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Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk

Christine Proust and John Steele eds.
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Why the Sciences of the Ancient World Matter
[Reviewed by
Duncan J. Melville
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The scholars of Late Babylonian Uruk in southern Mesopotamia had a written heritage stretching back almost three thousand years. Some parts of this heritage were known, some forgotten; some they tried to preserve, and in other areas they sought to advance. The modern scholarship of Uruk has also developed an extensive heritage, much of it tucked away in obscure technical works. In this volume an impressive array of modern scholars seek to bring together the various strands of our current understanding of their Urukean counterparts.

The term ‘Late Babylonian’ here roughly encompasses the last half of the first millennium BCE. At the opening of this period, Uruk was under Achaeminid (or Persian) rule; after 330 BCE under Seleucid (or Hellenistic) rule, and from the middle of the second century Parthian (or Arsacid) rule. One significant politico-religious event early on was the failed Babylonian revolt against Xerxes in 484 BCE. This led to the removal of the elite Babylon-based families that had been prominent in Uruk and the consequent rise of Urukean families as well as the replacement of the primacy of the Eanna temple complex dedicated to Ištar with the Rēš temple of the god Anu. Later, the defeat of the Persians by Alexander and conquest of Mesopotamia introduced a broad strain of Hellenistic influence, especially in astronomy.

Excavation of Uruk has principally been in the hands of German archeologists, beginning with Julius Jordan in 1912 and 1913 before being interrupted by war. German excavations resumed in 1928 and continued until 1939 before being interrupted by war, resuming again in 1953 and continuing on more or less until the present, with pauses for regional conflicts. Both before proper excavations began and during the various interruptions, parts of Uruk have been well-looted by local entrepreneurs. Consequently, tablets from Uruk are widely dispersed in museum collections, and come with varying degrees of attested provenance, thus complicating the work of modern scholars.

The volume opens with a 50-page introductory chapter by the editors framing the setting and scope of the subsequent chapters probing specific areas of Late Babylonian Urukean scholarship. The editors locate the site in its context giving some general historical background before diving into the archaeology in more detail. The scholarly tablets considered here mostly come from two main locations, or archives, one in the Rēš temple and the other from a private house of a family of āšipus (medicine and ritual priests) in two separate historical phases. Many Late Babylonian scholarly tablets bear extensive colophons giving details of date, authorship and pedigree, allowing the reconstruction of family relationships among the scholars. Included in this introductory chapter is a very useful extensive table detailing all the tablets discussed in the rest of the volume, their dates, findspots where known, current location and museum numbers, contents, publication history and where they are discussed in the current volume. Gathering all this information in one place obviates a lot of repetition in later chapters.

It is the nature of scholars to create commentaries on the texts they study, and Mesopotamian scholars were no different. Some 90 commentaries on the core divinatory, medical and lexical texts are known. The extant commentaries themselves derive from earlier versions, but are rarely exact copies. In Chapter 2 Uri Gabbay and Enrique Jiménez consider these commentary texts with particular reference to those connected to the Gimil-Sîn family of Nippur, showing how the Uruk commentaries reveal regional traditions and connections with Nippur and other cities, and displaying travel of both scholars and tablets between centers of learning.

Turning to mathematics, Christine Proust considers a collection of mathematical tablets from the ‘House of the āšipus’ with particular reference to their engagement with metrology. By the Achaemenid period many of the metrological units and systems of the Old Babylonian period were no longer in use. The Uruk tablets contain both tables and problems working with both traditional and contemporary systems, preserving their heritage while at the same time training scribes in current usage, especially surface metrology, a topic not needed for astronomy.

Along with mathematical texts, the ‘House of the āšipus’ did contain some forty astronomical and astrological texts. In Chapter 4, John Steele analyzes this corpus, connecting it to the other scholarly concerns of the families who inhabited the house during its two separate phases of occupation. Many of these texts are reference texts, extracts from standard works and commentaries, with only a few showing evidence of actual astronomical practice.

While Steele is mostly concerned with the astronomical content and restricts himself to the tablets from the ‘House of the āšipus’, in Chapter 5 Hermann Hunger takes on the astrological texts, but those from all findspots, including the Rēš temple, giving him a corpus of some sixty texts to work with from both the Achaemenid and Seleucid periods. Many of these texts are extracts from the series Enūma Anu Enlil of celestial omens, or commentaries on them. Beyond this collection, the astrological texts are quite diverse illustrating a range of interests of the Urukean scholars, and demonstrating their connections to other centers, especially Babylon.

The excavations at the Rēš temple uncovered several collection of scholarly mathematical texts, including a group from the Achaemenid period. In Chapter 6, Mathieu Ossendrijver takes a close look at the three tablets from around 250-160 BCE during the following Seleucid period. The tablets are a large table of regular sexagesimal numbers and their reciprocals, where Ossendrijver seeks to uncover the computational procedures underlying the table through an analysis of the errors; a compilation of geometrical and metrological problems, and a combined multiplication table.

Turning away from technical mathematical questions, in Chapter 7 Julia Krul notes that most of the scholars with whom we have been concerned were priests of the sky god Anu. As such, an interest in things astronomical and astrological is perhaps unsurprising. Turning this around, Krul argues that the intense intellectual engagement with the celestial sciences had an effect on religious though and practice in both Uruk and Babylon with stars and planets playing an increased role in daily rituals and the cultic calendar aligned with astronomically significant events.

Continuing in the astronomical vein, in Chapter 8, Paul-Alain Beaulieu two particular pieces of evidence for the connections and interactions between Greek and Babylonian thought in the Seleucid period. The introduction of the zodiac in Babylonia, probably in the fifth century, was a pre-requisite for the development of mathematical astronomy, and scholars generally assume that it spread to the Greek world from there with some of the constellations coming as part of the import. Here, Beaulieu argues that the Babylonian constellation the Hired Man was resisted and replaced by the pre-existing Greek constellation of the Ram (Aries), which in turn made its way into Babylonian astronomy. Beaulieu’s other strand involves a tablet listing names and epithets of Antu, the consort of Anu. The tablet contains a curious ‘catch-line” at the end, which he argues suggests traces of Pythagorean cosmology.

Rounding out the volume, Alexander Jones considers the knowledge of Uruk and its scholars in the Greco-Roman world. The evidence is scanty and it seems Uruk left little impact, but Jones introduces a papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus which fittingly associates Uruk scholars with particular parameters in Babylonian mathematical astronomy.

This volume brings together a collection of modern scholars, each with their own areas of expertise, who together illustrate the breadth and intellectual interests of their predecessors from Late Babylonian Uruk.

Duncan J. Melville is a Professor of Mathematics at St. Lawrence University.