Professor H.W.F. Saggs

Assyriologist who greatly influenced his students


Henry William Frederick Saggs, Assyriologist: born 2 December 1920; Lecturer in Akkadian, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1953-62, Reader 1962-66; Professor of Semitic Languages, University College, Cardiff 1966-83 (Emeritus); married 1946 Joan Butterworth (four daughters); died Long Melford, Suffolk 31 August 2005.

H. W. F. Saggs was one of the great British Orientalists who were, in a sense, the product of the Second World War and the flourishing of Middle and Far Eastern Studies following the report of the 1945-46 Scarbrough Commission. He was to become one of the outstanding Assyriologists of his generation.

Henry William Frederick Saggs was born in East Anglia in 1920. When the war began he had just commenced his theological studies at King's College London. Having graduated in 1942 he joined the Fleet Air Arm and in 1944 suffered a catastrophic air accident that left him with a broken back. He recovered, but always bore the physical signs of that injury.

Continuing his biblical and linguistic studies after the war at King's College, he began to study Akkadian cuneiform. He was awarded his PhD degree by the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London in 1953 and became Lecturer in Akkadian.

Soon, there began what seemed to be a lifelong love affair with Iraq and its people. He worked under the archaeological direction of Sir Max Mallowan at Nimrud and David Oates at Tell al-Rimah and returned many times for further research and to teach in Baghdad and Mosul universities.

By the mid-1960s, Saggs's many publications on Akkadian texts, combined with his skill in other Semitic languages (especially Hebrew, but his Arabic was good too), made him one of the leading international scholars in the field. Already a Reader at Soas, he was asked in 1966 to take the Chair of Semitic Languages in University College, Cardiff (now Cardiff University). While Assyriology had not previously had a major role in Cardiff, the college had had a series of most distinguished occupants of the chair, his immediate predecessor being Professor A.R. Johnson.

Harry Saggs made an important impact on the academic life of the college during his period as Professor from 1966 to 1983, bringing to the Department of Semitic Languages and Religious Studies a succession of young researchers, including many from Iraq who later returned to occupy important positions in that country's then excellent university system. He knew Iraq and Iraqis and he was trusted by the Iraqi university system to train (and if necessary keep firmly in order) those students sent to sit at his feet. A kind of "Saggs School" developed.

Among those who obtained doctorates under his supervision was Farouk N.H. al-Rawi, who went on to become Professor of Assyriology in Baghdad University, a post of great importance in the context of Iraqi academia. The addition to the staff of the then youthful author of this obituary led to the widening of the range of supervision provided in Cardiff to include Ugaritic and Aramaic studies and another Iraqi, Adil H. al-Jadir, later Professor of Semitic Languages in Baghdad University, gained his doctorate for a thesis on Syriac inscriptions.

The period in Cardiff appeared to be one of great fulfilment, though occasionally troubled by the politics of an institution which was even more political than most. It was a joy to work with Saggs as his junior colleague. In those days (the 1970s) there was just one permanent head of department who made the decisions and called departmental meetings whenever there was something important to report (which was not often); a new member of lecturing staff was trusted to get on with his own teaching and research without the intrusions of Quality Enhancement Officers or worry about Research Assessment criteria.

Saggs and his wife Joan lived in Llantrisant, maintaining a warm and welcoming household. He drove back and forth to Cardiff in the Rover car which had also on at least one occasion taken him and the family all the way to Baghdad. I think there was the dare-devil spirit of a frustrated fighter pilot in him: I recall him driving me along a motorway at great speed while testing his driving skill by trying to weave between the cat's-eyes.

These were, however, difficult times for Oriental Studies, with rapid expansions of student numbers leading to complaints over the paucity of students studying minority languages. There was a move towards a non-linguistic type of Religious Studies. Saggs had little sympathy with this in the university context, although he was, in fact, adept at the communication of his great learning to a non-specialist audience. He wrote a series of books designed for the layman which were enormously successful and which continue in print and in wide use. The Greatness That Was Babylon (1962, revised 1988) is a scholarly classic of the 20th century.

John F. Healey

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe