Monday, August 20

Retiring professors leave behind legacy of passion for Near Eastern archaeology


Robert Englund (back row, third from the left) poses at a British excavation site of a mound called Jemdet Nasr in 1998. (Courtesy of Robert Englund)

Robert Englund (back row, third from the left) poses at a British excavation site of a mound called Jemdet Nasr in 1998. (Courtesy of Robert Englund)


Two longtime faculty members from the UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology are retiring this month.

Professors Elizabeth Carter and Robert Englund will be retiring after multiple decades of teaching at UCLA. Carter has taught at UCLA for 40 years, and Englund has taught for 22 years.

Kara Cooney, the chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, said their academic passion for the ancient world had an immense impact on the department.

“Both of them are very detail-oriented, both in scholarship and in their lives. I understand their motivations completely,” she said. “I don’t judge why anyone would go back in time 5,000 years to figure out why things work the way they do and are the way they are. The parallels between then and now are extraordinary.”

Englund, an Assyriologist who specializes in the ancient Near Eastern world, spent a large portion of his life in Germany before returning to the U.S. to teach at UCLA in 1996. He said he received more support from the school than he was used to during this transition.

“The support given to faculty in the U.S. to help them to establish projects was a striking difference from Germany,” he said. “I was able to take advantage of that immediately to get my project, the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, funded.”

CDLI was Englund’s main enterprise during his 22 years at UCLA. The site is a digital archive of tablets written in cuneiform, an ancient Mesopotamian writing system. Englund and his graduate students built the archive with financial and scholarly support from the university.

Englund said he is excited to use the archives for the more niche research he is especially passionate about after he retires.

“I’m looking forward, without any constraints, to be able to use the data for things that of are particular interest to me,” he said. “I wrote my dissertation on fisheries, so I’m going to work more on that, look more at those texts and hopefully finish a manuscript.”

Cooney said Englund and Carter are both important figures in the field and determined individuals.

“(Englund) is a bulldog. Once he gets his teeth in a project he will stop at nothing to make it into the largest and most accessible project he can – he has been truly pathbreaking,” she said. “(Carter) is a trailblazer. In a field defined by the work of men, she has had to constantly break the glass ceiling.”

Evan Carlson, a former advisee of Carter’s who finished his dissertation at UCLA in 2015, said he admires her long-standing career.

“She started working in Iran in the 1960s, where at the time the French had a monopoly over (archaeological sites in) the land for over a hundred years,” Carlson said. “Somehow, she was able to get onto that dig and run a part of it. No one knew how she was really able to do that.”

Carlson said that even though he graduated last year, Carter is still keeping in touch with him to see how his work is progressing.

“She was always very supportive of her students,” he said. “Professor Carter was just a really kind woman and someone I could always talk to.”

Carter said some of her most enjoyable experiences have been the relationships she has had with her students, such as those she made when she attended the Young Archaeologists’ Conference with in 2015.

She said she will work on some personal writing projects after she retires.

Englund and his wife are moving back to the Pacific Northwest, where they have purchased a home in Puget Sound, Washington, and built a chicken coop.

Cooney said the department will be losing two important members of the community.

“(Carter) was a bridge builder, not a wall builder,” she said. “And as for (Englund), we needed to replace him yesterday. His work is hugely important.”

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