Obituary: Professor Edith Porada
Monday 04 April 1994
'I THINK that my main function has been, and is, to be an intermediary between knowledge and students, colleagues and friends.' With these words Edith Porada accepted the Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement of the Archaeological Institute of America in 1977. She was still exercising this function a week before her death when she conducted a seminar with two of her students from her bed at her sister's house in Honolulu.
The field which she made her own was the study of Ancient Near Eastern seals, particularly the distinctive cylinder seals used from 3500 BC for over 3,000 years. In the words of the citation accompanying the award,
She has opened the eyes and minds of archaeologists to the wealth of information on art, architecture, material culture, religious beliefs, mythology, economic, political and intellectual life, cultural contacts, chronology and history which are to be found on the seal stones with their miniature world of signs, images, intrinsic beauty and testimony.
Porada was a pioneer and remained the leader in her field; there is no scholar of Ancient Near Eastern Art who does not owe something to her keen observation, insight and ability to communicate what she saw.
Edith Porada was born in 1912 and grew up in Vienna where she wrote her thesis on Akkadian seals (c2330-2190 BC) and obtained her doctorate in 1935 - a remarkable achievement in one so young. She moved to New York in 1938. During the next decade she catalogued the seal impressions from Nuti, near Kirkuk, in Iraq (1947), and wrote the important two-volume Corpus of the Ancient Near Eastern Seals in the Pierpont Morgan Library Collection (1948). She became honorary curator of seals and tablets in that collection in 1955 and her weekly seminars in her small room at the library were an inspiration to generations of students; the seminars of the 1993 Fall semester were, she felt, her 'best ever'. It is hoped to establish an international centre there in her memory.
After teaching for a number of years in Queen's College and working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she moved to Columbia University as Associate Professor in 1958. She was made full professor in 1963, and named the Arthur Lehman Professor in 1974. In 1983 the Edith Porada Professorship of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology was established at Columbia. She was the recipient of numerous research fellowships, and of honorary doctorates from Smith College and Columbia University. She was an Ordinary Fellow of the German Archaeological Institute, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy (1977) and the fourth recipient of the Cavalli d'Oro di San Marco (1988) awarded by the Veneto Studi e Ricerche sulle Civilita Orientale.
It was as a teacher that Edith Porada will chiefly be remembered. She loved her subject and communicated her enthusiasm: her first PhD student was wooed from life as a diplomat. She never married but her students in effect became her family and continued to be bound to her by ties of loyalty and affection long after they had flown the nest. She would take immense trouble in writing references, canvassing support, arranging introductions, organising lectures for them or reading their manuscripts. Her criticism was always constructive and she enjoyed academic debate and encouraged divergent opinions. Her interest in her students was not restricted to their academic lives but she cared for them deeply and took a great interest in their personal lives. She saw them established in leading universities and museums throughout the world, encouraged contact between their different generations and followed closely the work of her students' students. Her own academic generosity influenced all those who came into contact with her. However, she was impatient with sloppy or mediocre work and outspoken in her condemnation of academic or personal dishonesty or betrayal.
Her attitude to her work was broadly based and she saw it in a wider context. In order to provide the necessary opportunities for her students to do likewise, she organised excavations at Phlamoudhi in northern Cyprus. She was in contact with colleagues all over the world and attended congresses and symposia, rarely missing the yearly meetings of the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale. For decades she organised and chaired the Columbia University Seminar for the Archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and the Near East and invited speakers from abroad to address its meeting which brought together students and academics from all over the United States.
She wrote a number of catalogues and books, including a survey of The Art of Ancient Iran (1965), and over a hundred articles, five of them still in the press, but her death has prevented her from completing an important catalogue of the cylinder seals of the second millennium BC in the British Museum. On 23 February she was to have given the Anshen Lecture at the Frick Collection in New York; in the event, her paper (which will be published) was read in her absence. She had written in her lecture of the 'intensity of Ancient Near Eastern Art'. Through her writings she will continue to communicate this intensity to future generations.
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