Donnerstag, 5. Dezember 2019

Shaping, Mirroring, Sharing the Illusory Reality through the Human Body: Cretan and Italic Anthropomorphic Figurines at the Very Beginning of the 1st Millennium B.C. Vortrag von Dr. Andrea Babbi am 5. Dezember 2019.


Ein Beitrag von Christoph Appel.
Bevor wir das Jahr 2019 in geselliger Runde ausklingen ließen, durften wir auf einen anregenden Plenumsvortrag von Dr. Andrea Babbi, Postdoktorand am GRK 1876, gespannt sein. Frühe Repräsentationsformen des Menschen standen im Mittelpunkt der Sitzung, die einen geographischen Schwerpunkt auf die Insel Kreta sowie die Apenninen-Halbinsel (Latium) in einem Zeitraum vom 11. bis 9. Jh. v.Chr. setzte. Bevor Andrea Babbi sich der Analyse der archäologischen Funde, hauptsächlich anthropomorpher Terrakotta-Figurinen, zuwandte, begann er seinen Vortrag mit einem Exkurs über die halluzinatorische Natur menschlicher Wahrnehmung.

Exkurs I: Halluzination und Metakognition
Menschliche Wahrnehmung lässt sich als eine Form kontrollierter Halluzination beschreiben. Andrea, der hierin der neurologischen Forschung Anil Seths folgte,[1] legte dar, dass das Gehirn des Menschen infolge äußerlicher Impulse eine Interpretation der Umwelt vornehme, diese mithin nicht passiv wahrgenommen, sondern im Vollzug erzeugt werde. Demgemäß erweise sich auch das Bewusstsein eines verkörperten Selbst als kontrollierte Halluzination, wodurch es, präzisierte Andrea mit dem Anthropologen Ernesto de Martino,[2] zugleich als historische Größe kultureller Prägung unterliege. Damit hänge auch das Verständnis einer Kulturgemeinschaft von ‚Realität‘ zusammen: eine weitgehend übereinstimmende Deutung halluzinatorischer Wahrnehmung. Dass dieses Konzept jedoch keineswegs unumstritten ist, wurde im Hinblick auf Julian Jaynes’ Theorie der bikameralen Psyche deutlich.[3] Dieser entwirft die Geschichte des menschlichen Bewusstseins als Auflösung eines unbewussten Wechselspiels zwischen rechter, global wahrnehmender und linker, detailfokussierter Hirnhemisphäre, die er im Verlauf des 2. Jt. v.Chr. ansetzt und den Beginn einer modernen, metabewussten Psyche markiere. Andrea wies darauf hin, dass Jaynes’ Überlegungen zuletzt durch den Psychiater Iain McGilchrist dahingehend erwidert wurden, dass die ausgewogene Interaktion zwischen beiden Hemisphären in bestimmten kulturellen, chronologischen und geographischen Kontexten abgeschwächt worden sein könnte.[4]

Exkurs II: Spiegelneuronen und Ritual
Bei der Frage nach der Konstruktion dessen, was eine Gruppe von Individuen als ‚Realität‘ begreife, ließen sich, weitete Andrea Babbi seinen Exkurs aus, Erkenntnisse aus den Neurowissenschaften und der Ethologie nutzbringend anwenden. So seien an der Harmonisierung wahrnehmungsbezogener Halluzinationen entscheidend sog. Spiegelneuronen beteiligt. Der Name dieser Nervenzellen, die in den 1990er-Jahren erstmals an Makaken erforscht wurden, nimmt Bezug auf ihre Einbindung in Prozesse der Beobachtung, Imitation und Aneignung von Handlungen und Emotionen, indem sie diese ‚spiegeln‘, d.h. dieselben neuronalen, physiologischen, motorischen und viszeralen Aktivitätsmuster bei einem Beobachter wie bei einem Ausführenden hervorrufen.[5] In Anlehnung daran könnten Riten und ritualisierte Handlungen als Mittel der Etablierung und Konsolidierung gemeinschaftlicher Wahrnehmung verstanden werden. Auch für rituellen Kontext bedeutsame Artefakte wie anthropomorphe Figuren stellten in diesem Sinne eine Spiegelung gemeinschaftlich erlebter, illusionärer Realität dar. Ihre Wirkungsweise als Aktivierung menschlicher Spiegelneuronen zu begreifen, bildete den Ausganspunkt für Andreas abschließenden Ausblick auf die archäologischen Funde.
 
Archäologische Funde
Eine zentrale Überlegung im Verlauf von Andrea Babbis vielfältiger Materialschau, war, inwiefern die archäologischen Funde Aussagen über das Bewusstsein des Menschen bezüglich seiner eigenen Existenz und Rolle innerhalb beständig sich wandelnder Formen der gesellschaftlichen Ordnung zulassen.

  • Kreta, postpalatiale Periode (1190–970 v.Chr.): Nach dem Zusammenbruch des Palastes von Knossos lassen sich im Kontext kleiner Kultschreine insgesamt recht homogene anthropomorphe Figurinen nachweisen. Diese zeichnen sich durch häufig übergroße Köpfe und Hände sowie eine aufrechte Armhaltung aus. Auch zoomorphe Elemente sind nicht selten (z.B. Schlangen, Vögel). Andrea führte aus, dass die besondere Modellierung einzelner Körperpartien auf eine jeweils unterschiedliche Art zur Aktivierung der Spiegelneuronen des Betrachters führen konnte. Zudem lasse die homogene Gestaltung auf ein System von Symbolen und Werten schließen, das von den einzelnen Strömungen der Gesellschaft (z.B. mykenischen oder minoischen) zutiefst geteilt werde. 

Abb. 1: Kreta, Gazi (Höhe: 58 cm)[6]

  • Kreta, protogeometrische Periode (970–810 v.Chr.): Es treten nun deutlich kleinere, heterogene anthropomorphe und zoomorphe Figurinen auf. Auffällig ist, dass die Gesellschaft in ihren Facetten (z.B. Anbeter, Krieger, klagende Frauen) stärker präsent ist. Möglich ist, dass die ikonographisch-visuellen Reize der Darstellungen eine Rolle bei der Zelebration von Schwellenmomenten (z.B. Pubertät, Tod) spielten und so den Aufbau einer gemeinsamen Realität bei zunehmend heterogenen Gesellschaften ermöglichten.

Abb. 2: Kreta, Symi Viannou (Höhe: 7,2 cm)[7]



  • Apenninen-Halbinsel, Albaner Berge (10./9. Jh. v.Chr.): Hier stammen sämtliche Funde aus Bestattungskontexten. Die als Grabbeigaben verwendeten Figurinen erweisen sich in ihrem ikonographischen Repertoire als homogen, entsprechen, soweit erkennbar, dem Geschlecht des Verstorbenen und fungieren vielleicht als kinetische Darstellung spezifischer Vorrechte des Toten, etwa als kommunikatives Bindeglied zwischen diesem und einer übernatürlichen Instanz.

Abb. 3: Grottaferrata, Villa Cavalletti, Nekropole, Grab VIII (Höhe: 13,7 cm)[8]




Andreas Vortrag, an den sich eine lebhafte Diskussion anschloss, konnte eindrucksvoll verdeutlichen, dass die Entscheidung für transdisziplinäres Arbeiten mit einer Weitung des wissenschaftlichen Horizontes einhergehen kann. Erst so schöpfen die altertumswissenschaftli­chen Fächer vollumfänglich ihre Potentiale für die ganzheitliche Erforschung früher Kulturgemeinschaften aus.



[1] Vgl. u.a. Anil Seth/Geraint Rees: „Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness“, Cognitive Neuroscience 1 (2010) (Special Issue); Anil Seth: „What in the world is consciousness?“, Science Nordic (veröff. 26.10.2018), [https://sciencenordic.com/biology-denmark-forskerzonen/what-in-the-world-is-consciousness/1459648; (letzter Aufruf: 06.01.2020)].

[2] Vgl. Ernesto de Martino: Sud e Magia, Mailand 1959; Ernesto de Martino: Il mondo magico. Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo, Turin 1973.

[3] Vgl. Julian Jaynes: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston/New York 1976.

[4] Vgl. Iain McGilchrist: The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven/London 32019.

[5] Vgl. Giacomo Rizzolatti/Corrado Senigallia: Specchi nel cervello. Come comprendiamo gli altri dall’interno, Mailand 2019.

[6] Giorgos Rethemiotakis: Ανθρωπομορφική πηλοπλαστική στην Κρήτη από τη Νεοανακτορική έως την Ψπομινωική περίοδο, Athen 1998, Taf. 44.

[7] Angeliki Lebessi: Το Ιερό του Ερμί και της Αφροδίτης στή Σύμη Βιάννου. ιιι. Τα χάλκινα αντθροπομόρφα ειδώλια, Athen 2002, pl. 11.


[8] Anna De Santis: Politica e leader nel Lazio ai tempi di Enea, Marino 2011, 20, Abb. 16.

Freitag, 22. November 2019

Eye medication in ancient cultures: towards an ethnopharmacological analysis of Egyptian and Hippocratic treatment strategies. Report on the second Plenumssitzung of Wi/Se 19/20

A Blog post by David Usieto Cabrera.


Aleksandar Milenković
, doctoral candidate in the Department of Classical Philology and Jonny Russell, doctoral candidate in Egyptology at the University of Leiden and associate doctoral candidate in Mainz, presented a talk related to their doctoral dissertations at the second Plenumssitzung of the winter semester on November 21, 2019.

The point of the talk was eye diseases and their treatments. In the texts studied from both traditions, minerals played a central role (contra to what you find elsewhere).  As Aleksandar showed, ancient Greek texts mention diseases like eyelid disorders, squinting, impaired vision, blindness, etc. Interestingly enough, copper was often used as a treatment. Jonny on the other hand discussed pigments including the microbial activity of Galena, and the specification for the prescription of wꜢḏ.w which is commonly translated as ‘malachite’ and sometimes ‘papyrus’ (citing discussions on the Science in Ancient Egypt website of the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig), but probably refers to any greeny-blue substance (likely mineral) used as pigment for colouring (and probably therefore also includes copper-based substances).

The focus of their investigation was the potential motivations for the selection and application of materia medica for eye-conditions. It was shown that the understanding of pathogenesis differed between the temporally disparate sources and was instead more coherent with prevailing cultural/philosophical models. The socio-cultural bases of the uses of plants and other natural remedies can be traced on a high number of societies around the globe. Several cultures have documented their knowledge of the use of plants in an extensive body of written sources. 

Greek sources

The first part of the talk focused on Ancient Greece. Aleksandar Milenković started out with his PhD project: “Concepts of visual perception in Greek scientific thought”. By using a philosophical perspective, eye envision was compared in early philosophy (Alcmaeon, Empedocles, Democritus), and perceived differently in antiquity (from the simplicity of water and fire, to atoms). Philosophers like Empedocles, have used the eye as a metaphor, and from a more scientific perspective, describing it as narrow vessels nourish with purest moisture, in which the image appears. 
Aleksandar Milenković showing different medical treatments. Photo © David Usieto Cabrera

Egyptian sources

Jonny Russell’s project, ”Ancient Egyptian Ethnomedicine: Explanatory Models and their Historical Contextualisation” focuses on historically contextualising the ancient Egyptian perspective of models for internal human physiology and pathogenesis and its link role as a potential motivator for the selection of materia medica. He referred to the Ebers Papyrus, which has the largest collection of eye medications.  This Papyrus is an Egyptian medical papyrus of not only plants, but minerals and animal products, as well as magical incantations knowledge dating to approx. 1550 BC. Among the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt, we find the Ebers Papyrus.

Ebers Papyrus. Photo taken from: https://papyrusebers.de



Jonny Russell's part of the talk showing Egyptian medical sources. Photo © David Usieto Cabrera

Aleksandar and Jonny showed us, that there are similarities but also many differences comparing texts from these two disciplines. To cite just some of them, while the Greek model works with explicit theoretical information; the Egyptian model works under an implicit theory (and explicit remedy). Furthermore, the most common class of ingredients is mineral (for both ancient Egypt and Greece); while in ancient Greece most common ingredients are copper(-related) and myrrh, and also with alcohol employed; in Egypt were galena, pigments and resins with no alcohol employed. 


To sum up, by attending my first Plenumssitzung I realize that by having this sort of scientific meetings, help us not only professionally mature but grow our own particular research. In this case, by analyzing together two cases separated in time and space (ancient Egypt and ancient Greece), it is easier to spot differences and similarities that otherwise will not be shown.


Aleksandar and Jonny sharing different perspectives on the talk. Photo © David Usieto Cabrera

Mittwoch, 30. Oktober 2019

Back at the Tablet House: Glimpses from a Research Trip to London and the British Museum Treasure Chest

A blog post by Ulrike Steinert.


It was the kind invitation of Diana Stein from Birkbeck College London, to present a talk at an on-going seminar organised by the London Centre for the Ancient Near East (LCANE), which initiated my recent research stay at London and, together with GRK 1876 funding, provided me with the welcome opportunity to spend a few days at the Middle East Study Room (“Arched Room”) of the British Museum. The BM houses probably the largest and most important collection of cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia worldwide – a true El Dorado for an Assyriologist. More so, the BM is an El Dorado for an Assyriologist interested in the medical lore of Mesopotamia, my favourite research topic.

The numerous wooden drawers lining the niched walls of the Arched Room contain a sheer treasure of documents and texts of all genres and types that were written down during the long history of Mesopotamian cultures, over a period of more than 3.000 years, in which cuneiform writing was used. Among them is an extensive collection of texts devoted to healing, including medical recipes, magic spells recited to “activate” medical remedies or to drive away sickness, as well as elaborate rituals.


Fig. 1: The Middle East Study Room at the British Museum. Photo © Ulrike Steinert. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

These clay tablets and fragments, written down and copied by ancient healers and learned scholars, date to different periods and stem from several urban centres of Babylonia and Assyria such as Babylon, Sippar or Ur. But the most famous group of manuscripts housed in the British Museum are undoubtedly the tablets belonging to medical compendia that were assembled by scholars at the royal court of Nineveh for king Ashurbanipal’s personal tablet collection, dating to the 7th century BCE.


Engaging with written objects: An Assyriologist’s bread and butter

Coming to museums such as the BM in order to engage with the material objects containing ancient texts is still of great importance to Assyriologists today, even though cuneiform tablets of museum collections are now increasingly made accessible through online research databases with digital images or electronic text editions. Yet, due to the material properties of clay tablets, their age and often poor state of preservation, and also due to the three-dimensionality of cuneiform writing (which was imprinted into the moist clay with a reed stylus), it can still be essential to personally check or collate tablets “with your own eyes” (and with a good magnifying glass!) in the owning collection. Moreover, since many of these texts could only be recovered as fragments that need to be re-assembled and joined back together like pieces of a puzzle, the process of actual decipherment of preserved fragments can be a pain-staking and difficult task, especially if no other manuscript duplicating a text is known or available.

During the four days of my stay at the Study Room, I had the chance to re-assess a number of Babylonian tablet fragments containing remedies for women, mostly dating to the first millennium BCE, which are concerned with problems of female health such as abnormal bleeding, infertility, miscarriage and difficult delivery. They belong to a quite diverse corpus of manuscripts, some of which served as specialist handbooks and reference works, while others form shorter extracts or even students’ classroom notes and exercises. Although I have now worked on this material for several years and a publication of this text corpus is nearing its conclusion, every day at the Study Room still yields new insights and some progress (however small), which still allows me to improve my reconstructions and understanding of textual details, and to elucidate difficult or damaged passages that I was previously unable to decipher or make sense of.


Fig. 2: What’s on my tray today? A few medical cuneiform tablets and fragments studied during my stay at the Middle East Study Room of the British Museum. Photo © Ulrike Steinert. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Ecstatic Experience in the Ancient World: A seminar at SOAS

It has also been a great pleasure for me to present a talk at the ongoing seminar and lecture series “Ecstatic Experience in the Ancient World”, which is convened by Diana Stein (Birkbeck) and Margaret Serpico (UCL) and takes place during this autumn term at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) (a programme can be found at the website of the London Centre for the Ancient Near East). Although ecstatic experience is known in some form in most if not all cultural and religious traditions, this topic has so far received little interest by scholars studying ancient Mesopotamia, making it a fascinating field for text-based and comparative research.

My presentation provided a kick-off discussing in which contexts ecstasy, defined as a state of altered consciousness, is encountered and discussed in cuneiform sources, how it is expressed and evaluated in this cultural tradition. The bigger part of my presentation however focused on spirit possession as a distinct class of medical conditions recognised in Mesopotamian medicine.


Spirit Possession in ancient Mesopotamia

Spirit possession as a phenomenon investigated in anthropological research and closely related to ecstatic experience commonly refers to a human being’s experience of being overwhelmed by an external force or powerful entity, which can be an ancestor, a deity, a ghost, demon or spirit. Possession has been described as including a broad spectrum of forms, ranging from trance as encountered in mediums and shamans, to pathological cases of dissociative identity disorder. In my talk, I presented a survey of “possession disorders” through the lens of diagnostic and therapeutic cuneiform texts, discussing their characteristics (external manifestations, aetiologies), and the forms of treatment applied to improve these conditions.

Based on anthropological studies, I argued that possession may be a more meaningful and suitable concept within the context of Mesopotamian medical traditions than the term “mental illness”, which is problematic because it ascribes a Cartesian dualism to a medical culture that does not clearly demarcate disorders of the body and mind. I also tried to disentangle which relations or differences exist between “possession disorders” characterised mainly by altered states of mind, mood and behaviour, and other types of ailments caused by superhuman agents (all of which are typically designated as the “Hand” of a deity or demon in Mesopotamian medicine). Lastly, the paper explored the similarities and relations between possession as a pathological condition and other states of altered consciousness, such as found in the trance of professional ecstatics/prophets becoming an instrument or mouth-piece of a divine agent.