Obituary: Thorkild Jacobsen

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The Independent Online
Thorkild Jacobsen, Assyriologist: born Copenhagen 7 June 1904; Professor, University of Chicago 1946-63; Professor of Assyriology, Harvard University 1963- 74; married 1927 Rigmor Schroll (died 1947), 1949 Joanne Switzer (deceased), 1966 Katryna P. Hadley; died Lebanon, New Hampshire 2 May 1993.

MODERN studies of ancient cultures progress in epochs. The heroic age of Assyriology, which spanned the 19th century, saw the gradual elucidation of the cuneiform writing system, and the early excavations in Mesopotamia. In the succeeding second age archaeological techniques were refined, histories written from the period of the first cities (c3000 BC) to Alexander the Great (323 BC), dictionaries and grammars compiled, and literatures pieced together and translated. The long scholarly life of Thorkild Jacobsen spanned the whole of that second age and made an immense and at the same time profoundly personal and original contribution to all its achievements.

Born into a Danish academic family, Jacobsen had been interested in ancient Mesopotamia since his teens. He published his first article in 1927 ('I was paid 20 shillings for it'), in the same year that he completed his MA in Semitic Philology (including Akkadian, Sumerian, Arabic and Hebrew) at Copenhagen University. With a scholarship he transferred to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, where contrary to his original plans (following the unavailability of his expected supervisors) he wrote a Ph D thesis on a Syriac commentary on the book of Job.

From 1930 to 1936, a period which he looked back to as the most exciting in his life, he worked in Iraq as epigrapher of the Oriental Institute Iraq Expedition for Henri Frankfort, with his wife Rigmor as archaeological photographer. This included work at the Assyrian capital city Khorsabad as well as at the sites in the Diyala valley east of Baghdad. Jacobsen and the British archaeologist Seton Lloyd, together with their wives, travelled up into the Kurdish mountains to excavate Sennacherib's spectacular aqueduct at Jerwan, built to bring fresh mountain water to Nineveh. Jacobsen personally directed the excavation of Ishchali (the final publication of which he brought out in 1990).

Returning to Chicago, he submitted his brilliant reconstruction of The Sumerian King List (1939) for the D Phil degree at Copenhagen. He recorded that 'as usual the Copenhagen newspapers reported the defence of a doctoral thesis on their front page' - commenting on the tails and white tie of OE Ravn, his revered first teacher, now the official examiner - at the very time when Hitler was invading Poland and the Second World War was about to break out. Although absorbed in the past, Jacobsen's work was often sensitive to currents of the times. In the essay 'The assumed conflict between the Sumerians and Semites in early Mesopotamian history' (1939) he argued that there could be no scientific basis for any discernible racial distinctions or ethnic conflict; there was only local political diversity. Later, stimulated by the Egyptologist John A. Wilson to study further the institutions of ancient Near Eastern societies, he fathered, in influential articles on 'Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia' (1943) and 'Early Political Development in Mesopotamia' (1957), a field of study on his beloved Sumerians. The intellectual climate created by Wilson and the Frankforts also produced the chapters in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946).

In 1946 Jacobsen became full Professor and took over as Director of the Oriental Institute in Chicago, and in 1948 became Dean of the Division of the Humanities. For a while he was an editor of the great Chicago Assyrian Dictionary project, but predictably it was the Sumerian language that absorbed him more. His innovative and detailed study of its complex grammar was reflected in a series of publications and an interest maintained until the last months of his life. His essay 'About the Sumerian Verb' (1965) bears the superscription, taken from Fitzgerald:

A hair perhaps divides the False and True -

Yes; and a single Alif were the clue -

Could you but find it.

After the war it was possible to return to archaeological fieldwork in Iraq. Apart from restarting excavations at the Sumerian cultural capital Nippur in 1948 as a joint Chicago and Pennsylvania venture, Jacobsen himself undertook, with the American archaeologist Vaughn Crawford and the Iraqi archaeologist Fuad Safar, the survey of central Sumer (1953) as well as other survey projects. Already in the Diyala in 1936 he had introduced to the Near East the technique of ceramic surface survey, the dating of ancient sites by systematic study of potsherds surviving on the surface. This led in time to a study of ancient canal systems, 'The Waters of Ur' (1960), and a project to study the possible effects during the early second millennium BC of salinisation on the fertility of the soil.

In 1963 Jacobsen moved to Harvard to be Professor of Assyriology. In Toward the Image of Tammuz (1970) a collection of his most important articles was brought together. Colleagues recognised his wide-ranging achievements with a volume of important studies in 1974, the year of his (merely official) retirement. In the years that followed a series of visiting professorships and fellowships took him to many other universities, including London and Oxford. Always wearing an old-fashioned cravat, a tall, stooping figure, of great personal charm, he would appear unannounced in the doorway of one's office with an invitation to lunch (preceded by Martinis). His generous friendship especially to younger colleagues was legendary, and the Jacobsens frequently entertained academic visitors at their country home in New Hampshire. Jacobsen was distinguished by his readiness to take enormous pains, and willingness to engage with anyone: the only qualification was that one should share his own enthusiasm for ancient Mesopotamia, especially the Sumerians. Letters, even casual inquiries, would be answered with sheafs of closely written notes.

With the essay 'Toward the Image of Tammuz' (1961), the first of several important studies of Sumerian religion, he had created a picture of the youthful shepherd-god of such imaginative vividness and persuasive authority that it seems to the reader as if the Sumerians themselves speak. His preoccupation with the theme culminated in a full-scale treatment, The Treasures of Darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion (1976).

For years he worked closely with Samuel Noah Kramer, who was piecing together the fragments of Sumerian religious and narrative poetry. The two did not always agree in their interpretations, as might be expected from two very different personalities. Comparing the state of the literature today with work then, Jacobsen recalled the sense of enormous frustration in working with unfitted fragments only: 'Nothing made sense, or it broke off just before it would have done so.' Painful indeed for a scholar part poet, part visionary. His lifelong passion to communicate the, to him, almost religious experience of Sumerian literature bore fruit in The Harps That Once . . . Sumerian poetry in translation (1987). Ambitious and striking translations were always defended with a battery of detailed philological evidence drawn from every period. For him Sumerian poetry was the most profound pleasure of all: 'The joy at the deeply moving beauty of the great Lament for the Destruction of Ur is paralleled by few great poems and would alone justify a lifetime's devotion.' A lifetime's devotion was Thorkild Jacobsen's own offering.

(Photograph omitted)