Episode 29. Elena Devecchi, Stefano de Martino, Walther Sallaberger. Virtual assyriology: RAI 67,Turin: Transcript

0:14  JT

Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:31  JT

The highlight of the year in the world of Assyriology is a conference called the Rencontre. It’s a tradition that stretches back 70 years already. A huge proportion of the world’s specialists come together to discuss research, share news, and make connections. The pandemic doesn’t allow us to meet in person, so for the first time, the Rencontre is going virtual. That poses challenges, but also offers opportunities. What can we expect?

1:03  JT

Organising a Rencontre is a lot of work. Why do hosts volunteer for that? What’s the focus of this year’s Rencontre? How did it come to be where it is, and what will its legacy be there?

1:17  JT

It’s impossible these days (since 2003, that is) to discuss the Rencontre without talking about the body that supports it—the IAA. Who are they? What do they do? And what role do they have in the Rencontre?

1:36  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

1:50  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

1:57  ED

My name is Elena Devecchi. I teach history of the Ancient Near East at the University of Turin. I’m a specialist in the late Bronze Age, and especially Akkadian texts from Anatolia and Syria, but also from Kassite Babylonia. And I’m also in the organising committee of the 67th Rencontre that will be held in July in Turin.

2:23  SDM

Hello, my name is Stefano De Martino. I teach at the University of Turin in Italy. And I am a Hittitologist. So my field of research and teaching also is the Hittite civilisation. And I am one of the organisers of the 67th Rencontre Assyriologique in Torino this year in July.

2:48  JT

Could you explain what the Rencontre is, please?

2:51  SDM

The Rencontre Assyriologique is an international conference, which is held every year in a different city. And it has a very long tradition. There are scholars from different fields: philology, history, and archaeology of the whole region of the ancient Near East. And for researchers and for students is a wonderful experience, because you can listen to a lot of papers all over the possible topics.

3:25  JT

What do people talk about?

3:28  ED

Every year the Rencontre has a different topic, and this year we chose eating and drinking in the ancient Near East.

3:38  JT

Why did you choose that topic?

3:40  ED

First of all, we thought that that topic would fit very well with the Rencontre in Italy. And that’s what people tend to associate with Italy–good food. So we thought that it would be a nice way to combine the topic of the Rencontre  with the location of the Rencontre in Italy. But also the real reason … the serious reason … was that we thought that that would be a topic that covers different disciplines and different types of data and material in our field, from philology to archaeology, from proper Mesopotamia to greater Mesopotamia–so Anatolia and Syria. It allows you to talk about everything from economy, production, storage, and cooking of food, with the different sets of data, but also about medicine, religion and literature. You find food and drinks, basically in any source, both textual and also archaeological. And we were aiming at including as many colleagues as possible from archeology, assyriology, hittitology and all the different fields and subfields of ancient Near Eastern Studies.

4:59  JT

How did the Rencontre come to be in Turin this year?

5:04  SDM

I have to say that I always loved to attend the Rencontre. My first Rencontre was in 1986 in Paris. And I was very young. I was a former student. So I couldn’t imagine that we have organised a Rencontre. But I lived a wonderful experience, because I collaborated to the Rencontre in Venice in 1997. And at that time, I realised that I would have liked to host a Rencontre in the university in the city where I was teaching. But at that time, I was teaching in Trieste and I didn’t have colleagues in the other fields of the ancient Near East, so it was impossible.

5:48  SDM

In 2008, I was called by the University of Torino. And my condition was that the university had to support me in opening chairs of assyriology and history of the ancient Near East. Because I felt the need of working with colleagues in assyriology. Now we have succeeded. We have Professor Elena Devecchi for the history of the ancient Near East, Professor Maurizio Viano for the Sumerian language and literature … for assyriology. And we have also two colleagues in Ancient Near Eastern archaeology: Professor Vito Messina and Professor Lippolis. So this was the right time for planning a Rencontre in Torino. And we applied. We were very glad that then our application was accepted. And we started working to this Rencontre. Unfortunately, the COVID epidemic prevented us from hosting all the colleagues in Torino, in the way we would have wished. Anyhow, a virtual conference better than nothing, and we are very glad that we can organise it.

7:01  SDM

For the University of Torino, it’s a great experience, because I mean Torino is in a peripheral region of Italy. In some way is a new university for philology, and for the history in the ancient Near East. So it’s important for us to present to the international community, not only as among the scholars who work in this field, but as a team … an university team … with different competences. So for us, it is a great opportunity. And we do hope that all the colleagues will appreciate our work for the organisation of this Rencontre.

7:47  JT

It’s obvious why the Rencontre is virtual this year. But how do you go about making that happen?

7:54  SDM

Yes. First of all, we have to say that we tried to host the Rencontre in person until the last September. I am very optimistic as a person. So I always assume that the situation will get better and better. But the colleagues and I mean also just reading the newspaper or watching the television programs. And then we realised that it would have been impossible. So we tried to find the best solution. There were two solutions: a conference in live, but a five days conference is quite impossible in live. And there is also problem of different day time in Europe, in the States and mostly on the eastern coast of the States. We didn’t want that the colleagues from Berkeley wake up at three o’clock in the night for attending the lectures. So we thought that the best way was recording all the papers and loading on the platform that will be available from the 10th of June until the end of September. And just having the question and answer sessions in live. So we started with this organisation, which was not easy. But I hope that it works. At the moment, it’s working.

9:21  JT

What can we expect from the first ever virtual Rencontre?

9:27  ED

Well, it is first time for us and for our field in general, that the Rencontre will be held virtually. And we are certainly doing our best to make it as enjoyable and open as possible. All the papers will be available to the participants from the 12th of July until the 16th of July. And at that time, there will be the live Q&A sessions and also the keynote lectures on the first day. We are trying to, I’d say, concentrate all the Q&A sessions in the afternoon or late morning until the early evening, in order to make it possible for our colleagues in the States to attend the live sessions. But at least everybody will be able to listen to the papers whenever they want to. Because they are simply there on the platform available to everybody.

10:29  ED

And we will probably have parallel sessions. So just as in a real Rencontre. So, there will be at least two parallel sessions … two virtual rooms … where people will meet and discuss the papers. So there will be chair persons as in a live conference. And we hope that that will be a moment as in a real Rencontre where people can meet and discuss the content of their papers, share ideas, and so we are trying to make it as much as possible as a real conference. So there will be also workshops. We have about 120 papers. So it will be pretty big, with sessions that are devoted to the main topic of the Rencontre, ranging from food production and consumption to rituality, banquet, commensality, in medicine, and in literature. We will have a session about new perspectives and study of the ancient Near East. So basically featuring the projects that are going on, especially those which are linked to digital humanities. And also workshops. So we have four workshops, as well.

11:58  ED

And there will be as during the normal Rencontre, the IAA general meeting, that will be hosted on our platform too. And after that, people will be able to use the platform to access the papers until September, as Stefano mentioned. So even those who didn’t have time to listen to them, and to watch the videos before the Rencontre, or want to go back to the content of the papers after the live discussions, can access the platform.

12:34  JT

Do you think that will change the way people engage with the papers?

12:38  ED

We hope so. {LAUGHS} We hope that that could compensate in a way for the fact that people will not be able to meet in person, but at least they will have time to think about the papers and ideas and suggestions that are presented in the papers and come to the discussion with also some suggestions. And perhaps it will make the discussion more lively. We’d hope so.

13:06  JT

There are pros and cons to a virtual conference, aren’t there?

13:10  SDM

Yeah, this kind of organisation, indeed they present problems, because the colleagues have to record their lecture about one month before the time. I mean, the schedule of time, if the Rencontre were held in person at the opening at the 12th of July, the first lectures would have been there. But now the deadline for recording is the end of May. So it’s about five weeks before and we have to say that colleagues have been very kind accepting this reduced time. The good thing is that usually the Rencontre has two or three or even four parallel sessions. So if you are in a room and you cannot attend the conference, in the other rooms in this way, if you want, if you have the time–but I mean, everyone has more than three months–can theoretically listen to all the papers. And in this way no-one misses anything.

14:17  SDM

I assume that the conference and workshops in person will go on, because it’s something different being all together. Because it’s not only the time of the sessions and lectures, but the colleagues meet outside the conference for lunch, for dinner, for a drink. And this is something that we miss very much. It’s very sad, but there was no solution. But we promise that we will invite the colleagues in different occasions. I cannot think of planning another Rencontre soon in Torino. But we will organise other conferences, and we will be able to welcome all the colleagues in the way we could have expected before the COVID epidemic. I would like to add that we have organised a wonderful reception in the Egyptian Museum, that would have been open just for the scholars of the Rencontre from 6pm until midnight. So I mean it would have been wonderful, but we will do the same thing on another occasion.

15:33  JT

The informal parts of the conference–the coffee breaks, the lunches, the receptions–they’re fun, but they’re also an important part of the academic routine, especially for early career researchers building their networks. No one has really worked out how to replicate that part of a conference in virtual form, have they?

15:53  SDM

Yes, we are organising two virtual rooms, just for meeting, and then the people that want to just to talk each other or in group. So we are not yet sure that it is possible, but I hope so. And so this is a solution. Of course, you are perfectly right. Every time I am in the Rencontre, I can speak with my old friends. But I can also know and meet the younger people. And I’m talking with them about projects … about things to do together. So this is something that we miss. Of course, we could also have cancelled the Rencontre in Torino, but I think that two years without the Rencontre would be very bad mostly for the younger researcher who needs to present the work to be known. So we prefer the virtual conference than nothing. And next year in Frankfurt, we will be all together in Frankfurt and Mainz. And so we will drink a lot and eat a lot. Also, for the two years that we missed.

17:04  ED

And at the same time, what is certainly a bad side in general, to miss all the occasions of meeting in person, especially thinking of the younger people and younger students who might not have a lot of funds. Virtual rencontre is less expensive for them to attend than having to travel to Turin, and pay for an accommodation, pay for some food. So we hope that at least younger people will take this opportunity to participate and attend to the conference, since they still have to pay a registration fee, but basically, that’s the only cost that they will have to pay for.

17:48  JT

You mentioned that in a way the virtual format makes it more inclusive for early career researchers. There are also other categories of colleagues who find it difficult to attend: those based far away, those from the Middle East, those without full time jobs, for example. Have you noticed an increase in registration among those groups?

18:09  ED

Perhaps so. Yes, I mean, the registration is still going on. So we don’t have yet the final data. But I do have the impression that we have perhaps more younger people than otherwise. And also, yes, we have quite a few people from the Middle East. So in general, those that might find it too expensive to attend such a big conference that goes on for a week–and that requires traveling from further away–might indeed appreciate this solution.

18:48  JT

The ICAANE that took place recently made recordings of all the lectures freely available for a period of several weeks. Are you able to do that too?

18:58  SDM

All the lectures are available on the platform, but just for the registered people. So it’s not in open access. I mean, this was one of the condition that the organising teams gave us, and I don’t know whether it is possible to do something else. We will ask for it.

19:21  ED

Yeah, we can think about it afterwards. After  September. Since the papers will be available to all the participants at least until September. We’ll see if it’s possible and consider that possibility.

19:37  SDM

And of course, we will publish the proceedings of this conference. And together with Elena, we have already decided that it will be an open access publication and in this way it will be available to anyone without any payment.

19:53  ED

And talking about publications, we will also have a virtual book exhibition, as in the real Rencontre. That will be hosted on the website of the conference, where publishing houses will publish their catalogues of special offers for the RAI participants, as we’re used to.

20:15  SDM

Yeah, we tried to propose virtually everything that it was in person … in the reality in the Rencontre. It is an experiment. You know, it’s the first time that the Rencontre is held virtually. So we have to see if the colleagues really will like it.

20:36  JT

What do you think the legacy of the Rencontre will be for Turin?

20:41  SDM

For the University of Torino, it is a great opportunity, because–I think for the first time–the University of Torino presents internationally as a place where we have different chairs, different fields, that cover mostly the philological and the historical fields. The University of Torino has a great tradition in Ancient Near Eastern archaeology, starting from the 60s of last century, mostly in Iraq and Iran. But for unknown reasons, they never opened chairs of assyriology, of philology. And so I mean it’s a great opportunity. And I have to say that I am the senior colleague. Because all the other my colleagues are much younger. And so for them, I think it’s great to present themselves to the world at the Rencontre. And the University of Torino is very proud of that. Also, the Ministry for Foreign Office is supporting this conference at the Egyptian Museum. So it’s an important night for all of us.

21:51  ED

Yes, and it’s also a way for us to bring to life all our international contacts and network. Unfortunately, it would have been great for our students, of course, to meet in person colleagues from all over the world, but they will attend a virtual conference. I think it is nonetheless an important sign we gave to them, showing the importance of having international contacts, and these occasions to share ideas … to share knowledge. So it would have been better in every possible way to hold it here. Because we also think that Turin is a lovely city, and we would have liked to show it to colleagues from abroad. It is lesser-known, less famous, than other Italian cities. But my experience is that everybody who visits Turin is then very positively surprised. So we would have liked to show this to our colleagues. But as Stefano said, we’ll find other occasions to invite people and come here.

23:01  JT

It’s the first of many events you think?

23:03  SDM

We hope so. {LAUGHS}

23:05  ED

Yes, well certainly it’s the beginning of something, rather than the end.{LAUGHS}

23:15  SDM

In 2024, we have to organise the melammu conference in Torino. It’s something that now we are forgetting, because we are in the middle of the storm of the Rencontre. But next year we will start to think of that.

23:33  JT

What’s melammu?

23:35  SDM

Melammu is another international conference, mostly referring to philological and historical topics of the Ancient Near East. And it’s organised in different cities. There is also a committee and we have to decide the topic of the Turin melammu. Well, melammu also was not organised for two years because of the COVID. So everything is going slower than it was usually. That is another challenge that we will have in Torino.

24:13  JT

How can we find information about this Rencontre?

24:16  ED

There is a Facebook page for the Rencontre. You can find the 67th Rencontre Assyriologique on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. There is a website where we post all the news, the updated versions of the program. With a list of the presented papers and the list of speakers. We will publish the abstracts, so people can choose what they’re interested in from the abstracts. And from there you will find the link to the platform for the papers … for the recordings.

24:51  JT

Thank you very much.

24:52  ED

Thank you.

24:54  SDM

Well, thank you. It was a pleasure for us. Thank you very much.

25:06  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?

25:13  WS

Hi, hello. My name is Walther Sallaberger. I am an assyriologist working on philology of cuneiform languages, and teaching at Munich University. And here I am not as a teacher of Sumerian or Akkadian, but here in my function as current president of the International Association of Assyriology.

25:36  JT

What is the IAA?

25:38  WS

The Constitution explains it in one sentence. The International Association of Assyriology is a non-profit organisation, which serves as a platform for scholars working in cuneiform studies and Near Eastern archaeology. It is determined to encourage and promote the study of these fields in all their aspects on an international basis. What is most difficult in the name of International Association of Assyriology is the term “assyriology”. And it has been hotly debated in our group and beyond. Assyriology is an old fashioned term, therefore difficult to be understood by outsiders. And internal in the field, it has been used to mean philology. And therefore, there’s always the combination with archaeology or with other fields. Assyriology was used as a term because Assyria, the northern of Iraq, was the first region to be researched. And from the inscriptions found there, we have the name of Assyriology. Two journals in our field are called Zeitschrift fuer Assyriologie und Vorderasiatiche Archaeologie or Revue d’assyriologie et d’archéologie orientale. So Assyriology as a term has largely vanished from our universities, but it is still present in the field as an old fashioned term.

27:11  WS

Now, from the beginnings onwards, research was always combined with the archaeological investigations both on the ground by excavations and surveys, or in the museums and universities, including art historical approaches. For the historical periods when cuneiform was written–the three millennia before the Christian era–research always depends on both archaeological and written data. And therefore, there is still this discussion about what assyriology is in the name of our association. But we have chosen this traditional name, and take this as all inclusive. I think this allows more freedom to define what we include. And we can follow current trends in research.

28:02  WS

And I think this is very important for an association–to have all the recent and new developments included. So by keeping the term assyriology, we have avoided the renaming of many of our departments to Ancient Near Eastern Studies. And I’m happy so, because, for example, our Japanese colleagues teach in the department of Western history. And to refer to two disciplines only–philology and archaeology–is not applicable in Iraq, a core region in our field, where philologists are members in the archaeology department, and many other such combinations exist. Therefore, I think the old fashioned term assyriology is very useful as an umbrella term, to include all specialists internationally working on the regions and the areas where cuneiform writing was used as a historical period.

29:05  WS

I think the inclusive character that I’ve stressed with the name is most important for our association. We include scholars from all countries from the world. And it’s good to see how actually our members come from literally everywhere. And our association, as I said before, encourages different approaches, and again scholars of most diverse specialisations contribute in to these discussions. And so we meet annually, and “we” means several hundred participants, which allows a fruitful exchange and a most welcome input of new ideas.

29:47  JT

What does the IAA actually do?

29:50  WS

First and foremost purpose of the IAA is to support and facilitate the Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, which is a regular congress of all those concerned with the Middle East in the cuneiform era. This is an international congress, which is held annually. And this combination is absolutely unique and very rare in the world of scholarship. Because usually such large congresses are held more rarely, or they are more specialised. With this all-encompassing approach and to include as many members as possible every year, there’s an extremely good communication within the field. People know each other from different countries, from different institutions, and also from different specialisations. And this allows a very stimulating atmosphere of discussions and contributions.

30:54  WS

The congress, the Rencontre Assyriologique is at the centre. But of course, there are other purposes included. And I would only like to single out a very important part that we have–the prizes and subsidies program that includes and showcases early career researchers. So we have an annual prize for the best dissertation in the field since 2017, with a high number of high quality dissertations. And we think and hope that the prize will help each winner in his or her career. But also it showcases in the IAA, what we do as assyriologists–which different fields we studied, what are the current topics that have been studied? In a similar role, one can name the prize for the first article to be published, also a very interesting series of most interesting persons and articles that are published there. We also give subsidies to people who want to attend the Rencontre in their early career. And this also includes scholars from the Middle East. And we would love to have more funds available to include more members, because everybody who has come to the Rencontre acknowledges this forum for discussion, for the exchange of ideas, and also for meeting persons.

32:25  JT

The IAA also has a newsletter, doesn’t it?

32:28  WS

Yes, the newsletter is a wonderful institution. It’s called Mar shiprim, the Akkadian term for “messenger”. And this is precisely what Mar shiprim is. It’s news in the world of cuneiform studies in the wider sense. And our editor Stefania Ermidoro does a wonderful job to produce articles every few weeks, which then give some insights into current scholarship and research and things related to the field of assyriology.

33:02  JT

Who are the IAA’s members?

33:05  WS

The International Association of Assyriology is an association of scholars. And everybody who subscribes their purposes, and their statement of purpose of the IAA is welcome to become a member. It’s a very modest membership fee, which helps our program of the subsidies and prizes. We have to work more in this membership program in two aspects, namely to allow easier donations, which would allow more funds for research … for actual research. And we also need to include more scholars from the Near Eastern countries as active members in our Association. So we have a lot to do in the future. And we are looking forward to master these challenges.

33:57  JT

What’s the connection between the Rencontre and the IAA?

34:02  WS

The IAA is an umbrella association that organises the single Rencontres. The local organisers of the Rencontre Assyriologique, the colleagues who do the work in a city … in an institution … to welcome guests from all over the world. The colleagues who provide the theme are basically free in this organisation, but they profit from the experience collected through earlier Rencontres, which is handed down within this organisation. And it allows also a distribution, an annual distribution, of the cities to be placed. But we have to acknowledge the work of our colleagues at the place. And one cannot but only underline and appreciate the work they do and the input they give. And therefore I am extremely grateful to my colleagues in Torino, Stefano De Martino and his team, for organising the Rencontre under the current difficult conditions and making it the first virtual Rencontre Assyriologique.

35:13  JT

Thank you very much.

35:15  WS

Thank you. Thank you, Jon, for doing this.

35:18  JT

I’d also like to thank our patrons: Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Michael Katsevman, Mend Mariwany, Kathryn Topper, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Sophus Helle, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Jonathan Stökl, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Heather Baker, Sukanya Ramanujan, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.

36:10  JT

I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.

36:50  JT

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