In The Spotlight: South Africa

One can always do better, or as in the old Egyptian saying of Ptahhotep: “The limits of art are not reached, 
no artist’s skills are perfect”.

Professor Izak Cornelius,  Researcher/Teacher, University of Stellenbosch

Can you tell the readers something about yourself?

I was born near Cape Town, but completed my schooling in Pretoria. After that I studied Theology and Semitic Languages/Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Stellenbosch and the University of Tübingen in Germany. My dissertation was on foreign trade in the Mari texts under the guidance of Charles Fensham, who was a student of Albright and Hannes Olivier, a student of Fensham but also the Assyriologist Donald Wiseman.

I have spent longer sabbaticals at the University of Fribourg, with the Old Testament scholar and iconography expert Othmar Keel. I spent time at Heidelberg, with Egyptologist Jan Assmann and the Old Testament scholar and Assyriologist Manfred Weippert and in Tübingen, with Siegfried Mittmann and Herbert Niehr. Currently I work on various Ancient Near Eastern themes, maybe too many in this age of over-specialization, which include Mesopotamia, the Levant and Egypt but mostly with emphasis on the visual material (iconography) and how it interfaces with religion. I have been lecturing at Stellenbosch since 1986 and became a Full Professor in 1999. I am now chair of the Department of Ancient Studies.

What moment in your scientific life will you never forget?

The publication of my first full monograph: The iconography of the Canaanite gods Baal and Reshep (1994).

What makes Assyriology your passion?

In my case Assyriology is the study of Mesopotamian culture and its contact with other regions. I love its visual legacy, so my passion is studying the art and iconography – from seals to large statues and reliefs.

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

The late Charles Fensham was a great mentor. He lead by example, but taught you to do your own thing, and to solve research problems yourself. Just as impressive was the influence of Othmar Keel with his incredible grasp on the visual sources.

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

I do not believe there is something like a masterpiece. One can always do better, or as in the old Egyptian saying of Ptahhotep: “The limits of art are not reached, 
no artist’s skills are perfect”.

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

A comprehensive descriptive catalogue with good images of the art of the Ancient Near East, preferably online. Museums like the British Museum have excellent online sources, but some museums still need to do a lot.

Can you describe Stellenbosch University?

Stellenbosch is often regarded as the number one University in the country, having a very high research output, one of the highest proportions of postgraduate students, and with almost 10% percent international students. The University is situated in the winelands of the beautiful Western Cape, about 50 kilometres from Cape Town. It has 28 000 students, of which 35% postgraduate.

The Department of Ancient Studies is part of Arts and Social Sciences, the second largest Faculty. There are more than 500 undergraduate students in the Department with currently fifteen PhDs. We teach Ancient Cultures, which includes Mesopotamia and Persia, Egypt, Kush, Anatolia, the Levant, Greece and Rome; Biblical Hebrew including Aramaic and Ancient Greek and Latin from undergraduate to PhD level. When there is interest, as is currently the case, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Akkadian are taught on an introductory level. There are ten permanent people who lecture. Six have a research rating from our National Research Foundation, four, including myself, are regarded as internationally recognized.

The University library covers all of the described cultures and languages and the library of Professor Fensham on the Ancient Near East is in the Department. It contains some very rare books that are not available elsewhere in South Africa.

There exist strong relations with colleague Fanie Vermaak form the University of South Africa in Pretoria. We studied together and often examine each other’s MA’s and D’s. He is more of an Assyriologist in the true sense of the work.

Stellenbosch is a residential university so lecturers meet students eye to eye. For postgrads there is a biweekly colloquium where students present short papers, discuss and socialize.

What would you say are the strong suits of Stellenbosch University? Why should students and researchers come here to study Assyriology?


What does a regular day in your life look like?

Currently I teach ten lectures per week, an introduction on the Ancient Near Eastern cultures for first years and modules for second and third years on Egyptian art. I am Departmental chair and unfortunately this takes a lot of my time. We have compulsory office hours and I am basically at the office the whole day during the week. I try to do about two hours of research every evening. Late at night I love to read the e-mails on the Agade list of Jack Sasson which keep me up to date on new discoveries, publications and exhibits. This is important when you live in the far south at the tip of the African continent. I love to browse through new journals and books in the library, but with all the digital sources available like JSTOR, Etana and OIC, it is much easier. One can read wherever and whenever you want: even on a tablet in bed! The interlibrary system is excellent and I can get books from, for example, the University of South Africa if needed. I myself have a large collection of photocopied articles which I have collected overseas. An assistant scans these and new material into PDFs daily and I have an ever larger growing collection of digital sources.

We also have a post-grad colloquium and a research seminar alternating every week.

I have at the moment two MA and two PhD students working on Mesopotamian themes:

– Bit by bit: an iconographic study of horses in the reliefs of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II.

– Royal ideology in Mesopotamian iconography of the third and second millennia BCE with special reference to gestures.

– The rosette motif in first millennium BCE Mesopotamian and Persian art.

– The form, function and symbolism of standards in ancient Mesopotamia during the third and fourth millennia BCE: an iconographical study.

What projects are you currently involved in?

A long overdue project is a catalogue of southern Levantine female terracotta plaques in the pre-Hellenistic period. Another project is on the symbol system of Persian Yehud by studying the iconographic material, together with Christian Frevel of Bochum. I am also working on a new project what I call “Towards the ‘Art’ of the Southern Levant in the pre-Hellenistic period”.

We have an interdisciplinary project to study Egyptian animal mummies in South African collections by using CT-scanning and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The technology is available at Stellenbosch and I work together with two scientists (a physicist and a geneticist-biologist) and we just had Salima Ikram from Cairo as a visitor, who is helping us a lot. I would like to expand this by using modern technology in the study of ancient figurines.

E-learning has become part of our daily routine as are digital sources and methods. Today no-one can do without digital sources; CDLI is for example a great help.

Assyriology seems to be a divided field to be studying: every country and continent has its own traditions of teaching and research. What would you say is typical for Assyriology in South-Africa?

Its link with the study of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is typical. Most of the old scholars who worked on Mesopotamia were linked to the study of the Old Testament, like Gemser, van Selms, Fensham and Olivier. Students who were interested mostly studied Theology and went from Hebrew to Akkadian. But since then there has been some “emancipation” to study Mesopotamia for the sake of Mesopotamia only. Personally I have been driving a new emphasis on the iconography.

What connections are there between South Africa and other countries, with regards to studying Assyriology?

Stellenbosch has strong contacts especially with Tübingen and Leipzig in Germany in the persons of Herbert Niehr and Angelika Berlejung. The last is well-known for her study on cultic images in the Mesopotamian sources. Both are extraordinary professors in the Department and visit Stellenbosch on a regular basis. Our biggest problem to connect is distance – Stellenbosch is very far away from Europe and North America. Funding is limited and our currency is also not that strong and flights are fairly expensive which makes visits to the north not that easy. We do communicate via e-mail.

What kinds of conventions or activities are being organized in South Africa for Assyriologists?

There is a Society for Near Eastern Studies which meets annually and where there are some papers on Mesopotamian themes. And the Rencontre of 2004 (Fauna and Flora in the Ancient Near East) was in the Kruger Park.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat can you say about connections between the Stellenbosch Assyriology-department and other fields?

In our Department itself the closest connection is with the other Near Eastern cultures and then Greece and Rome. I have an Honours module on the Afterlife where, for example, students compare Egyptian and Mesopotamian concepts.

But no, unfortunately there is not much cooperation. Archaeology is mostly only South African archaeology.

Jonathan Westhead, Student, University of Stellenbosch

Please, introduce yourself to us. 

My name is Jonathan Westhead, I am 22 years old and I have lived in South Africa for my whole life. I live in Stellenbosch, approximately five minutes away from Stellenbosch University, where I am currently completing my MA degree in Ancient Cultures.

Why did you choose to study Assyriology?

While we do not have a specific Assyriology degree at Stellenbosch, I am studying Mesopotamian culture. I chose to study this for three reasons: The cultures of Mesopotamia are some of the most interesting I have encountered in my studies, the professors, in my undergrad, were very excited about the subject they taught and it made me excited to want to study further. On top of that I have always enjoyed history: studying Mesopotamia seemed like a way to combine what I enjoyed studying with a culture that I found fascinating.

Where lies your main interest?

My main interest is early Mesopotamian cultures, specifically the third and second millennia BCE. I am currently completing my masters about ideology as portrayed in iconographic materials, with a special emphasis on gestures. I also find the application of complexity theory very interesting. I currently work for a postdoc student who applies complexity theory to Hebrew linguistics: he has developed his own model of study – using thermodynamic principles. I believe that it would be very interesting to see if one could apply this to cultural studies.

What does the Assyriology department of Stellenbosch look like?

The department at Stellenbosch is not specifically an Assyriology department. It encompasses the study of many ancient cultures, from Mesopotamia to Rome, and languages, including Latin, Greek and Biblical Hebrew. At a post grad level, the interactions between students and staff members become far more frequent and more ‘relaxed’. In the sense that the students are no longer nervous children but are more mature and are able to interact with the professors in an easier manner. The staff members are always very helpful and friendly and will do their best to ensure that you succeed in your studies.

What resources does Stellenbosch have?

The university has a reasonably good library, although there are not that many books on Mesopotamia. The department has two libraries which have a good selection of books, although most are outdated. The university does not have a tablet collection or anything of the like, due to budgetary constraints, but the department has two original Ur III tablets and a handful of original cylinder seals. There are also some cylinder seals and Late Babylonian tablets in a collection in Cape Town. With the currency exchange rate it is difficult for us to obtain any original objects for study. In the department itself we also have some replicas, including the stela of Hammurapi, and a statue of Gudea.

What does the study of Assyriology involve at Stellenbosch?

Stellenbosch does not have a specific Assyriology program that one can study, so you begin with a degree in the Humanities and specialize in Ancient Cultures as one of your majors. You are able to specialize in Mesopotamian culture when beginning with your MA degree. The department’s focus is far more cultural than linguistic, with regards to Mesopotamia, although five students including myself are currently doing Akkadian with a visiting postdoc.

What connections are there between Stellenbosch and other universities in other countries?

There is a fairly large amount of cooperation between universities in South Africa. The main problem with studying in this field, in South Africa, is that the majority of conferences and such occur in Europe or the United States. It makes sense that they do, as the majority of research is being done there, but one often feels like we are missing out in our part of the world. Although there are a few conferences in South Africa, travel around the country is expensive as South Africa is rather large, and one is therefore not always able to attend.

The department at Stellenbosch has some of the best professors in South Africa and they boast an excellent all-round knowledge of the ancient Near Eastern and Classical civilizations.

Why should students choose Stellenbosch University for studying Assyriology?

The university life in Stellenbosch fosters a rather strong bond between all students. They seem to identify with the university for much of their lives and this has always been something that has appealed to me. I believe that in South Africa, Stellenbosch is the best university due to its research output and quality of teaching. The department at Stellenbosch has some of the best professors in South Africa and they boast an excellent all-round knowledge of the ancient Near Eastern and Classical civilizations.

What does your student life look like?

I majored in History and Ancient Cultures during my undergrad and then did an honours degree in Ancient Cultures. I decided already in my first year that I wanted to specialize in Mesopotamian culture and therefore took Ancient Cultures courses that suited that. Initially there are about 200 undergrad students who start with Ancient Cultures and forty in the final year. In my honours Ancient Cultures year there were two of us, this year there are four. Including myself there are currently two masters students and two doctoral students who are specializing in Mesopotamian culture.

What kinds of student activities are there for Assyriology students at Stellenbosch?

There is a postgraduate colloquium that takes place bimonthly during which some students present their research and we are able to listen and then critique their work. In this way we all get together and socialize a bit and are able to get to know fellow students in the department. A few of us also try and get together weekly for a beer or two and we chat about anything other than work.

In more and more countries it is starting to become difficult and very expensive to study at a university. How is this for South African students?

South African tertiary education is relatively inexpensive in comparison to North America and the like. The main problem is that there is a large gulf between the less disadvantaged members of society and those who can afford to attend university. As we must all pay for our own education, often, even if someone qualifies to attend university, they are not able due to the fact that they cannot afford it. There is not enough funding, in the form of bursaries for example, to ensure that everyone is able to.

How do you perceive the future of Assyriology to be in general?

I believe that much of society does not really think that what we study is of worth or relevant for a developing country, with a lot of focus now being put on engineering and so-called ‘hard-sciences’. In South Africa the field is incredibly small – in the department at Stellenbosch University there are only four researchers focusing solely on Mesopotamian studies. I would like, in the future of Assyriology, to see more integration between other fields of study. The manner in which linguists are approaching their researching by applying models from different sciences is incredibly interesting and I am very curious to see whether it is applicable to Mesopotamian studies as well.

Do you think South Africa is being left out of consideration within the field of Assyriology? What should or could be done to improve global connections?

It makes sense that South Africa is somewhat isolated in terms of conferences and the like due to the distance between us and Europe or the United States. However, I hope that with the technological advances that are being made, researchers in South Africa will soon be able to virtually connect to conferences and in that manner participate.

What are your ambitions for the future?

The employment field in South Africa is rather limited. However, I would hope to one day work as a researcher or lecturer in this field. South Africa is a beautiful country and I would hope to stay here and promote the field. However, I would love to visit Europe and attend a university if I was offered such an opportunity in the future.

What would you like to know from another Assyriology student in another country?

Do their family members/partners believe that what they are studying is worthwhile?

RAI 50 – Skukuza, South Afrika