Miguel Civil, 1926-2019

Tributes paid to a scholar who revolutionised study of the world’s earliest known written language

March 7, 2019
Miguel Civil

A professor who made a “monumental” contribution to Sumerology – the study of Sumerian language and culture – has died.

Miguel Civil was born in Sabadell, near Barcelona, on 7 May 1926 and joined the Abbey of Montserrat, where the cuneiform tablets in the library first alerted him to the nature of ancient languages. After moving to Paris in 1956, he worked in a film studio before deciding to take a course in Sumerology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. He soon embraced his new academic calling and served as an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania (1958-63) before spending the rest of his career as professor of Sumerology at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (1964-2001).

Based in what is now Iraq, the Sumerians were the inventors of writing. Chicago’s Oriental Institute holds over 6,000 cuneiform tablets in both Sumerian and Akkadian. Yet even in 1963, scholars had limited understanding of their vocabulary and grammar. Professor Civil, who has been described as understanding Sumerian better than anyone since the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, transformed the situation. He was a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, pioneered the introduction of computing into Near Eastern studies and translated large quantities of texts ranging across agriculture, medicine and religion.

“Miguel’s academic contributions are simply monumental,” said Chris Woods, current director of the Oriental Institute. “More than any other scholar, he shaped the modern study of Sumerology…Sumerian literary and scholarly texts rely on a complex web of intercultural connections, metaphorical reasoning and arcane knowledge known only to the scribal elite, and Miguel had this wonderful ability to elucidate these subtle connections and unpack them.”

Among Professor Civil’s many translations were two songs describing how to brew Sumerian beer. These intrigued Fritz Maytag, president of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, so they joined forces to try out the “recipe”. The cider-like results of this unusual test, Professor Civil reported later, proved quite palatable, enough to “confirm the overall correctness of the translation”.

Well into retirement, he continued to break new ground in his research, even arguing that one enigmatic Sumerian text marked the beginning of literature. He also published two major monographs, The Early Dynastic Practical Vocabulary A (Archaic HAR-ra A) (2008) and The Lexical Texts in the Schøyen Collection (2010).

Professor Civil died of a pulmonary infection on 13 January and is survived by his wife – fellow linguist Isabel Martin Mansilla – two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.


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