Born in Hohenerxleben in Anhalt, Germany, Hilprecht was professor of Assyrian (1886–1902) and later Clark Research Professor of Assyriology (1902–1911) at the University of Pennsylvania. He was a member of the first expedition to Nippur (1888–1889) and scientific director of the fourth expedition (1889–1900), there. Hilprecht is perhaps best known as a major figure in American Assyriology in the nineteenth century, having set high standards for the publication of cuneiform texts. He apparently laid out plans for the publication of the results of the Babylonian expedition in four series—a total of twenty volumes. Hilprecht was general editor of series A (cuneiform texts), which he inaugurated by publishing Old Babylonian Inscriptions Chiefly from Nippur in 1893.
In 1905–1908, Hilprecht was embroiled in a bitter dispute with John P. Peters that eventually involved not only everyone connected with the Nippur excavations, but a good number of scholars in the discipline. Peters sparked the dispute when he alleged that Hilprecht had exaggerated his claims to having found a temple library during the fourth campaign of excavations in 1900 and had misrepresented purchased tablets as excavated artifacts and falsified the findspots of others. There was also the question of who owned certain artifacts the Ottoman sultan had given to Hilprecht.
In 1893, while in Constantinople working on the Nippur finds, Hilprecht was asked to reorganize the Imperial Ottoman Museum. In recognition of his efforts, over a period of many years, the sultan presented him with a large number of tablets and other artifacts excavated at Nippur or purchased while the expedition was in Mesopotamia. Hilprecht maintained that the artifacts were his personal property but gave the bulk to the museum. He did, however, keep some very important pieces. His critics argued that the sultan's “gift” was a legal fiction and suggested that the finds really belonged to the University of Pennsylvania Museum (the excavations' sponsoring institution).
The university's trustees appointed a committee to act as a court of inquiry in the so-called Peters-Hilprecht controversy. In its report, the committee found the charges unsustainable and untrue, but the controversy did not end. A subsequent controversy arising over Hilprecht's publication of a Sumerian cuneiform tablet fragment that he claimed confirmed the biblical Flood story eventually led to his resignation in 1911.
Hilprecht maintained a residence In Jena, from 1899 to 1905. His first wife, Ida Haufe, died there in 1902. In 1903 he married Sallie Crozer Robinson, a Philadelphia socialite. Following his resignation from the University of Pennsylvania, Hilprecht went to Germany, where he remained during World War I. He returned to the United States after the war. He died in Philadelphia, leaving most of the antiquities and small finds from the Nippur excavations to the University of Jena. He ceded a nearly complete kudurru and two copper goats' heads, acquired at Abu Ḥabbah (Fara), to the University of Pennsylvania Museum as the Sallie Crozer Hilprecht Collection.
- Hilprecht, Hermann V. Die Ausgrabungen der Universität von Pennsylvania im Bel-Tempel zu Nippur. Leipzig, 1903.
- Hilprecht, Hermann V. Explorations in Bible Lands during the Nineteenth Century. Philadelphia, 1903. See pages 289–568.
- Hilprecht, Hermann V. The So-Called Peters-Hilprecht Controversy. Philadelphia, 1908.
- Hilprecht, Hermann V. The Earliest Version of the Babylonian Deluge Story and the Temple Library of Nippur. Philadelphia, 1910. For the reaction covered even in the public press, see, for example, the Philadelphia Press, 6 June 1910.
- Oelsner, Joachim. “Zur Geschichte der Frau Professor Hilprecht-Sammlung Vorderasiatischer Altertümer im Eigentum der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.” In Zur Geschichte der klassischen Archäologie Jena-Krakow, edited by Ernst Kluwe and Joachim Sliwa, pp. 46–53. Jena, 1985. See, for example, the newspaper account of Hilprecht's will in the Philadelphia Record, 6 April 1925.
- Ritterband, Paul, and Harold Wechsler. “A Message to Lushtamar: The Hilprecht Controversy and Semitic Scholarship in America.” History of Higher Education Annual 1 (1981): 5–41.
For biographical details, see George A. Barton's article in Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 9, pp. 58–59 (New York, 1932), as well as the obituaries published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Times, 20 March 1925; Journal of Biblical Literature 45 (1926): iii–iv; and Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 36 (1925): 309–310. For Hilprecht's bibliography, see Rykle Borger, Handbuch der Keilschriftliteratur, vol. 1, pp. 190–194 (Berlin, 1967), and Ferdinand Hestermann, “Die Bibliographie Hilprechts über Nippur,” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena 4 (1954–1955): 35–47. For further reading, see the following:
Richard L. Zettler