The Discipline of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki
Originally Published: April 22, 2009 | Posted: Friday, November 16, 2012 at 01:46 PM UT
The Discipline of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki
Assyriology is a heavily research-oriented discipline, which is taught in Finland only at the University of Helsinki (U of H). Except for the personal chair of Simo Parpola, the current professor of Assyriology, there are no research or teaching positions in the field. Accordingly, the need for academic education in Assyriology is relatively limited. It makes no sense to “produce” a large number of Assyriologists when there are no jobs to offer to them. The primary goal of Assyriological training at the U of H is hence to safeguard the continuity of high-quality Assyriological research tradition in Finland by providing a many-sided study programme to a limited number of talented and motivated Finnish students.
On the other hand, Assyriology is a very important auxiliary discipline to many fields of study such as Biblical Studies, Classics, Ancient History, History of Religion, History of Sciences, Near Eastern Archaeology, Comparative Semitics, and so on. Progress in Biblical Studies, for example, has already for many decades heavily depended on the huge and constantly growing cuneiform source material. Cuneiform records also provide long series of invaluable observational data for exact sciences such as astronomy, medicine and climatology from a period of over 3000 years, for which virtually no other written documentation is available. Recently, an extremely important linguistic breakthrough has been achieved in Helsinki linking Sumerian with the Uralic language family. Utilizing cuneiform data profitably in research is, however, not possible without a certain level of professional competence in Assyriology. For these reasons, the curriculum of Assyriology and Assyriological teaching in Helsinki has been geared to satisfy the needs of other fields of study as well. In fact, the vast majority of students who have received instruction in Assyriology at the U of H have been majors in other disciplines.
The curriculum of Assyriology was completely revised in 1993 and again in 2004 in accordance with directions and recommendations imposed by the Faculty of Arts. Two considerations of overriding importance governed the planning of the curriculum: 1) It had to guarantee the training of high-quality Assyriologists (capable of interpreting all kinds of cuneiform documents) in a timely manner, and 2) it had to make it possible for students in other disciplines to study Assyriology as a side discipline in a meaningful way. Assyriology being a combination of language and cultural studies, these objectives required that both kinds of studies be adequately represented in the curriculum, with emphasis on cuneiform studies, without which Mesopotamian culture cannot be properly understood.
The basic studies constitute a unit that guarantees the core competence in the field and can be profitably studied as a side subject. The rest of the curriculum systematically builds up the student's knowledge and skills by exposing him or her to all major languages and cultures of Mesopotamia but also leaving him/her with a fair number of personal choices in study orientation and specialisation. The degree requirements give the student a good working knowledge not only of ancient languages, but of several modern languages (English, French, German) as well. In addition, a period of study in foreign universities or museums or participation in archaeological expeditions in the Near East is mandatory for advanced students.
Lower-level degrees (BA, MA) are quite important in Assyriology in that they make it possible for students not qualified to pursue a research career to “leave the boat” before it is too late.
All instruction has since 1996 been in English except when all participants are Finns. Swedish-speaking students get their examinations in Swedish and can write essays in their mother tongue if they so wish.
Graduate education is integrated with the research of the SAA Project. Promising advanced students have been supported with stipends and given permission to use the research resources of the Project in their work; they also serve as research assistants and produce valuable research tools as part of their training. The numerous international scholarly meetings organized by the Project in Finland and abroad have provided valuable additional training for students, many of whom have attended the meetings. In addition, a number of students have gained invaluable experience participating in archaeological excavations organized by institutions cooperating with the Project.
Besides students immatriculated at the U of H, many students from other Finnish and foreign universities have studied and currently study Assyriology in Helsinki. In addition, several foreign graduate and postgraduate students as well as post-doctorate fellows have received training at the Department as recipients of CIMO (Center for International Mobility) or other grants.
Currently, two postgraduate students of Assyriology are working on their dissertations at the IAAS, and three further Assyriology students (all foreign) are working on their dissertations elsewhere under other financial arrangements.
The University of Helsinki is the only place in Finland where Assyriology can be studied as an academic discipline, and it has a long and illustrious teaching and research tradition in the field. Assyriology has been continuously taught at the University since 1891, initially as a subfield of Oriental Literatures and since 1949, after Armas Salonen's appointment as personal extraordinary professor, as an independent discipline. However, already Salonen's predecessors, Knut Tallqvist and Harri Holma, were Assyriologists of international fame, and most of Tallqvist's teaching and research as professor of Oriental Literatures was in the field of Assyriology. With its 120 years of Assyriological teaching and research, the U of H has the fifth-longest Assyriological tradition in the world.
Between 1986-2001, Helsinki developed into one of the most important centres of Assyriological research in the world. The creation of the SAA Centre of Excellence in 1997 made it possible to expand Assyriological teaching at the University considerably, so that for many years the IAAS was able to maintain an internationally competitive, diversified and productive study programme in Assyriology. In international research evaluations conducted at the U of H in 1999 and 2005, the discipline of Assyriology has consistently received the highest quality mark.
Despite these achievements and repeated appeals and recommendations of the Institute and international research evaluation committees, the Faculty of Arts has taken no steps to turn the chair of Assyriology into a regular one. This means that when the current chair-holder retires and the chair is converted into a pool professorship, there is a concrete danger that Assyriology will disappear from Finland as an academic discipline.
It may be argued that Assyriology, which studies the roots of Western civilization, is a useless field of study, which is not worth pursuing and supporting in today's Finland. If so, it may be asked why the study of ancient history, classical antiquity and the Bible, for example, continue to be supported with far greater resources, while their existence and relevance are never questioned or jeopardized. Each of these disciplines is represented at several Finnish universities and each of them commands a multiplicity of regular professorships, lecturerships and assistantships. Yet all of them are more limited in time coverage and scope than Assyriology, and in contrast to Assyriology (which is a dynamically developing field with a vast and rapidly growing source material), their documentary basis has not significantly increased during the past 500 years.
The current precarious status of Assyriology in Finland, which stands it no proportion to its achievements, necessarily has a demoralizing effect on junior Finnish Assyriologists, who now face the prospect of a future with no academic positions at all in the field. Many of them have already been forced to leave the field or the country. Granting Assyriology a permanent status at the University is the only way of safeguarding the future of the discipline and maintaining the high level of Assyriological teaching and research in Finland.