Benedikt Isserlin, a philologist, archaeologist and historian with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the cultures and languages of the ancient Near East, whose studies even led him to study Maltese, has died aged 89.
In his popular but scholarly Israelites (2001), Isserlin synthesised the social, historical, geographical and archaeological evidence of ancient Israel from the earliest beginnings to the Babylonian exile. He analysed the culture and society of the nation in the wider context of near eastern civilisations, and was delighted when the book was reviewed in a Saudi archaeological journal.
His involvement in Phoenician archaeology began in 1955, when he directed an Oxford University expedition to Motya (Mozia), a small island off Marsala, in Sicily, whose entire extent is covered with the remains of a Phoenician city destroyed in 397 BC. From 1961 to 1972 Isserlin directed annual excavations there, and in 1974 published Motya: A Phoenician and Carthaginian City in Sicily, the first of three volumes.
In the field of Hebrew studies, Isserlin devoted great attention to the study of place names and to the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew. In 1971 he published a Hebrew Work Book for Beginners. At the time of his death he was revising his doctoral thesis on the place names of Palestine for publication.
Isserlin was also involved in Arabic and Islamic studies, and his interest in Arabic dialects led him to the study of Maltese. From 1963 he collaborated with the late Professor Guze Aqulina in carrying out an exhaustive survey of spoken Maltese dialects, eventually published in three volumes.
Benedikt Sigmund Johannes Isserlin was born on February 25, 1916 in Munich, Germany. Family tradition has it that the Isserlins were descended from Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow, an eminent Talmudic scholar of the 16th century.
In 1939 Isserlin had his first experience of field archaeology when he became involved in an excavation at Traprain Law, East Lothian. By the time he graduated, he had won no fewer than five medals, two university prizes and a scholarship. He had also met his future wife, Hilda Parkinson.
Isserlin then moved to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read Oriental Languages, studying Arabic under AFL Beeston and HAR Gibb, Hebrew under H Danby, GR Driver and Chaim Rabin, and cuneiform under Campbell Thompson and OR Gurney.
In 1951 Isserlin was appointed assistant lecturer in Semitic Studies at Leeds University, and by 1960 had become head of its Department of Semitic Studies, remaining there for the rest of his academic career. He was appointed to a readership in 1977 and retired in 1981.
In addition to his researches on Malta, Isserlin carried out studies in the Arabic dialect of the Tunisian island of Djerba where, in the 1970s, he was arrested by the security police and briefly incarcerated for “suspicious behaviour”.
Isserlin continued to lead expeditions in old age. In his mid-eighties, he initiated a project to excavate the canal dug by King Xerxes of Persia over the Athos peninsula in northern Greece, at the farthest edge of the Persian empire.