Archibald Henry Sayce was born on 25 September 1845 in Shirehampton, not far from Bristol. His parents were Mary and Henry Samuel Sayce, perpetual curate of Caldicot in Shirehampton. Despite frequent ill health as a child, he was a voracious reader, studying Virgil and Xenophon at the age of ten, and Hebrew and comparative philology by fourteen. He entered Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1865, receiving his B.A. degree in 1869, again in spite of ill health. That year he became a fellow there, and one year later became a college tutor.
Sayce became deputy professor of philology in 1876, already established as an authority in his field, having delivered lectures to the Nineveh Society of Biblical Archaeology and contributing weekly to The Times and the New York Independent. The University of Oxford used him as a representative in the Old Testament Revision Company for a decade beginning in 1874. During this period, he took frequent sabbaticals, travelling extensively, visiting most of Europe and Asia, the Far East, North Africa and the Americas. In 1879 he resigned from his role as college tutor in order to free up time for exploration, and in 1890 relinquished his professorship. In the following year he was instrumental in founding the Alexandria museum in Cairo. After a year of life in Egypt, however, he returned to Oxford to take up a professorship in Assyriology. He remained in this capacity until 1915, travelling and working in the meantime to Sudan, Ethiopia and the Far East. His retirement was spent in Edinburgh, Oxford and Egypt, and he continued to publish during this period.
Sayce is best known for his work on the Assyrians. His early works, Assyrian Grammar(1872), Elementary Grammar with Reading-Book of the Assyrian Languages (1875) andLectures upon the Assyrian Language and Syllabary (1877), generated interest in the study of the Assyrians and legitimised it. He was offered the first Chair of Assyriology. Sayce’s work in Assyriology and related areas was not just philological in the narrow sense but in the rather wider sense in which he extensively covered history, religion, literature and the people themselves. His work was heavily relied upon in Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Egypt (1896). He also gave the prestigious Hibbert lectures on Babylonian religion in 1887, and later the Gifford lectures on the religions of ancient Egypt and Babylonia in 1902.
Sayce was a pioneer, and an expert in the wide area of knowledge in which he immersed himself, yet he was flawed. He could write in more than twenty ancient and modern languages, and successfully deciphered and translated the Urartian inscriptions with no bilingual text to aid him. Yet his work on the Hittites was poorly received, generally regarded as outmoded and irrelevant, and, in the case of his deciphering their hieroglyphs, simply unsuccessful. In the later part of his life, he was seen as something of a pretender to the reputation he once had. Academic progress has overtaken him, and he did not adapt.
Nevertheless, Sayce is responsible for many important developments in not only Assyriology, but oriental philology, archaeology and many related areas. Despite being beset by many periods of illness throughout his life, his output was considerable. In 1919 his achievements were recognised in his being elected a corresponding member of the Institut de France.
Sayce died in Bath on 4 February 1933. He had never married.
His works include Assyrian Grammar for Comparative Purposes (1872), Principles of Comparative Philology (1874–1875), Babylonian Literature (1877), Introduction to the Science of Language, (2 vols., 1880), Ancient Empires of the East (1884), Introduction to Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther (1885), Assyria (1885), The Hittites (1889), Races of the Old Testament (1891), Higher Criticism and the Verdict of the Monuments (1894), Patriarchal Palestine (1895), The Egypt of the Hebrews and Herodotus (1895), Early History of the Hebrews (1897), Israel and the Surrounding Nations (1898), Babylonians and Assyrians(1900), Egyptian and Babylonian Religion (1903) and Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1907). He wrote an autobiography, Reminisces (1923).