Welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
The Babylonians were famous as astronomers. And rightly so. They made careful observations, recognised cycles, and were able to predict eclipses and all sorts of other events accurately. Only a few years ago, it was discovered that they were able to track the path of Jupiter using a technique familiar to NASA scientists.
We know that the Greeks were fascinated by Babylonian astronomy, and consumed it with relish. They translated whatever they could find. Of particular interest was a series of texts known to us as “astronomical diaries”. These texts are equally prized today, and for much more than just their remarkable astronomy.
Our guest is an expert in the “astronomical diaries”. He explains the extraordinary significance of these texts, and what they can tell us about the history, economy, and environment of ancient Iraq.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hi, Jon. Thank you for having me.
Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Reinhard Pirngruber. I’m a historian of the ancient Near East. And I’m specialising in the social and economic history of Babylonia during the first millennium BC. I’m currently employed at the University of Vienna, where I am the PI (Principal Investigator) of a research project on the so-called “astronomical diaries” from the city of Babylon.
Could you introduce us to the diaries, please? When and where are we talking about, and what is an astronomical diary?
So, the astronomical diaries, they are a group of observational records, one can say. The majority of these texts, they date through the centuries between roughly 401 to 100 BCE. It’s a fairly large corpus of cuneiform texts. It consists of about 700 tablets that are published, with some additional as of yet unpublished fragments and tablets in the British Museum, which should raise the grand total of the corpus to about 1,000 tablets.
A standard diary, as they are called, would record events for six months: three months on the front side and three months on the backside. The sections for the different months, they were separated by the means of a simple horizontal ruling. The arrangement within the sections was fairly stable over time. A text would usually start with the astronomical section, which was also the longest section and in particular, focusing on the path of the moon through the ecliptic.
However, in addition to the standard diaries, there was a bewildering variety of different tablet formats and layouts. So one conspicuous subgroup are the so-called “preliminary diaries”, which recorded events for a few days only. So they are tiny tablets. And they would contain information for five days, for example, only. And we assume that the redaction process was that these preliminary diaries later on were compiled into these larger standard diaries.
And besides these six month diaries and the preliminary diaries, also other series existed. For example, especially during the fourth century, we have a series of astronomical diaries that would record events for four months. And these four month diaries also tended to have a catchline, which is basically a line that would give the first line of the next tablet in a series. So we know that these four month diaries were one coherent series. And interestingly, it was also these diaries, the only ones that have a colophon. That is, they mentioned the name of the scribes. And we know that these diaries belonged to a family of astronomers from the city of Babylon that went by the clan name of Mushezib. So a family of ancient scholars, so to speak.
So what’s written on this group of tablets?
It’s a very peculiar corpus of cuneiform texts, because of its very long lifespan, and its overall coherence. Regarding the contents, it’s important to remember that the designation astronomical diary is a modern expression. It was assigned to this group of tablets by a scholar called Abraham Sachs. The Babylonian designation of this group of tablets was different; it was “Natsaru sha gine”, which means something like “regular observations”. So it’s a much broader focus than only the astronomical section, though it has to be conceded that the majority of a tablet is dedicated to astronomical phenomena.
The scribes of these tablets were in particular interested in the position of the moon in the sky, and especially the path of the moon through the ecliptic. So for each month and night by night, the Babylonian astronomers, they would measure the distance of the moon from certain normal stars. What is usually recorded is the position of the planets visible to the free eye, which are Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, and Mercury. They would also be, of course, very much interested in other phenomena such as eclipses.
But in addition to these astronomical phenomena, they would also record a broad variety of other phenomena. For example, they were interested in the weather. They were interested in the level of the Euphrates river that was flowing through the city of Babylon. They were interested in recording commodity prices, or rather the silver equivalence of distinct commodities. And they would also record history, or events that we would describe as historical on both the regional and the local, but also the supra-regional level, so the imperial level.
So we have to remember that at the time that these astronomical diaries were recorded and compiled, Babylon was governed by foreign dynasts. First, the Achaemenid dynasty. The Achaemenids were an Iranian Persian dynasty, who conquered large parts of the ancient Near East in the course of the sixth century, including all of Babylonia, and Assyria. And they went on to reign over Babylonia for about 200 years, until being ousted from the city by the Greeks around 330 in the form of Alexander the Great and his successors. Most prominent or most important among them, Seleucus, would establish the Seleucid dynasty. So the Seleucid dynasty would reign over Babylonia for about 200 years, until being expelled from there by the Parthians and other Iranian tribes, who ruled over Babylonia after 140 BC circa and until the end of cuneiform documentation. The latest cuneiform documents that we have they date to the first century Common Era. However, the astronomical diaries they end slightly before that the latest astronomical diary extant dates to the year 60 before Common Era.
Unfortunately, these tablets have not been found in the course of regular excavations, but they were acquired roughly during the last quarter of the 19th century by the British Museum. The overwhelming majority of tablets arrived in a five year span only between 1876 and 1881 in the museum. We can tell only indirectly that they are actually from the city of Babylon. First of all, because the focus of some of the sections of these texts is on the city of Babylon itself. And secondly, because they were acquired together with other tablets, business archives, for example of the Egibi family that we know are from the city of Babylon, because these tablets explicitly state that they were drafted in the city of Babylon.
Who made these diaries?
Well, unfortunately, the astronomical diaries, they do not have a colophon. So they do not record the name of the author or compiler who produced a certain tablet. However, we know from one legal text, the identity of some of these people. And they go by the professional designation of tupshar Enuma Anu Enlil, which means “scribe of the omen series Enuma Anu Enlil”. And these people were astronomers / astrologers affiliated with the Esangila temple, which is the city of Babylon’s central shrine. So this court protocol, which dates to the year 119 BCE, records what would happen if one of these astronomers passed away. Because his belongings or his income that accrued to him as part of the function he fulfilled for the temple, they passed first on to a colleague of him, who is likewise a tupshar Enuma Anu Enlil. And a couple of months after the death of this astronomer, his son, a certain Bel-utsurshu, came forward and claimed that he was now able to perform the observations for the temple. And hence he laid claim to his father’s income, which then after he has successfully proven that he was indeed able to carry out the observations to do the natsaru, he was granted his father’s former income.
Why did people write down these observations?
So we don’t really know why these astronomical diaries were compiled, and why certain phenomena were included, and others were not–what their original purpose was. What we can see is that as their native title indicates, the regularities were of particular interest for these Babylonian scribes. This pertains to the astronomical sphere, but also to terrestrial events. For example, we know that the river level of the Euphrates reaches its maximum height after the spring floods in the month of April and May, then will slowly decrease during summer, before slowly starting to rise again in winter, before peaking with the spring flood. The same pattern of a cyclical event also pertains to prices. So, for example, barley prices, they were lowest immediately after the harvest and then started to slowly rise during the year, peaking of course in the month immediately preceding the new harvest. And the same pattern also applies to the price of dates. So barley and dates were two of the commodities for which prices were recorded.
Why are the diaries important to us now?
The diaries are important, because they are the most important source on various aspects of late Babylonian history. They are indeed one of the largest collections of observed data for any period in world history before the modern era. So they are key for tracking developments in Babylonian astronomy, which was a very dynamic field in the first millennium BC. They provide us with unique insight into the economic data of Babylonia for the centuries for which we have these diaries. And of course, they are also a valuable source for political history of late Achaemenid and Hellenistic Babylonia. For example, one diary contains a report of the battle near Gaugamela when Alexander the Great defeated the last Achaemenid King, Darius the Third. And it also tells us about Alexander’s entry into the city of Babylon shortly thereafter. This is a an almost contemporary account of a battle that is otherwise only known through Greek and Roman historians, whose accounts date of course significantly later.
And of course, especially on the local level, which is then completely beyond the purview of Greek and Roman historians, the diaries are our only source for events that have taken place. Another diary that has long since been known, tells us about the preparations that took place in the city of Babylon in the course of the first Syrian war, which took place in 270 BCE, and was a conflict between Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire, including Babylonia. So we didn’t know anything about this war, apart from the fact that it took place until the discovery of this diary, which tells us that in order to prepare for one battle that took place in Syria, the satrap of Bactria, which is a province to the east of Babylon, in modern day Afghanistan, sent 20 war elephants to King Seleucus, and these were temporarily stationed in the city of Babylon, where a large part of the army assembled in order to do battle.
How do they relate to other texts? Do they draw on other sources, or are they use the sources for other texts?
There is a rather complex relationship between the astronomical diaries and various other late Babylonian texts. For example, there is the so-called “Hellenistic Chronicles” series, which are quite similar in scope to the historical sections of the astronomical diaries. However, they only contain historical information. So they skip all the astronomical and economic observations. They are very similar in the terminology they employ, in the topics covered, but their precise relationship has so far not yet been explored. And also, of course, on the astronomical side of things, there’s a whole plethora of genres that are related in one way or another to the astronomical diaries, or that even are based on observations from these diaries.
So one purpose of the astronomical diaries was indeed sort of establishing an empirical basis for astronomical calculations and for astronomic predictions, and we can assume that the Babylonian scholars may have thought that given that there are regularities that are clearly visible and calculable in the sky, this maybe may pertain to the earth as well. Hence, they’re interested in phenomena that are potentially cyclical. So they thought maybe to establish relationships between the movements of the planets and the moon in the sky, the oscillations of commodity prices, the fluctuations of the river level, and probably the events in what we would call political history as well.
The scholars are interested in using the connections between phenomena to understand what might happen next. But once events are recognised as cyclical and predictable, wouldn’t that reduce their ominous potential?
So what we can observe during the first millennium BC is the creation of a new research paradigm, if one wants to use this sort of anachronistic term. So instead of trying to predict future events on the basis of omens, so “if x happens, then y happens”, Babylonians maybe tried to calculate future events by means of a mathematical method–the rise of mathematical astronomy, one might say, rather than inferring from what will happen by means of ominous analogies.
What do they tell us about the economy of Babylonia at that time?
The astronomical diaries, they provide us with a rather large database of commodity prices. We have about 3,000 prices or price equivalents for the period between 400 and 60 BCE. These 3,000 prices are scattered over six commodities. So the astronomical diaries, they always would record the price equivalent for the same six commodities, which are, as already mentioned barley and dates, which were the food staple of the Babylonian diet. And in addition, we would have sesame, which was the most important plant for obtaining oil–similar to the role that olives played for the ancient Mediterranean. We would have kasu, which we don’t really know what it is. But it was used as a condiment for brewing barley beer. We would have cress, which was a vital source of vitamins. And the only non-food commodity for which prices were recorded was wool.
So the Babylonians did not really record prices in the sense of a certain quantity that would be acquired for a fluctuating amount of silver. It was quite the other way around, which is why I’ve been talking about price equivalence. So it was always how much of one commodity could be obtained for one shekel, which is roughly eight grams of silver. The key contribution of this database of prices, if we want to call it that, is that it helps us understand how the market worked in the first millennium BC Babylonia, because what research that took place over the last 20 or so years has shown is the existence of a market determined by supply and demand can no longer be doubted for Babylonia. So we do not have this system of redistribution where all the harvest was collected by the temple and from their centralised, given out to its dependents and to the farmers. Rather that markets played a rather important role in particular, after the sixth century BCE. And what the price is recorded in the diaries show us and also by means of statistical methods, is the impact of political history on these prices. So we can actually see and demonstrate that in the case of the warfare in Babylonia prices would go up. And we can track these price oscillations over rather long periods, which makes this database quite important, because we do not have such a thing for Greek or Roman antiquity.
Could you explain the significance of the environmental data in the diaries, please?
It was once assumed that the meteorological observations–so the weather observations–that they only recorded when it inhibited astronomers from observing the sky. So they would record something like “on this day, clouds were in the sky, and I could not perform my observations”. However, such a conceptualisation is too narrow, because we see that many, many other phenomena were recorded. We have very detailed recordings of the wind direction, for example, so on what day did the wind blow from what of our cardinal directions. We have recordings of rain, and even of whether it rained heavily, or whether there was just a small rain shower. We have recordings of particularly hot days, for example. And it was registered when a night was particularly cold.
So in my ongoing research project, we have looked at these weather observations in some more detail. And they actually distributed over the year exactly as one might expect. So for example, all attestations of the month being particularly cold fall in the period between December, January and February. So it was not that they would say, “Oh, it’s particularly cold for August today”. It was only cold in winter. And references to heat, of course, only took place during the summer months. And you can see this pattern also with the rainfalls. We now have quite a good idea during what months precipitation took place. And again, we are talking here about the rather regular phenomenon … the cyclical phenomenon, because it was always rainy during late autumn and the winter months. Whereas for the summer months, we hardly have any attestation of rain for certain years. So these weather observations are still very under explored and together with archaeological data, they could provide us really important information about the climate and climate developments in the first millennium BC.
The information in the diaries achieves its importance when it can be dated. How far can this material be securely dated?
Well, yes. Most of the astronomical diaries have several date formulas on them. In particular on the edges and on the end of the tablet. So there’s a very good chance with the astronomical diaries that the date is actually recorded, or at least the year when the tablet was compiled. If this is not possible, then it is possible for astronomers to decide the date on the basis of the constellations in the sky. But this is way above my paygrade.
You’re working with a large group of structured texts that lend themselves quite well to computer aided analysis. Can you tell us a little bit about your work on that, please?
Yeah, so as the diaries are a rather coherent corpus, they of course are a good test case for a computer assisted analysis. So what we have done so far is to provide a lemmatised digital edition on Oracc, which is the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus. We have been drawing up a commentary to the historical passages that will be published together with Bert van der Spek to make this important text group available and more easily accessible for a wider audience. And for our digital analysis, we would like to focus on changes over time and variations between the different tablet formats in the corpus of the diaries. So we chose an approach that emphasises evolutions and heterogeneity in this corpus that has so far always been approached as a database of facts of sorts.
So, one thing that we try to do is to see whether there are any developments in content over the centuries. So what we are trying to do, takes its cue from a method called topic modeling, which means that we divide the text into different semantic clusters or topics. And the identification of these clusters is simply affected by the use of certain buzzwords. So to give a concrete example, we have an abstract category called “warfare”, to which we would attribute all words like “battle” or “fighting” and “killing” and “field camp”, and so on. And then we would like to trace how attestations of warfare correlate with other phenomena. For example, would the Babylonian scribes in years of warfare focus also on phenomena associated with a different planet–for example, Venus.
Another aspect that we’re interested in is the development over time and over tablet categories. So for example, were the Babylonian scribes interested in warfare related events, in particular, during periods of regime changes? Or are certain phenomena associated with particular subgroups within the text corpus? These are the kinds of questions that we’re trying to tackle. Technically, it means that we are working with the text in XML files. And we are currently devising a encoding scheme that is specific to our requirements and which is based on the TEI standards, so the Text Encoding Initiative standards. And once we have encoded our Akkadian terms and attributed them to the abstract concepts or topics, we would like to carry out these aforementioned analyses.
How can we follow your work?
You can easily follow my work on Academia.edu, where I regularly upload most of my published papers.
Thank you very much.
Yeah, thank you for inviting me.
I’d also like to thank our patrons Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Haider al-Rekabi, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Michael Katsevman, Mend Mariwany, Kathryn Topper, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Sophus Helle, Shai Gordon, Aaron Macks, Jonathan Stökl, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, and Heather Baker. I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.
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