cuneiformist, and


one of the great interpreters of Mesopotamian culture. Born in Denmark, Jacobsen studied Assyriology first at the university of his native Copenhagen and then, in the late 1920s, at the University of Chicago. Throughout his life, he was passionately and deeply committed to the study of ancient Mesopotamia, its land, cultures, and languages.

Jacobsen was a field assyriologist with the Iraq Expedition of the Oriental Institute (1929–1937), working closely with Henri Frankfort, its director, as well as with Pinhas Delougaz, Seton Lloyd, and Gordon Loud. He was the epigrapher at Khorsabad and in the Diyala region and led the excavation at Ishchali. Together with Lloyd, Jacobsen excavated Sennacherib's aqueduct at Jerwan. He was instrumental in introducing to Iraq the method of systematic surface ceramic survey.

Returning to Chicago in 1937, Jacobsen began a twenty-five-year affiliation with the university. From 1946 to 1951, he was director of the Oriental Institute and then dean of the Division of Humanities. As director, he gave new shape to the Assyriology faculty of the Oriental Institute and to American Assyriology, in general. Moreover, he set the agenda for American archaeology in Iraq by reestablishing American excavations at Nippur jointly with the University of Pennsylvania and setting in motion the surface surveys that would lead to his and Robert McC. Adams's important discoveries regarding waterways, salinization, and settlement patterns (Jacobsen and Adams, 1958). Disagreements over the policies, direction, and execution of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary led to Jacobsen leaving Chicago in 1962 for Harvard University, where he taught until his retirement in 1974.

Jacobsen's unique blend of textual scholarship, knowledge of art and archaeology, quest for conceptual patterns, appreciation of the environment and way of life of ancient Mesopotamia, and his own deep human sympathy allowed him to fathom the meaning and recreate the image of a past civilization. He approached the task in an existential spirit and saw that alien and distant human life was something that not only existed in its own terms, but also mattered very deeply for the enduring human spirit.

[See also Assyrians; Diyala; Khorsabad; Nippur; Sumerian; Sumerians; Ur; and the biographies of Frankfort and Lloyd.]


  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Sumerian King List. Oriental Institute, Assyriological Studies, 11. Chicago, 1939.
    Exemplary edition and analysis.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. “Mesopotamia.” In The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East, by Henri Frankfort et al. New York, 1946.
    Ground-breaking and breathtaking interpretation of Mesopotamian religious thought.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild, and Robert McC. Adams. “Salt and Silt in Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture.” Science 128 (1958): 1251–1258.
    Pioneering study of Mesopotamian irrigation and settlement patterns.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture. Edited by William L. Moran. Harvard Semitic Series, vol. 21. Cambridge, Mass., 1970. A number of Jacobsen's seminal essays originally published between 1930 and 1965. The collection includes some of Jacobsen's most important writings on Mesopotamian religion and mythology, political and cultural history, and Sumerian and Akkadian grammar. See as well the bibliography of Jacobsen's writings to 1969 (pp. 471–474) and the assessment of his work by Moran (pp. v–vi).
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness. New Haven, 1976.
    Develops the idea of divine intransitivity and transitivity; reconstructs the major stages in Mesopotamian religion over four thousand years; and analyzes significant segments of the religious literature.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. Salinity and Irrigation: Agriculture in Antiquity. Bibliotheca Mesopotamica, 14. Malibu, 1982.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild, ed. and trans. The Harps That Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation. New Haven, 1987.
    Meticulous but profound and beautiful translations of religious poetry—myths, prayers, and laments.
  • Jacobsen, Thorkild. “The Sumerian Verbal Core.” Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 78 (1988): 161–220.
    This study continues his earlier “About the Sumerian Verb” (included in Jacobsen, 1970), which was the first systematic and comprehensive utilization of the principle of fixed-rank order in studying the Sumerian verb and an explication of some of its intricacies.
  • Kramer, Samuel Noah. “Thorkild Jacobsen: Philologist, Archeologist, Historian.” In Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacobsen on His Seventieth Birthday, June 7, 1974, edited by Steven J. Lieberman, pp. 1–7. Chicago, 1976.
    Assessment of Jacobsen's career by a contemporary who represented a different approach to Sumerian mythology and religion.

Tzvi Abusch