Harry Saggs: An archaeologist unlocking the secrets of ancient Nimrud

12/15/2005 6:57:51 AM

In 1952, Professor Harry Saggs, who has died aged 84, was the epigraphist, or inscriptions expert, on the excavations at the Assyrian capital Nimrud, in present-day Iraq, being undertaken by the distinguished archaeologist, Max Mallowan. Saggs' work, which was mainly on the north-west palace, led to the discovery of royal archives, including the important (though difficult) original correspondence of the Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser, Shalmaneser V and Sargon II. His first editions of the most significant of these Nimrud Letters, as they came to be known, were first published in the Journal of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, and culminated in the definitive volume, The Nimrud Letters 1952, which appeared in 2001 with a total of 240 texts.

One of Britain's leading Assyriologists, Saggs was professor of semitic languages at University College, Cardiff, from 1966 until 1983, when he took slightly early retirement and returned to his native East Anglia.

He had been born into an Essex farming family and was educated at Clacton County high school. In 1939, he was accepted to read theology at King's College London, then evacuated to Bristol. He graduated in 1942, and chose to join the Fleet Air Arm, where he served as an aircraft navigator. He broke his back in a training accident near Invergordon, when his plane came down in the sea and the two other members of the crew were killed; but he continued to carry out ground duties.

Shortly afterwards, his knowledge of Hebrew led to his attachment to the police in British Mandate Palestine for 10 months, giving him his first acquaintance with the Near East. Upon returning to England at the end of 1947, he taught mathematics in a London school, and then - with a Scarbrough student- ship, provided by the government in support of oriental languages - he was able, in October 1948, to start an MTh at King's College, now back in the Strand.

During this time, Saggs began learning Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) under the mentorship of Sidney Smith. He evidently found favour, since shortly afterwards he took up an appointment as lecturer in assyriology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), and received his doctorate from there in 1953.

Although he always retained his interest in Old Testament studies (he became a lay reader at his village of Roydon, near Harlow), Saggs became an authority on ancient Assyria. Having acquired a deep affection for modern Iraq through his work at Nimrud, he went back in 1954, and, through the academic year 1956-57, taught at Baghdad University, accompanied by his wife and four daughters. His Iraqi students included Amir Suleiman, who later studied under Saggs at Soas for a doctorate in Assyriology, before returning to teach at Mosul University.

In 1965, Saggs went back to northern Iraq as epigraphist on David Oates' excavation at Tell al-Rimah, rapidly publishing the Middle Assyrian business archive which was discovered there. During his time at Cardiff, he maintained his strong links with Iraq and welcomed Iraqi graduate students. He visited, and, for a while, taught a master's course at Mosul University, publishing the Anzu tablet from Sherifkhan with the head of the arts department, his former student Amir Suleiman). On his last visit, in 1979, he and his wife travelled widely through the country.

Although, in addition to the Nimrud letters, he published specialist text editions of a wide variety of cuneiform texts, much of Saggs' creative effort went into works addressed to a wider audience, among them The Greatness that was Babylon (1962), and Everyday Life in Babylonia and Assyria (1965). His inaugural lecture at Cardiff was published in 1969 as Assyriology and the Study of the Old Testament, and in 1976 he was invited by Soas to give the Jordan lectures in Comparative Religion, published in 1978 as The Encounter with the Divine in Mesopotamia and Israel. One reviewer praised the book for its lucidity and incisiveness, and the author for his freshness and integrity.

After his retirement, Saggs remained academically active, producing The Might that was Assyria (1984), a revised edition of The Greatness that was Babylon (1988), Civilisation before Greece and Rome (1989) and Babylonians (1995). He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and of the Royal Asiatic Society, and a regular member of the governing council of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq.

A devoted family man, he is survived by his wife Joan, whom he married in 1946, and four daughters.

Henry William Frederick Saggs, Assyriologist, born December 2 1920; died August 31 2005