Miguel Civil, world’s leading scholar of ancient Sumerian, 1926-2019

Longtime Oriental Institute scholar revolutionized understanding of ancient language

Miguel Civil, the world’s leading expert in the earliest known written language, died on Jan. 13 at age 92. The scholar at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute was described as understanding Sumerian better than anyone since the beginning of the second millennium B.C.

The ancient Sumerians invented writing, producing hundreds of thousands of clay tablets representing a complicated cuneiform writing system, which recorded everything from religious hymns to how to grow date palms. But roughly 4,000 years ago, the great ancient civilization disappeared, and the language died with it.

When Civil arrived at the Oriental Institute in 1963, scholars still struggled with interpreting many basic aspects of the language’s grammar, lexicon and literature. Civil possessed an intuition for Sumerian that was almost magical, colleagues said; the young Catalan professor would spend the next four decades revolutionizing our understanding of ancient Sumerian life, literature, grammar and socioeconomics.

“Miguel’s academic contributions are simply monumental,” said Chris Woods, director of the Oriental Institute and fellow Sumerologist. “More than any other scholar, he shaped the modern study of Sumerology.”

Located in southern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, Sumerians developed the wheel, writing, sophisticated irrigation and agricultural techniques, sailboats, calendars and cities, as far back as 3500 B.C. The Oriental Institute, the world’s leading center for the study of ancient Near Eastern civilizations, is home to more than 6,000 cuneiform tablets recording Sumerian and Akkadian, the two primary ancient languages of Mesopotamia.

“Miguel forged new territory in the understanding of the language by looking at it in a much more sophisticated way than had ever been done before—drawing on modern linguistics and fundamental truths about how languages are organized,” Woods said.

He translated everything from hymns to agricultural texts to the earliest-known medical text, substantially transforming scholars’ picture of life in ancient Sumer. He also resurrected large swathes of Sumerian literature, said Civil’s former student Gene Gragg, a professor emeritus of Near Eastern Languages and Linguistics and former director of the Oriental Institute. “He had a rather uncanny ability for recognizing and deciphering the meaning of these texts.”

“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,” Woods said.

‘Groundbreaking’ work at Oriental Institute

Born in Sabadell, near Barcelona, in 1926, Civil joined the Abbey of Montserrat, where he received his first exposure to ancient languages in the abbey’s collection of cuneiform tablets. In 1956 he moved to Paris, where he worked in a film studio, unloading trucks, painting houses and operating elevators before deciding to pursue a graduate degree at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

Declaring Chicago a good place for studies, as it was “free of distractions” like skiing or mountain climbing, Civil joined the Oriental Institute, where he would remain from 1963-2001.

During that time, he was a member of the editorial board of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, an ambitious, multi-decade project headed at the Oriental Institute that serves as a cultural encyclopedia for Mesopotamia by comprehensively documenting dialects of Akkadian recorded in cuneiform texts. He was also one of the earliest adopters of computers in Near Eastern studies; when the first computers began to make their way into use in the 1960s, Civil taught himself programming and used the new technology to create databases and search algorithms for the vast Sumerian written record, which greatly facilitated the analysis of these texts.

One of Civil’s translations was a pair of 3,500-year-old drinking songs that described how to brew Sumerian beer. These attracted the attention of Fritz Maytag, president of the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco, who worked with Civil to produce a beer from the “recipe.”

The “Sumerian” beer did not keep very well, Civil reported, “but everybody connected with the modern reconstruction of the process seems to have enjoyed the experience.” And he had a rare chance to verify his translation: “I had the pleasure of having my translation commented on by a master brewer who saw through the difficult terminology and poetic metaphors, and confirmed the overall correctness of the translation."

Even after retiring, he continued to publish research and writings, including a new interpretation of an important early Sumerian scholarly composition that had puzzled translators for years. In the study, which Woods called “groundbreaking,” he suggested that the text represented an incipient attempt by humans to record a narrative in writing—the birth of literature.

“We are not likely to see his kind again,” Woods said.

He is survived by his wife Isabel Martin Mansilla, a fellow scholar of languages who he married in 1960; children Sofia, Caterina and son-in-law Roger; grandchildren Kira, Lauren, Michael and Rachel, and great-granddaughter Asia; as well as siblings Eulalia, Oriol and Montserrat. A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. March 18 at Bond Chapel.