Obituary for Robert K. Englund

Bob Englund, emeritus professor of Assyriology at UCLA and director of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI), died May 24, 2020, after a long struggle with cancer. He was 68 years old. 

Bob Englund often mentioned his studies at Berkeley to his friends and students. He began a BA in Near Eastern Studies in 1974 following extensive travels around the world after one year at the University of Washington (1970-1) studying mathematics. At Berkeley, Englund studied with Wolfgang Heimpel, with whom he retained a lifelong friendship. After graduating from Berkeley in 1977, Englund spent a year at Chicago’s Oriental Institute before transferring to Munich to study with Dietz Otto Edzard. After nearly a decade at Munich, Bob Englund moved to Berlin, first as a research assistant (1987-1988), then as assistant professor (1988-1996), at the city’s Free University. There Englund was a member of the Berlin Uruk Project led by Hans Nissen. In 1996, Bob Englund was appointed Assistant Professor of Assyriology at UCLA, replacing Georgio Buccellati. He was tenured the following year and became full professor in 1999. Bob remained at UCLA until his retirement in 2018.
Englund was the world’s leading specialist on the proto-cuneiform texts, and he published and republished more than 2500 Late Uruk and Jemdat Nasr period texts, alone or with colleagues (primarily in ATU and MSVO). As a member of the Berlin Uruk team, Englund travelled to Baghdad, Oxford, Heidelberg, Paris, and elsewhere to catalogue, copy, and collate proto-cuneiform tablets. In Berlin he met and formed a long-lasting friendship and collaboration with Peter Damerow from the Max Planck Society (first Institut für Bildungsforschung, then under the directorship of Jürgen Renn, the Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte). The collaboration between Englund, Damerow and Nissen quickly became a household name in Assyriology and when the Berlin Senate in 1988 purchased the bulk of the Erlenmeyer tablets at auction in London, the three co-authored the catalogue for the exhibition held at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Palace in 1990. This initially unassuming publication has since become the standard introduction to early writing in Mesopotamia (in particular due to the successful publication of an English language translation in 1993). Bob’s commanding 1998 publication in OBO 160/1, “Texts from the Late Uruk Period” (originally planned as his Berlin Habilitationsschrift) remains the most comprehensive study of the form, function, and content of the proto-cuneiform texts. Bob continued to work on the proto-cuneiform texts after his relocation to Los Angeles in 1996, and prepared transliterations of the important new Uruk period texts in the Schøyen collection. After many years he passed this task on to other colleagues to finish, but the texts fed into his later research on proto-cuneiform, especially the important article “The Smell of the Cage” (2009), where Englund detailed the labor management system of southern Iraq at the dawn of history and related it to slavery of later periods, giving a forceful reminder of the lack of understanding of the language behind these texts.

In addition to his work on the proto-cuneiform tablets, Bob collaborated with Peter Damerow on the earliest writing system from Iran, the proto-Elamite texts, and they published the Tepe Yahya texts in 1989, setting a new standard for the publication of proto-Elamite texts. Bob led the research on early writing in Iran and published a masterful overview of the state of decipherment of proto-Elamite in 2004. In 2003 he passed on the work on proto-Elamite to his PhD student Jacob Dahl, but he remained critically involved in the efforts of making the proto-Elamite tablets in the Louvre Museum as well as the National Museum of Iran accessible online, and in the research into proto-Elamite.

Englund was also a leading specialist of the social and economic history of the Ur III period, and published ground-breaking articles on the bookkeeping system of the period. Following the publication of his Munich PhD dissertation, widely known simply as “Ur-III Fischerei” (1990), Englund published various shorter articles in English outlining the main insights into Ur III bookkeeping established through his studies. During the same time, he also published his important article on Timekeeping (1998), elucidating the ancient systems of timekeeping of Babylonia, and clarifying the relationship between the Babylonian sexagesimal system and our division of the hour into 60 minutes. 

As founder and director of the CDLI, Bob Englund spearheaded the digitisation and online dissemination of hundreds of thousands of cuneiform tablets from museums and collections across the globe, and initiated the first fully online journal in the field of Assyriology (CDLJ), at a time when scholarly communications within Assyriology were still almost entirely print based. The CDLI was born out of the Uruk project, and early forays into digitising tablets by Bob and Peter Damerow. However, while still in Berlin, Bob was already preparing an online project for Ur III period tablets, that unfortunately did not receive German funding. When Bob was appointed professor of Assyriology at UCLA in 1996, he brought those plans with him, and immediately began preparing data for a large-scale project. He was successful in obtaining a large grant from the NSF for the period 2000-2003 from their Digital Library Initiative. This first large-scale grant enabled him to employ a post-doc, then still rare in the Humanities, and Madeleine Fitzgerald was brought on from Yale. The first collections to be imaged and prepared for the web were the 4th and 3rd millennium collections of Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum, and the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, as well as the collections of the Institut Catholique, Paris, the Hearst Museum of the University of California at Berkeley, and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. The focus of the CDLI in the early days was naturally the 3rd millennium texts, and in particular Uruk and Jemdat Nasr period texts and Ur III texts. 

However, CDLI PIs, staff, and collaborators quickly realised the benefit of imaging all tablets in collections together, instead of waiting on future generations of PhD students to work their way through less-and-less interesting and sometimes decaying leftovers in museum drawers, and plans were drafted to include all cuneiform text artifacts. A second period of funding came in 2004-6 with a grant from the NSF and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and a third and more dramatic increase happened with the 2009 CDLI-initiated collaboration “Creating a Sustainable Cuneiform Digital Library” (CSCDLI) (2009-2016), funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The huge success of this phase of the CDLI which saw the inclusion of most of the British Museum’s Kujunjik Collection, much of the Louvre cuneiform tablet collection, the entire Ashmolean Museum cuneiform collection, the Penn collection, the collection of the Harvard Museum of the Ancient Near East, and a host of smaller collections, eventually created a snowball effect where many collections today contact the CDLI to add their own cuneiform texts.

During the Mellon-funded CSCDLI, Bob worked with Bertrand Lafont and members of the Syrian Directorate General for Antiquities prior to the Syrian civil war, to image and catalogue many Syrian collections. He later encouraged his European colleagues to set up an agreement with Iranian colleagues to digitise the collections in Tehran. Bob felt CDLI’s presence in the countries of origin of our sources was particularly important and always regretted the failure to reach an agreement with Turkish and Iraqi heritage officials to include their rich collections in CDLI as well.

While collecting images of artifacts, Bob also led the collection of finely curated catalogue information and transliterations of cuneiform texts. Open access to information was for him integral to science. In recent years, he was also eager to find new ways to explore the large amount of information gathered under the banner of the CDLI. He initiated various small experimental research projects employing computer science students at UCLA, such as improving the search functionality of the CDLI, testing possibilities of optical recognition on cuneiform tablet photos, and extracting vocabulary from transliterations. These two interests culminated in two funded projects (2017-2020) jointly with Émilie Pagé-Perron: the international and collaborative Digging into Data challenge “Machine Translation and Automated Analysis of Cuneiform Languages” project (directed by Heather D. Baker), which succeeded in developing cutting edge tools for the automated translation of the Sumerian language, and the “CDLI Framework Update” project, which is still ongoing, and which aims at a complete revamp of the database and interface of the CDLI, in order to foster preservation, sustainability and access to the information CDLI archives and curates for generations to come. 

Englund was a meticulous and dedicated teacher and supervisor, who was devoted to the success of his students and the postdoctoral scholars he employed through CDLI. Although Englund only supervised a few PhD students in his time at UCLA, their success is a testimony to his efforts in teaching and career development. Jacob Dahl, his first PhD student (PhD 2003), went on to hold a post-doc position with the CNRS in Paris for 2 years, followed by a 3 year research associate position at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, before becoming Lecturer and eventually professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford. J. Cale Johnson (PhD 2004) held a post-doctoral position at UCLA, then moved to Berlin in 2008 as research fellow at the Freie Universität. Before taking up a senior lecturer position at Birmingham, Cale taught for one year at the University of Leiden. He will take up a professorship at the FU Berlin in the Summer of 2020. John Lynch (PhD 2010) worked at UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities from 2010 until 2019, when he became Assistant Director at Sonoma State's Faculty Center. Sara Brumfeld (PhD 2013) is employed as Data Analyst for the Mayor of Baltimore. Jared N. Wolfe (PhD 2015), is a senior writer and editor at the Museum of the Bible, and finally Mike Heinle (MA 2013), who holds a position as Data Engineer and Analyst in Sonoma County.
With the death of Bob Englund, Assyriology has lost one of its most important scholars and leaders. Bob Englund transformed Assyriology from a very traditional Humanities discipline relying on slow print publications and time-consuming hand copies of cuneiform tablets, to one of the most digitally enhanced fields in the Humanities. His ground-breaking research on texts from both the Late Uruk period and the Third Dynasty of Ur will have a lasting effect on scholarship. 
CDLI collaborators have lost their mentor and friend.
Jacob Dahl (Oxford), Bertrand Lafont (Paris), Émilie Pagé-Perron (Toronto)
May 2020
Bob Englund's CV is available here: