What to Keep, What to Discard: The Mesopotamian Answer

Men and women in Neo-Classical dress talk and consult plans as a city is built in the background
Rome was not built in a day, but my emails were transferred in one! A Baroque tapestry of the AEDIFICATIO BABILONIAE in the city museum, Rimini.

It is the end of the semester in which I graduated, so I have been working to back up my emails onto my computer (Austrian university webmail is limited to 500 MB, and does IMAP not POP, so when the account closes the emails go away unless you move them to local folders). The Anglo chattering class loves to talk about what to do with old papers and knicknacks, with Marie Kondo or the Swedish Death Purge inspiring opinion pieces and social media threads. Did you know that the cuneiform world had a pretty firm opinion on the matter?
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Rochberg on Omens

Your humble correspondent in the Central European blizzard of January 2019

One of the books which I would like to find time to read is Francesca Rochberg’s Before Nature: Cuneiform Knowledge and the History of Science (University of Chicago Press, 2016) {available from the publisher}. About a decade ago, she was puzzled why Mesopotamian omen lists include situations which can never occur, such as the appearance of the sun at midnight or a lunar eclipse which moves from west to east across the moon. The Mesopotamian literati were intimately familiar with the movements of the heavens, and had thousands of years of records, so they probably had a firm conviction that this was not the sort of thing which could happen in the ordinary course of events. Were these absurd? The result of block-heads mechanically multiplying omens to cover different combinations of left/right, the three watches of the night, the four directions, and so on regardless of whether that combination was possible? Violations of the order of the heavens on special command of the gods?

Perhaps this is where we step into the realm of the conceivable, or the conceptually possible, as differentiated from the possible, or at least the metaphysically possible … To say certain phenomena in the omen lists are “impossible” or “absurd” because they do not occur and cannot be observed is our judgement and occurs nowhere in the ancient sources. That is to say, our definition of impossible (not in accordance with real properties) is not expressed in the texts. It seems more consistent with the overall makeup of the omen lists that recording a phenomenon as an entry in a codified omen list is evidence that it was regarded as epistemically possible [something which a reasonable person may chose to believe]. That is, the list of statements (P) constitute data, or knowledge, on the basis of which the diviner makes judgements and draws conclusions about what will happen. The use of the terms possible and impossible are, among other things, relative to one’s accepted knowledge of how and what things are.

– Francesca Rochberg, “Conditionals, Inference, and Possibility in Ancient Mesopotamian Science,” Science in Context 22.1 (March 2009) pp. 5-25
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Bow Estates Already Under Nebuchadnezzar

Sometimes the tablet-gods smile on us. Over the last hundred years, scholars have worked to establish when the properties known as bow, horse, and chariot estates first appeared in Mesopotamia. Earlier writers often saw them as examples of Iranian feudalism, imposed on Babylonia by the Medes or Persians, but there were a few examples under Nabonidus. Then in 1998 Michael Jursa reread a text from Uruk from the 35th year of Nebuchadnezzar with the following lines:

(15) 1 GUR 2 PI ŠE.NUMUN E2 GIŠ.BAN ša2 {m}Dan-/e-<>\-a
ša2 {m}{d}U.GUR-da-a-nu a-na er-ru-šu-tu2
i-ir-ši maš-ka-a-nu ša2 {m}Gi-mil-lu
a-di {m}G-mil-lu ŠE.NUMUN i-šal-lim

rašû i/i “to get, acquire”
erušutu > erēşu “to seed
maškanu “security, pledge”

1 kur 2 pi of seed (ie. field which is sown with 7 bushels of barley), the bow estate of Dannēa, which Nergal-dān acquired to sow, is pledged to Gimillu, until Gimillu received the barley.

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Bonus Content: How Do We Know About the Libraries of Carthage?

Issue 7 of Ancient History magazine is now heading to subscribers. It contains something which was not quick to write, but which I think is very important: a summary of some studies in German which ask how many words of text in different ancient languages survive. Do you think that there are about twice as many words of Greek because the green Loebs take up twice as much shelf space as the red ones? Or prefer ten to one like Liddell and Scott guessed? How do Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian fit in? This article explores how those German researchers tried to find an answer, and what that answer is. To my knowledge, their work has never been discussed in plain language in English, so check it out! The article had to be trimmed for space, so in this post I would like to give the sources for a statement.
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The Information Density of Cuneiform Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of 1 mm graph-paper
Tablet HS 643 in Jena.

When I was visiting the tablet collection in Jena (as one does) my mind naturally turned to fact-checking GURPS books. Back in 2007, some of the thoughtful writers at Steve Jackson Games put together an article “How Heavy is Dense Reading?” on the density of information from medieval manuscripts to modern printed books in words per square metre, words per kg, and words per cartload. They included some guesses about Greek papyri and cuneiform tablets, but did not seem to have as much data for those. Their house style discourages mentioning sources, but I am pretty sure that their medieval data comes from a survey of all surviving medieval European manuscripts which a professor mentioned in my undergraduate days. Today, I would like to put together some evidence on the size and capacity of small cuneiform tablets to help them fill in the gaps.
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On Sketching Tablets

A photograph of a cuneiform tablet against the backdrop of graph-paper and bubble-wrap
Tablet HS 643 in Jena. On the graph paper in the background each small square is 1 mm wide.

At the beginning of October I had the pleasure of visiting the Frau Professor Hillprecht Collection in Jena to handle and sketch tablets. Doing so made clear to me some of the issues with reading and publishing cuneiform tablets. In this post, I will try to explain what those issues are.

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Two Perspectives on the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela, Part 1: Background

It is notorious that few stories about Alexander the Great written during his lifetime survive. The embroidered narratives by Greek and Latin writers which form the basis of most modern accounts were written 300 to 500 years later. A few of Alexander’s coins and inscriptions have been preserved, but they naturally give his point of view. A few chance references in Greek literature give a sense of the shock which many contemporaries felt that the king of a land on the edge of civilization suddenly overthrew the greatest power which had ever existed and conquered places which were little more than legends. One of the few long stories about Alexander which does survive in a version written during his lifetime is a cuneiform text, the Astronomical Diary for Gaugamela. This week I thought that I would write an introduction to the Diary and what is involved in reading such a text. Next week I will talk about two different ways of reading them as represented in articles by R.J. van der Spek (English: Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian Scholarship) and by Robert Rollinger and Kai Ruffing (German: ‘Panik’ im Heer: Dareios III, die Schlacht von Gaugamela, und die Mondfinsternis vom 20. September 331 vor Christ). I hope that the second will be helpful for readers who are interested in ancient history but not comfortable reading German.
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