Award-winning professor dies at 81

By Alex Raphel

Erica Reiner, the John A. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor Emerita of the University’s renowned Oriental Institute, died December 31 at age 81 in her home in Hyde Park.

“It is difficult to overstate the significance of Erica Reiner’s contributions to the understanding of the ancient Near East,” said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, in an interview.

Reiner was noted for her groundbreaking work on the study of some of the world’s oldest languages, including Assyrian, Akkadian, Elamite, and Sumerian. Her published works include A Linguistic Analysis of Akkadian, Your Thwarts in Pieces, Your Mooring Rope Cut: Poetry from Babylonia and Assyria, and numerous essays.

A loved teacher, she also taught many students who went on to become leading professors in the field.

Reiner is remembered for her contributions to the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. She began working on the dictionary as a research assistant in 1952 and was editor-in-charge from 1973 to 1996. The multi-volume project started before World War II, and the final two volumes are scheduled for publication in 2008.

“It serves as the basic reference work for the Akkadian language, the predominant tongue of Mesopotamia for 2,500 years,” Stein said.

Reiner’s role in the project was important, Stein added. “The effective editing of a work of this scope requires a person whose knowledge encompasses philology, linguistics, poetry, history, literature, law, religion, astronomy, and the history of science—and Erica was one of the handful of people in the world who had that daunting list of qualifications,” Stein said.

After receiving her undergraduate degree in linguistics at the University of Budapest, Reiner studied at the École Practiques des Hautes Etudes in Paris before coming to the University of Chicago in 1952, where she received her Ph.D. in 1955. She joined the faculty in 1956 after serving as a research associate.

“Erica’s intellectual engagement and her involvement in scholarship lasted up until the final months of her life,” Stein said. “She was a pillar of the Oriental Institute. We will miss her dearly as a colleague and as a friend.”

A mass will take place at 11 a.m. on Friday, January 13, at St. Thomas the Apostle Roman Catholic Church at 5472 South Kimbark Avenue. A University memorial service is being scheduled for the near future.