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Niek Veldhuis: ‘Cuneiform script still hot in Berkeley’

Niek Veldhuis

He had to get rid of his bike. His house in Richmond, California, where he lives with his wife Marlies and cat Troela, is located on such a high hill that Niek Veldhuis (55) would risk his life using this typically Dutch means of transport. UG alumnus Veldhuis is Professor of Assyriology at the University of Berkeley.

He has lived by the maxim ‘the older the better’ ever since a holiday in Sweden when he was seven, during which wild horses could not have dragged him away from a sixth-century Gothic manuscript of the Bible. Sat in the tent, he learned the contents several Swedish flyers about the manuscript by heart. Veldhuis made the oldest written language his profession, albeit with a detour – he had initially planned on studying mathematics, but, wanting to become a vicar, he chose theology instead and finished pastoral training. But then the spirit left him. Although he had only taken a Bachelor’s degree in Assyriology, he was invited to start a PhD project. ‘Then becoming a professor in the US in 2002 was a dream come true. I can devote my time to researching the ancient world, and I even get paid for it!’ Veldhuis identifies ‘the notion that I am in direct contact with people from 4000 years ago when I pick up a cuneiform tablet’ as the reason he loves his profession.

To his regret, the study of cuneiform script has been taken off the programme in Groningen. In Berkeley, however, the course unit is still popular, mainly due to his own efforts, Veldhuis believes. ‘I have been quite successful in acquiring funding, which people respect greatly here. If you haul in the big projects, they are not likely to shout from the rooftops: “Cuneiform is still hot in Berkeley”.’

Actually, academia is quite different i the US from in the Netherlands: ‘A university professor enjoys complete freedom when it comes to research. You are not bound to existing research programs. Instead, you can create your own programme and build a team of students, postdocs and others around it. You’re still evaluated based on your output, but that is a good thing. After all, freedom is not the same as sitting around and doing nothing.’

The differences between here and there are a welcome source of conversation. Take, for example, the ‘unbelievable circus’ – to use Veldhuis’s words – of elections and primaries currently sweeping the US: ‘I find it fascinating, but frightening at the same time, though it comes as no surprise that the voters are dissatisfied with the political elites and favour someone like Donald Trump. Politics is a game for the super-rich, with enormous sums of money involved. We would call that bribery in the Netherlands.’ He and his wife still visit Europe and the Netherlands as often as possible. ‘It remains difficult to live so far away from your friends and relatives, especially in times of crisis and disease.’ His wife Marlies was not exactly keen on emigrating fourteen years ago, but she now has her own practice as a marriage counsellor and family therapist. They were both members of a choir called Sangwijn in Groningen. They still sing, but Niek and Marlies have also become avid players of beach volleyball. ‘And we love to go into the wild together. California is the second-largest state in the US in terms of surface area, after Texas, and the landscape is extremely varied.’

Text: Ellis Ellenbroek
Source: Broerstraat 5, the alumni magazine of the University of Groningen

Last modified:19 March 2020 10.16 a.m.
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