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Five questions to Prof. Frans Wiggermann

An interview with our visiting lecturer, a renowned Assyriologist from the Netherlands.

1. Why did you become an Assyriologist?

Most people become Assyriologists because of the Bible connection. But what I wanted to do when I started to study was language history. I thought that Indo-European languages had received their share of attention already and I simply wanted to do something else, something new and worthwhile of study. I started to follow Hebrew, Sumerian, Babylonian languages and so on, but soon it became clear to me that historical semantics doesn´t really exist as a profession. It is not really a thriving field. I picked Mesopotamia as my main interest, and since I had always been interested in languages, so this was a good choice for me. It is complicated, interesting and there is still much to do- the field is in its infancy. And in relation to the languages, I became gradually fascinated by the culture as well.

What are you currently working on?

We had a project in Balikh basin, where we found a site with some 400 middle-Assyrian tablets. My role in the project is to date and edit the tablets. I´m trying to get as much information from the tablets as possible – about the agriculture of the community, about the administrative system, about the lay of the land.


Do you hope to return to Syria one day?

Of course, I still have my panama hat there in Sabi Abyad, and I want it back.


2. You are regarded as a world renowned expert in demonology- what does that entail?


Well, it all comes in one package - the religion of ancient civilizations – which is my other big interest besides the languages. In Mesopotamian religion, there were the great gods, of course, but I don´t like the great gods so much. They are bossy. Moreover, they also tend to be uninformative in the sources- because they represent everything, they are the greatest, the biggest, and the strongest. Hence my attention has always been drawn to the little figures, the more specialized figures. With these “demons”, there was much more room for expression, change and development. I believe that the role of the world of divinities and the whole theology of Mesopotamia is primarily a reflection of the philosophy of their life and state, the people´s morals, opinions and so on. This all is mirrored in the theology. It is important to understand that the written sources have their biases and limitations, so I also focus on iconography, which in itself is very interesting. The images are partially able to fulfill the missing gaps and enable us to look at the situation from a different angle. They are well datable which is very helpful.

In Mesopotamian religion, the term “demon” had a different meaning that it has today. For example, in Greek language the word “daemon” meant lower god and it was neutral, not negative. But it can also be used for evil beings. There is no sharp distinction in Mesopotamian religion between good and evil spirits.

3. You had a public lecture at PANE with Dr. Nieuwenhuyse about depictions of the so-called “wild men” on Neolithic pottery. Can some of these images be viewed as reflection of some of the beliefs of the people who made them? Can we interpret them?


These Neolithic figures with long flowing hair, depicted dancing and moving- the “wild men” as we called them, are not easy to interpret as the image itself developed over time and because we do not have any written sources from the period. 

In my opinion, this is more a type than a depiction of single beings- an image which is produced by the fear of civilized people living in their early villages of the strange, dangerous world outside. From certain moment onwards, Ubaid and Uruk periods, we see this image developed continuously and we also witness appearance of new, similar figures- for example demons and spirits.

4. PANE students know you as their lector of Sumerian and Old Babylonian languages. Studying a dead language is naturally way more challenging than a modern one… How does it differ?

First of all, the inspiration is completely different. You learn a modern language to read literature, or to talk to your girlfriend who is from god knows where. You are not primarily interested in grammar, the writing system, structure of the dictionary, etc. You can learn and use the language immediately, make mistakes and improve on the go.

An ancient language, on the other hand, is an unfinished product- we have to reconstruct it all the time.  Even such great compendia as Chicago Series Dictionary, to which I have contributed, are never truly finished, because we learn new information all the time and then the dictionaries need to be adjusted.

Photographs by: Dominika Miarková

5. For an insider, it might look like a silly question, but – what does it take to translate a cuneiform tablet? What do you work with and how you proceed?

Well, as for the time it takes, it depends on how big the tablet is and also on the type of the text. Literary texts, usually written in six columns, take more time than simple letters or just a list of personnel. Most tablets that we find are broken, so first thing you do is you try to find matching pieces to put the tablet back together. Another step is transcription – the tablets can be damaged on the surface and not always is it possible to read them immediately.

You can however draw what you see, with all the little detail like cracks or smudged places and the clearer version might help you break through and start to understand the text. Every word you decipher tells you more and more about the text; you start by picking up just a few signs, then words, then eventually you understand a whole sentence, and finally the text as a whole.

The hardest part is finding those key signs that help you understand others or reconstruct missing pieces of text. Sometimes, you have to choose one correct reading of the sign depending on the overall meaning of the text. The process can be frustrating, so you need to arm yourself with a lot of patience.


Mr. Wiggermann was interviewed by Lenka Tkáčová.


Frans Wiggermann is an Assyriologist from the Netherlands. He graduated in Semitic languages with a focus on Assyriology at Amsterdam's Free University, where he continued to teach for many years. Prof. Wiggermann also collaborated with other major universities: Chicago, Berlin and Gottingen, Leiden, and with the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In 1986 he was habilitated professor. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Leiden and University of Amsterdam, and is recognized as a worldwide expert for Semitic languages, Iconography and Demonology of the Ancient Near East.


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