginning with Valdemar Schmidt, who was the first to teach Egyptian and Akkadian here around 1880. Our facilities are very new, we moved into our new building just about a year ago.
We were recently awarded a very competitive PhD fellowship in Assyriology from the Faculty, the first time in a very long time, but there are also student jobs, mostly as teaching assistants but sometimes also other things, like conference organisations, etc.
At the moment, we’re also working on continuing the Old Assyrian tradition here at Copenhagen, now represented by my colleague Thomas Hertel, but we are also establishing a new research direction in Assyriology, one more focused on religion and ritual, for which we are very interested in interdisciplinary collaboration.

What projects are you, or is the university, currently involved in? Or what projects are coming up?
There are several projects in the planning stage. At the moment, we are planning a project together with Egyptology on governance and administrative history in the ancient Near East. I myself am working on establishing a research direction on religion and economy here at Copenhagen, which is built around my current research on an administrative archive from Nippur that deals with food offerings to gods and their redistribution.

The University of Copenhagen is involved in different projects, such as the Investment Fund for Developing Countries and ToRS partnership. What do these entail?

It’s an initiative called Kulturkurser between our department and the Investment Fund for Developing Countries. The main goal here is to bridge academia and business, so if a company is interested in information on, for example, the Middle East or China, they can contact the department via Kulturkurser and ask for an expert to give a talk on a topic that is relevant for them.

You are specialized in cross-cultural studies. In what way is cross-culturalism integrated with Assyriology at Copenhagen University?

Traditionally, Assyriology at Copenhagen has strong links with Egyptology and Near Eastern archaeology, but we are also developing collaborations with other fields within the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, for example Religious Studies and Indology. Assyriology students on the BA level have to take one course (Fællesfag), which is designed to bridge the gap between scientific theories and the area subjects. This fall I am co-organizing what promises to be a very exciting conference on relations between India and Mesopotamia. So there are lots of connections that we are constantly exploring.

In their first semester at university, the students have to take a course that includes an introduction to Near Eastern archaeology, Egyptology (both archaeology and texts), and Assyriology. After this, the students specialize in their areas of interest. Both on the BA and the MA level, students also have to take a certain amount of coursework from outside their area of interest, to ensure that they learn something outside their specialty.
We also offer a shared module on the Masters level, the Berlin-Copenhagen seminar, with a new topic each year. This course is co-taught by Egyptology, Assyriology, and Near Eastern archaeology, including Islamic archaeology. Students have to give a presentation in English on a topic that they have researched under their teachers’ guidance. We have had great discussions in the seminars, and it’s always a good experience for students to train their presentation skills, especially in English.

You are both a Sumerologist and an Assyriologist. Can you tell us something about Sumerology at Copenhagen University?

We’re currently working on making Sumerian a stronger part of the curriculum, also to make Copenhagen more attractive internationally. In my own teaching, I aim at combining the best of the German and the US teaching traditions.

Sumerology and Assyriology are usually separately referred to. Do you feel there is even a real difference between Sumerology and Assyriology? 

This is a difficult question, I don’t think the terminology is so clear. Some people include Sumerian studies as part of Assyriology, whereas others see them separate. I focused on Sumerian texts for my PhD dissertation, but most of my coursework in Germany centered around Akkadian texts and I have several years of teaching experience in Akkadian language courses. I do not feel that the two should be separated, but it is becoming increasingly impossible to be a specialist in everything as the number of primary sources and secondary literature grows…

You mentioned that the Assyriology department in Copenhagen is currently being rebuilt, what can we expect to be different?

Before I was hired here at Copenhagen, the university had cut one of the two Assyriology positions and the second one had not been permanently filled for three years. Now, we have a second 3-year position, held by Thomas Hertel, which allows us to reconstitute Assyriology at Copenhagen. We are in the process of rewriting our curriculum to make it internationally more competitive, but we also explore connections to our European colleagues, and make Assyriology part of an interdisciplinary dialogue with other fields here at Copenhagen, in particular archaeology, Religious Studies, and Indology. We hope this process will be finished in a couple of years.

When it comes to Assyriology, every country and continent has its own traditions in teaching and research. What do you feel is typical for Assyriology in Denmark or Northern Europe?

Copenhagen is the only Scandinavian country with a Masters programme in Assyriology (Uppsala in Sweden also offers a BA course in Assyriology). Traditionally, Copenhagen places great importance on good relationships between students and teachers. Our BA and MA curricula in Assyriology combine philological rigor on the one hand with courses on socio-economic and cultural history, to ensure a well-rounded education. The University of Copenhagen has a policy that courses are taught in English when international students are present, and I myself always teach in English, because my Danish is not good enough for teaching (yet). There is generally a lot of intellectual freedom here to explore whichever research one wants to pursue, without restrictions imposed by ‘impact’ or other factors. This kind of freedom in research is something that I value very much.

Are there any special kinds of conventions or activities being organized in Denmark for Assyriologists?

The students have talked about founding a ‘Danish Assyriological Society’ but I’m not sure how far these plans have proceeded.

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

I think the only way for Assyriology to survive as a discipline is through interdisciplinary collaboration. There are many fascinating topics being researched, to which Assyriology would have a lot to contribute. Yet we have a certain tendency to be arcane, and this is not conducive to collaboration. Moreover, interdisciplinary collaboration requires a shared vocabulary with other fields, yet because Assyriology tends to be anti-theoretical, we often find it difficult to communicate with other subjects.

Sophus Helle, MA student, University of Copenhagen

s200_sophus-helleSophus Helle is a student at the University of Copenhagen. He has recently obtained his Bachelors degree in Assyriology, focussing on semiotics in Enuma Elish. In September, Sophus will start with his Master courses, and he considers gender theory as the subject for his thesis. Sophus lives with his girlfriend Anastasia, who studies medieval French literature, in the University dormitory Regensen in the Copenhagen city centre.

Why did you choose to study Assyriology?
I have to confess that I started in Egyptology, making the switch to Assyriology during the first semester. At Copenhagen, the two subjects begin with a common introductory course to the history of the region, and the Assyriological part of it just felt like a fascinating world was opening up to me – like a welcoming red carpet that kept unrolling. And really, it still is!

What is your main interest?
I have a broad overall interest in the history of ideas in cuneiform cultures. But my main focus right now is on Babylonian literature: for example, I did my bachelor project on semiotics in Enuma Elish. Another topic I’m pursuing is gender, and I’ve taken almost all of my elective courses in gender theory, particularly queer theory and affect theory. I hope to put those approaches to use in my master’s thesis – perhaps in a project about the Gilgamesh epic.

How do you see your future, what are your ambitions?
My hope is definitely to become a researcher someday. There are some positions at Copenhagen, but I will probably try to go abroad: I have always moved around a lot with my parents, and since my girlfriend also has ambitions to become an international researcher I don’t feel tied to Copenhagen in particular.

Please tell us something about the University of Copenhagen in general.
The University of Copenhagen is the oldest university in Denmark and the second oldest in Scandinavia, dating back to 1479. It does not have a single location, as the faculties are spread out across the city. The Faculty of the Humanities, located in a southern part of the city called Amager, has recently been rebuilt completely, and the Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies to which Assyriology belongs moved to a brand-new building just last year. There is still a lot of adjusting and accommodating to be done, and the move has been a rather chaotic process, but the new buildings do have a sleek aesthetic quality that stands in stark contrast to the eye-sore of an edifice we had before.

[quote]Assyriology felt like a fascinating world was opening up to me – like a welcoming red carpet that kept unrolling. And really, it still is![/quote]

What does the Assyriology department of Copenhagen look like?
Assyriology at Copenhagen is a small group, some 20 people in all including both teachers and students. We make quite an effort to encourage good relations in this little community, with dinners and an annual “Akitu”-party. In fact, a recent survey among students at Copenhagen found that Assyriology has the best student-teacher relations of any subject in the Humanities!
Assyriology is part of an institute called ToRS, Tværkulturelle og Regionale Studier – “Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies”. This means that we are constantly in contact with students and teachers from all sorts of fields, from Persian through Balkan Studies to Korean, which is incredibly stimulating. Since it was founded just 10 years, ToRS has grown to be the largest institute in the Faculty of the Humanities, which goes to show how dynamic the place can be.

What resources does Copenhagen have?
The library and study-centre is the frame for most students’ daily life: as one cannot take home the books from the library, the study-centre has become a cozy place of work, where students come every day and can chat when taking a break from their books. Of course, Assyriology at Copenhagen cannot boast a tablet collection even comparable to our Egyptological Carlsberg Papyri collection!
Outside of the library, students mostly meet at our café BARstionen, which also organises movie clubs, board game nights and the like. The name of the bar pokes pun at a comment made by a right-wing Danish political figure, who called our institute “a bastion of evil” due to the anti-Islamophobic stance taken by some professors during the Muhammad cartoons crisis.

What does the study of Assyriology involve at Copenhagen?
As I said, the first semester involves a general introduction to the fields of Assyriology, Egyptology and Near Eastern Archeology. During the following two semesters, students follow a language course, learning Akkadian, and a history course, covering first socio-economic history and then literature and religion. In their fourth semester, students follow a final language course, often reading Standard Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian, and a course in the theory of science. In the final year of their BA, they write their bachelor project and follow elective courses. In their MA, they have the choice of learning either Sumerian or Hittite, and most of the remaining topics are self-taught. However, we are currently making some changes to the program, so that Sumerian will be introduced already in the third semester of the BA. This will hopefully come into effect next year.

What does your student-life look like, academically?
This semester I will take an Akkadian text-reading course and an elective course entitled “Women in the Ancient World”, as well as being a TA for the introductory course. In the text-reading course we will be only two students, but luckily we work well together and have formed a good two-man study group. Most of my time I spend reading texts and preparing exercises, but I also have time to indulge in some side projects that will hopefully turn into publications someday: for example, I have my first article coming out this fall about rhythm in Akkadian literature.

What does your student-life look like personally?
Most of my student-life outside the university is tied to the dormitory I live in, a historical dormitory right in the middle of the city called Regensen. Since it was built 1623 it has housed a group of 100 students, including previous alumni such as the poet Kaj Munk, the Nobel Prize winner Niels Finsen and Assyriologists like Aage Westenholz, Rune Rattenborg and Rasmus Rask. The student-life here is extremely vibrant, and can be engrossing to the point of making one forget the world outside: I have spent many a port-soaked evening in its yard talking about Babylonian literature or having the finer details of Foucault’s philosophy explained to me.

Is it difficult to get into the University of Copenhagen?
That depends entirely on the subject. Each subject ranks the applicants by their average grade, and the minimum needed for a particular subject can vary all the way from 11,2 (the maximum is 12) for a subject like Medicine to a passing grade (02) for a subject like Hebrew. For the year of 2014, Assyriology had a minimum of 3,5, which is rather low.

How is student-housing organized?
Student-housing is a general problem in Copenhagen, and a hot political topic in the municipality. It is difficult to find a place to live and even the public dormitories can be very expensive, let alone the private apartments. Nonetheless it is still seen as odd if students over 18 stay with their parents, so most take on extra jobs or heavy debt to pay for an apartment. I myself am extremely lucky in this regard, as the historical dormitories of the Inner City have their rent kept at a minimum by a royal fund dating back to 1569.

What benefits do students have in Denmark?
Students in Denmark have two amazing benefits: first, there are no university fees, and second, all students receive a monthly stipend of 5800 DKK (just over 1000 USD) from the state, meaning that here studying is not a privilege for the few but a job in itself. However, Denmark can be a very expensive place to live and most cannot get by on this stipend alone, but we are still unbelievably fortunate compared to almost any other country.

Are there perhaps any fun facts about the University of Copenhagen?
There is of course the story of the Bat… Before we moved to the new buildings, the Assyriology department was haunted by a bat. Few had seen it, yet most had heard of it, thanks especially to a talkative security guard who excelled at interrupting one’s all-nighters with interesting gossip. The existence of the Bat was a matter of discussion until a shrivelled-up bat corpse turned up during the move. For a while it was exhibited in a case with an “R.I.P.” sign, but then it disappeared again! Who knows if this is the last we will hear of it, though…

What would you like to know from another Assyriology student in another country?
Do you believe that Assyriologists should be more politically engaged – and if so, how? How should they deal with the colonial past of their field, and what ethical responsibilities do they have in a situation like the present crisis in Iraq, where the ancient past is being used by various political agendas?