In The Spotlight: Sydney University

This issue the spotlight falls on the University of Sydney, where dr. Louise Pryke is a Research Associate.

“I’d like to think that the living Aboriginal culture makes
Australians more curious to investigate the ancient world, both in terms of Australian history and world history”

Can you tell the readers something about yourself?

Dr. Louise PrykeI grew up in Sydney, and in a country region of Australia; my final years of school were done by correspondence. I think the experience of distance education prepared me well for a scientific career, as it gave me good habits and the motivation to pursue my own research. Also, a scientific life can involve spending a great deal of time (perhaps a less than healthy amount!) on one’s own, which I’m used to from distance learning. I now live in Sydney; it’s a beautiful city.

I actually met my future PhD supervisor, Noel Weeks, on my very first day at Sydney University! I began my studies learning Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian, then moved into history. My PhD explored Akhenaton’s foreign policy in Egypt’s Asian Empire, through the perspective of the Amarna letters.

Currently, I’m focused on Near Eastern myth and religion, and am writing a book on Ishtar, for Routledge. It’s kind of a dream project for me – I wrote on her for my honours thesis, so returning to the study of the goddess feels a bit like coming home!

What moment in your scientific life will you never forget?

Attending my first international conference! It was a regional meeting of the American Oriental Society in Chicago. It was so exciting to be able to discuss my work with scholars from a wide variety of backgrounds, and to visit the Oriental Institute.

I took my dad with me on the trip, neither of us had ever been to Chicago before. The people were so welcoming, and it snowed! It will always be a special memory for me, as my dad came to my presentation and saw me speak about my work. It was the first time I think he ever understood what I was doing at university, and how passionately I feel about it. My sister and I are the first in our family to attend university, and my father never received a formal education, so it was a wonderful thing to be able to share with him. And the pizza in Chicago is really amazing!

What makes Assyriology your passion?

I love the extreme antiquity of the subject, and exploring the influence that the Ancient Near Eastern culture has had on later cultures. History is the story of human experience, and with Assyriology one gets to explore that experience from the time of our earliest written records.

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

I’m currently writing a paper on the Bull of Heaven in Gilgamesh for the Aram Journal. I would really love the opportunity to explore the theme of animality in Gilgamesh in greater depth; there’s so much potential with this theme to provide a new perspective on the Epic, as well as on Ancient Near Eastern thought and culture. The paper I’m writing is based on a conference paper for the Aram Society, who’ve been very supportive of my work and have a wonderfully diverse conference program.

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

There are so many scholars whose research inspired me as student, such as Tsvi Abusch, Jack Sasson, Gonzalo Rubio, Benjamin Foster and Stephanie Dalley, to name just a few! I’ve been fortunate to meet many of the scholars whose research I deeply admire at conferences; it’s lovely when you find that they are as generous with their time and ideas as one might hope! Jack Sasson kindly gave me a coupon to have breakfast and a chat with him at an AOS conference – I’ll always remember it. Indeed, I’ve kept the coupon…!

What would you regard to be your ‘masterpiece’ up until now?

My first publication was in the Journal of the American Oriental Society. I was quite star-struck by the whole experience, as I hold the AOS in such high esteem! The best part, somewhat unexpectedly, was the opportunity to receive criticism and feedback on my work from the editor, Gary Beckman, and the reviewers. Implementing their suggestions greatly improved the standard of my work, and I was then able to apply their advice more broadly to my PhD thesis.

 

Research life

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

It’s an exciting and pivotal time for the Near Eastern Archaeology Department at Sydney; the Department is working to fill the Edwin Cuthbert Hall Chair for Middle Eastern Archaeology. This role was previously filled by Dan Potts, who made Sydney a distinguished university for Iranian Studies, and we look forward to seeing the new direction the Department takes with Potts’ successor.

The Department’s work has recently resulted in an important new find; a magnificent new wall painting from excavations in Uzbekistan, with Parthian/Achaemenid style clothing and weapons, and Zoroastrian themed embroidery on the clothing. It’s a very significant find with regard to the early development of Zoroastrianism, and Alison Betts, the University’s Professor of Silk Road Studies, will be giving several talks on the subject, both in Sydney and internationally.

Can you say something about the way Assyriology is perceived in Sydney, and how it might be growing?

There is a great deal of interest in Assyriology at Sydney! For example, one way the University is uniquely tied to the field is through Gilgamesh, who is the University’s honorary hero; there’s a large statue of him in the centre of the University’s main campus.

Can you tell the readers something about the Centre for Classical and Near Eastern Studies of Australia (CCANESA)?

CCANESA is a relatively new, collaborative venture at the University of Sydney, opening in 2010. The Centre is home to the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens (AAIA), as well as providing a venue for the projects and research of the Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation (NEAF), the Department of Classics and Ancient History and the Department of Archaeology. Its premises also contain a library, which seems to function as a kind of home-away-from-home for many of our postgraduate students!

CCANESA has a dedicated program of events and lectures, and also offers the Apollo Research Scholarship program, which aims to encourage communication and collaboration between international and local scholars.

What would you say are the strong suits of the University of Sydney?

The University of Sydney has a lot to offer; a beautiful campus, an excellent reputation internationally, and a great awareness of the importance of interdisciplinary communication, such as evidenced by the efforts of CCANESA and NEAF.
In my view, the University’s strongest asset is the high quality of its people. There’s a genuine focus on providing teaching excellence at the university, with Sydney’s Institute of Teaching and Learning offering many opportunities for professional development and the exploration of new ideas and practices.

As well as dedicated teaching staff, our student body is wonderfully diverse, and the students possess an amazing enthusiasm and passion for their studies. This combination makes Sydney an exciting and inspiring learning and teaching environment.

How is Assyriology perceived in Australia in general, do you think?
Of course Australia has enormous cultural heritage of itself, starting foremost with the Aboriginals. Do you think this is something that makes Australians more focused on history and anthropology? And if so, does it cause them to focus on themselves because Australians have something that is so near and dear, or is there as much interest in other continents and people as well?

Such an important question! I think, as you say, Australia’s indigenous heritage has a strong influence on how we perceive the study of the ancient world today. We’re fortunate to have this incredible cultural history in Australia, and what makes it even more special is that the Aboriginal culture is a living culture. I’d like to think that this makes Australians more curious to investigate the ancient world, both in terms of Australian history and world history.

From our own experience, we can appreciate the powerful dialogue that the past continues to hold with the present. In terms of Australia’s recent colonial history, also, we’ve experienced the negative consequences that result from attempts to circumscribe the terms of this dialogue between past and present, and from attempting to silence one of the voices altogether.

Hopefully, this can provide a reminder of the importance of our role as custodians of history, working to give a clearer voice to the past.

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 Australia and Sydney?

Australia is geographically kind of far away from most places, and that can create a sense of isolation. I think an awareness of this potential for isolation is reflected in an inclusive and extroverted quality to Australian Assyriology, along with a sense of needing to bridge the distance between ourselves and the international community through attending conferences and so forth. Australians of all varieties are known for their love of travel!

Are there any special kinds of conventions or activities are being organized in Sydney or Australia in general, for Assyriologists or Near-Eastern focused scholars?

Yes! This is a very important time for Assyriology in Australia, with many areas of scholarly innovation. For example, Wayne Horowitz, along with a handful of dedicated local scholars, is involved in a new project, CANZ (Cuneiform in Australia and New Zealand), to collect and publish the many cuneiform inscriptions held in Australia and New Zealand. The project has already succeeded in making a large discovery, and the findings of CANZ will be published in a book. There is also a very strong Assyriology program running at the University of Melbourne, which is also home to the journal Ancient Near Eastern Studies.

Do museums place attention on Assyriology or Near-Eastern history with permanent or temporary exhibitions?

Sydney University’s Nicholson Museum plays a crucial role in Assyriology at Sydney, as well as in educating the public about Ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology. The Nicholson’s collection began with just a handful of artefacts from Ur, donated by the British Museum in 1926. The Museum currently has an Ancient Near Eastern exhibition, which is semi-permanent, called Tombs, Tells and Temples: Excavating the Near East. The University’s Department of Archaeology, with its strong Ancient Near Eastern program, is linked to the Museum.

Some of the objects now held by the Museum have quite a colourful past. An example of this is an ivory furniture inlay from Fort Shalmaneser at Nimrud, part of the Museum’s permanent collection. Agatha Christie and her husband, English archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, worked on the Nimrud site, and in her autobiography Christie describes the unusual aid she employed for cleaning the ivories discovered at the site – a knitting needle and a jar of cosmetic face cream. Christie’s experiences in Near Eastern archaeology provided inspiration for her novel Murder in Mesopotamia.

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

It’s a very interesting question. I’d hope to see a continuation of the trend towards a wider exchange of ideas and debates between scholars of the Classical world, biblical scholars and those of the Ancient Near East.

It’s only becoming clearer in recent times that the ideas of the ancient mythological and religious worlds did not, in general terms, exist or have their genesis in isolation. Ideally, this ancient inter-cultural interaction would inspire similar variety in the scientific approaches to Assyriology in the future.

If I might choose two areas, I’d also like to see an increase in the availability of introductory cuneiform classes, especially in Australia. I feel there’s still a misconception that Akkadian and Sumerian are prohibitively difficult to learn, making texts in the cuneiform script needlessly inaccessible to many scholars. Improving this area would be useful for creating stronger connections with scholars in other fields.