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.