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astronomy, Babylonia  

John Steele

The term “Babylonian astronomy” is used to refer to a diverse range of practices undertaken by people in ancient Babylonia and Assyria including what in modern English would be referred to as astronomy, astrology and celestial divination, and cosmology. The earliest astronomical or astrological texts preserved from Babylonia and Assyria date to the early 2nd millennium bce, although some basic astronomical knowledge such as the identification of a regular cycle of the moon, the identification of the planets as a distinct type of celestial object from the stars, and the grouping of stars into constellations dates back much earlier, perhaps even before the development of writing in the 4th millennium bce. Astronomical and astrological texts were still being written around 2,000 years later during the 1st century ce. These texts are some of the latest known texts written in cuneiform. Babylonian astronomy encompassed a range of practices, including the cataloguing of stars and constellations, the regular observation of celestial phenomena, the development and use of methods of predicting those same phenomena, and the interpretation of observed and computed astronomical data through various forms of astrology.


medicine, Mesopotamia  

John Z. Wee

Cuneiform medical manuscripts are found in large numbers, mostly from 1st-millennium bce sites throughout ancient Mesopotamia. Included in the therapeutic tradition are pharmacological glossaries, herbal recipes with plant, mineral, and animal ingredients, and healing incantations and rituals. A Diagnostic Handbook created at the end of the 2nd millennium bce maps out a blueprint for medical practice that sketches out how a healer progresses in his knowledge of the sickness—initially interpreting bodily signs in ways reminiscent of omen divination, and only later arriving at a settled diagnostic verdict and treatment of the kind depicted in the therapeutic tradition. Mesopotamian aetiologies focused on malevolent agents external to the body, encouraging concerns for contagion, prophylaxis, and sanitation, while omitting significant roles for dietetics and exercise aimed at rectifying internal imbalances. Operative surgery was limited, because of the inadequacy of available analgesics and antiseptics. Suppliants seeking a cure visited temples of the healing goddess Gula in the cities of Isin and Nippur, while, among the professions, the “magician” and the “physician” were most associated with medical practice. After the 5th century bce, Calendar Texts and other astrological genres linked various ingredients to each zodiacal name, indicating certain days when a particular ingredient would become medically efficacious.


metrology, Mesopotamia  

Grégory Chambon

The study of metrology in the Ancient Near East has, since the 19th century, approached ancient political and economical reality by quantifying and estimating, among other things, the dimensions of urban centres and the number of rations, or war booty, delivered to palaces. A new interdisciplinary practice, from the perspective of the social and cultural history of Mesopotamian metrology, has developed over the last few decades, taking into account the scribal background and weighing and measuring practices in daily life.

The study of metrology has always been important for archaeologists and philologists of the Ancient Near East. Since the first decipherments of cuneiform writing and the first excavations in the 19th centuryce, metrological research has usually focused on reconstructing the relative values in each measures system (capacity, length, area, weight), that is to say, the values by which one unit of the system was converted into another, either as a multiple or a submultiple, as well as of identifying the absolute values of these units, expressed in our modern system (litre, kilogram, meter, etc.). Metrology has been traditionally used for economic history of the Ancient Near East, by providing quantitative data which inform us about, among other things, livestock farming, available resources in the organizing communities (households, cities, temples, and palaces), commercial transactions, or war booty. This led to the Marvin Powell’s synthesis in the 1980s, which still represents a key reference work in ancient Near Eastern research.



Corinna Rossi

Ancient Egyptian pyramids were funerary monuments. Besides the three world-famous pyramids at Giza, Egypt contains the remains of over eighty other large royal pyramids that were built during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, and of hundreds of smaller pyramids that adorned the New Kingdom tombs of private individuals; large groups of small royal pyramids were later built in Nubia, modern Sudan. Symbols of the connection between earth and sky, pyramids were built along the Nile for nearly three thousand years, displaying a range of shapes, dimensions, and construction techniques.

Our knowledge of these monuments is extensive yet uneven: a linear evolution of shape and layout appears to proceed alongside the periodic appearance of unique elements; the few extant mathematical sources from ancient Egypt provide information on how the slope of these monuments was measured and calculated, but not on how it was chosen; the precision of the orientation of the sides towards the four cardinal points indicates a stellar alignment, but the identification of the stars involved in the process is still doubtful; the archaeological evidence suggests that ramps where used in the construction, but their structure and shape can only be guessed. Therefore, the main challenge in the ongoing study of pyramids is that of combining various sources and reckoning with the simultaneous presence of recurring elements and unique circumstances.