April 13, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 14

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    Hans Gustav Güterbock, scholar on ancient Near East

    Hans Gustav Güterbock, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the ancient Near East, died Wednesday, March 29.

    He was 91.

    Güterbock was the University’s Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Oriental Institute and the departments of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and Linguistics. He also was co-editor of the Chicago Hittite Dictionary. In 1996, he became the second person to receive the American Oriental Society Medal of Merit in recognition of his lifetime contributions to the field of Hittitology. Established in 1985, the award was designed to be given infrequently and only for work of particularly outstanding quality.

    During his long career, Güterbock published extensively on the Hittites, a people of the ancient Near East who inhabited the central plateau of Anatolia, now part of Turkey. The earliest Hittite texts, written in cuneiform, date to circa 1600 B.C. and are the oldest written records of any Indo-European language.

    “We have lost one of the true giants, one of a handful of scholars who developed the new discipline of Hittitology and then shaped and nurtured it for more than a half century,” said Craig Melchert, professor of Indo-European linguistics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    Harry Hoffner, the John Wilson Professor in the Oriental Institute––who 25 years ago became Güterbock’s successor as Professor of Hittitology––launched the Chicago Hittite Dictionary project with Güterbock in 1976. The project, which was funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, continues today. Hoffner, who co-edited the dictionary with Güterbock, said he remembers with satisfaction the hundreds of hours the two of them worked together on problems of Hittite vocabulary.

    Hoffner said his memory of their final conversation, which took place by telephone only hours before Güterbock’s death, will always bring a smile to his face. Güterbock described a recent dream in which he was shown an unpublished Hittite tablet containing a phrase with which the two scholars had been grappling; had it been real evidence and not just a dream, it would have solved their problem. Güterbock laughed when Hoffner teased him, saying, “So you use dreams now as unpublished evidence?

    “What a wonderful man! His eyesight was gone at the end and most of his hearing, but his mind and sense of humor were as sharp as ever,” Hoffner added.

    Güterbock was born May 27, 1908, in Berlin. From 1933 to 1935, he served on the staff of the Berlin Museum and participated in archaeological expeditions to Boghazköy, Turkey.

    He received his Ph.D. from Leipzig University in 1934 but soon left Germany because, under Nazi racial laws, he could not find employment in his field.

    Güterbock was a faculty member at Ankara University in Turkey from 1936 until 1948, where he trained the first generation of Turkish Hittitologists and archaeologists. One of the few non-Turkish Hittitologists who spoke the Turkish language like a native, he was inducted into a select group of the Turkish Historical Society and granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Ankara.

    He spent the academic year between 1948 and 1949 as a guest lecturer at Sweden’s Uppsala University before joining the faculty of the University’s Oriental Institute in 1949 at the invitation of Thorkild Jacobsen. Güterbock was named the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in 1969.

    While at Chicago, Güterbock participated in several more expeditions to Boghazköy and in the publication of inscriptions found there. In 1963, he collaborated with University computer programmers to put a sample corpus of Old Hittite texts on mainframe computers, facilitating the study of the earliest known phase of the Hittite language.

    He is survived by his wife, Frances, of Chicago; two sons, Thomas, of Charlottesville, Va., and Walter, of Scotts, Mich.; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter. In lieu of flowers, contributions should be sent to the Oriental Institute, 1155 E. 58th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

    A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 4, in Bond Chapel.