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University of Chicago’s Miguel Civil, top expert on ancient Sumerian, dead at 92

University of Chicago professor Miguel Civil was a leading expert on the ancient Sumerian language.

University of Chicago professor Miguel Civil was a leading expert on the ancient Sumerian language. He also helped Anchor Brewing re-create a Sumerian beer. | University of Chicago

Miguel Civil was a linguistic time traveler. The University of Chicago professor was considered the world’s leading expert on Sumerian, an ancient language of Mesopotamia.

“Nobody has understood Sumerian as well as Miguel Civil since the beginning of the second millennium B.C.,” according to Chris Woods, director of the university’s Oriental Institute, who said Mr. Civil was “the greatest living Sumerologist.”

Mr. Civil died Jan. 13 at the University of Chicago Hospitals, according to the school, which said he was 92 and had a pulmonary infection.

Colleagues said his command of the intricacies of Sumerian culture revolutionized translation of the language, which was inscribed on clay tablets with a reed stylus and which flourished in Sumer — what’s now southern Iraq — from about 3,200 B.C. to 1,800 B.C.

Professor Miguel Civil. | University of Chicago

In addition to the first known written language, the Sumerians might also have invented the wheel. And some of the world’s first cities rose in Sumer.

The Sumerians were “great, great bureaucrats,” Woods said, producing hundreds of thousands of tablets with cuneiform — wedge-shaped characters — with which they recorded everything from business deals to the movement of animals and grain.

Mr. Civil could decode their reports on the region’s irrigation methods, agriculture and medical practices. He also understood their colloquialisms, jokes, riddles and proverbs.

His translation on lackadaisical laborers appeared in the University of Pennsylvania Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine: “At harvest time, your work does not match your appetite! You disappear from work, and they find you gossiping in the market place.”

“He just had an intuition, a type of genius that allowed him to make connections,” Woods said. “He was a pioneer in using modern linguistics to understand the language, to decipher it.”

Professor Miguel Civil (left), an expert on translating Sumerian texts, worked on an ancient beer recipe with Anchor brewmaster Fritz Maytag (right) to create Ninkasi beer. | Anchor Brewing

The professor even knew about Sumerian beer-making, Woods said, thanks to having deciphered drinking songs involving Ninkasi, a beer goddess known as “the Lady Who Fills the Mouth.”

The translation fermented into the recreation of a 3,800-year-old recipe for Sumerian beer, according to a 1991 publication of the Oriental Institute in which Civil wrote his work had “attracted the attention of Fritz Maytag, the president of the Anchor Brewing Company of San Francisco,” makers of Anchor Steam.

Maytag traveled to Chicago to interview Mr. Civil. The brewmaster said that when he questioned the professor about whether there was a dictionary to consult about Sumerian, “He looked up at me, and he said, ‘I am the dictionary.’ ”

Mr. Civil, Maytag and Solomon Katz, a University of Pennsylvania bioanthropologist, ended up working together to create Ninkasi Beer, which was served at a meeting of micro-brewers. “I called it the beer that won’t die,” Maytag said.

Professor Miguel Civil (left) and Fritz Maytag (right), then-chief of Anchor Brewing, huddled to create a beer based on the University of Chicago professor’s translation of ancient Sumerian drinking songs. | Anchor Brewing

Though the beer didn’t keep well, “Everybody connected with the modern reconstruction of the process seems to have enjoyed the experience,” Mr. Civil wrote, including the taste, which they likened to hard cider.

Ninkasi beer, made by Anchor Brewing, was inspired by Miguel Civil’s translation of Sumerian drinking songs. It was served at a micro-brewers’ conference. | Anchor Brewing

“It is difficult to think of any other scholar, in this or any other field, whose range and depth can be compared to Civil’s, from his first publication [in 1960] on Sumerian medical prescriptions to his many contributions on matters as diverse as grammar, literature, agriculture, economic developments, royal inscriptions,” according to the preface of a book that other scholars dedicated to him on his 90th birthday, “The First Ninety Years: a Sumerian Celebration in Honor of Miguel Civil.”  A “prodigious photographic memory. . . .enabled him to join fragments of broken tablets, which were often housed at museums in different countries.”

“There is hardly an aspect of the Mesopotamian textual record that Miguel Civil has not immeasurably advanced our understanding of,” wrote Paul Delnoro, a contributor to the book who is an associate professor of Assyriology at Johns Hopkins University.

Mr. Civil, who lived in Hyde Park, was born near Barcelona in the city of Sabadell. His first language was Catalan Spanish. As a young man, he studied at an abbey in Montserrat, Spain that had a collection of tablets inscribed with ancient languages, the book said, and he started teaching himself the basics of Sumerian. In 1955, he left the abbey for Paris, where he earned a graduate degree from the Ecole Pratique des Hutes Etudies.

He had an opportunity to work at the University of California in Berkeley  but “chose Chicago precisely for a climate that calls for life indoors and its inherent lack of distractions — as he says, ‘There are not even any mountains to ski or climb,’ ” according to “The First Ninety Years.” He joined the Oriental Institute in 1963.

The university said he is survived by his former wife Isabel Martin Mansilla, with whom he remained close; his children Sofia and Caterina; siblings Eulalia, Oriol and Montserrat; four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. A memorial service for Mr. Civil will be held at 4 p.m. March 18 at the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel.