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.

Samstag, 12. Oktober 2019

Rituelle Gewalt – Rituale der Gewalt. 12. mitteldeutscher Archäologentag in Halle an der Saale.

Vom 10. bis 12. Oktober fand in Halle an der Saale der 12. mitteldeutschen Archäologentag statt, eine internationale Tagung unter dem Titel „Rituelle Gewalt – Rituale der Gewalt“, die sich mit Konzepten von Gewalt, ihrer Ausübung und möglichen Ritualisierungen in unterschiedlichen Kontexten der Ur- und Frühgeschichte, des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit auseinandersetzte. Das Thema „Gewalt“ liegt unseren Forschungsinteressen sehr nahe und ist darüber hinaus ein Haupbestandteil unserer Dissertationsprojekte.

Wir freuten uns sehr darüber, gleich zu Beginn unserer Tätigkeit als wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter des GRK 1876 an der Tagung teilnehmen zu können. Der erste Tagungstag (10. Oktober) überschnitt sich tatsächlich mit dem letzten Tag unserer Einführungswoche, sodass wir erst am Ende des ersten Tags der Tagung ankamen, an dem es auf theoretischer Ebene um Gewalt und ihre anthropologischen und sozialen Auswirkungen ging. Wir kamen noch rechtzeitig an für den Vortrag von Herrn Prof. Roderick Campbell (New York), „Ritual Violence, Sovereignty and Being“, der nicht nur ein theoretisches Konzept von Gewalt als politisches und soziales Element der Menschengeschichte präsentierte, sondern auch Bezug auf sein Spezialgebiet nahm: den spezifischen Fall der Menschenopfer während der chinesischen Shang-Dynastie. Beim anschließenden Stehempfang hatten wir die Gelegenheit, uns mit anderen Fachkolleginnen und Forscherinnen zu unterhalten, und David durfte Fragen zu seinem Poster beantworten (Abb. 1).
Abb. 1. David Usieto stellt sein Poster vor.

Am zweiten Tag (11. Oktober) wurde in mehreren Vorträgen die Bedeutung von Gewalt und ihrer Ritualisierung im Kontext unterschiedlicher Fundstellen aus Mitteleuropa und dem Nahen Osten gezeigt - aber auch aus dem jeweiligen iranischen und tibetischen Kulturkreis in Bezug auf die sog. „Himmel- bzw. Luftbestattung“, wovon Herr Dr. François Bertemes (Halle) berichtete. Bemerkenswert waren u.a. die Vorträge zu den Massengräbern aus Halberstadt von Herrn Dr. Christian Meyer (Goslar) und Salzmünde von Frau Dr. Susanne Friedereich (Halle) als Überblick der mesolithischen und neolithischen Praktiken und kulturellem Wandel im regionalen Bereich von Sachsen-Anhalt. Für mich persönlich interessant waren insbesondere der Vortrag von Herrn Dr. Fabian Haack (Stuttgart) über rituelle Gewalt in der Fundstelle aus Herxheim, Rheinland-Pfalz (Abb. 2), sowie der Vortrag von Herrn Dr. André Spatzier (Esslingen) und Herrn Marcus Stecher (Mainz) über das Ringheiligtum in Pömmelte, Sachsen-Anhalt, und die dort gefundenen menschlichen Skelette. Herr Spatzier berichtete als Grabungsleiter über die archäologischen Ergebnisse seiner Arbeit und Herr Stecher ergänzte aus seiner Sicht als Anthropologe mit Informationen zu gewalttätigen Spuren an den Knochen der Fundstelle.
Abb. 2. Herr Dr. Haack berichtet über Herxheim
Für weitere Einblicke in die Tagung übergebe ich nun gerne an meinen Kollegen David Usieto Cabrera:

The second day of the conference was also set within the research topic of this year’s conference: “Ritual Gewalt – Rituale Gewalt”, but this time the main focus was European Prehistory as well as the Ancient Middle East and Egypt. 

Within this line, it is worth mentioning the speech by Prof. Hafford from Penn Museum about the Royal Cemetery of Ur and the new outcomes regarding the well-known ritual killing from the cemetery. His project “Ur Online” offers an insight into the unique site of Ur, near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, one of the largest and most important cities of ancient Mesopotamia. Excavations at Ur between 1922 and 1934 by Sir Leonard Woolley, jointly sponsored by the British Museum and the Penn Museum, uncovered Ur’s famous ziggurat complex, densely packed private houses, and the Royal Cemetery. The speech proposed the new outcomes on the study of Human Sacrifice taken place at the Royal Cemetery, where Woolley uncovered 16 tombs that he designated as "Royals" due to the findings: high number of spectacular grave goods as well as human offerings (from 2 bodies up to 70 aprox), interpreted as royal attendants. 

Headdress of Sumerian queen Puabi
Image 3: Head piece of Queen Pua-bi, from Royal Cemetery of Ur (Penn Museum)

After various speeches focusing on the German site of Salzmünde, and the Egyptian site of Hierakonpolis, we headed to the Landesmuseum where we shared very interesting perspectives to enrich our research projects. There was a dinner and a small cocktail-meeting to go through the conference in an informal context. 

The last day of the conference focused mainly on ancient Mesoamerican cultures, as well as modern and contemporary studies, such as the Valle de los Caídos in Spain and how it can be seen as a modern domination and religious control over the cosmogonic vision of Spanish people (image 4). It is also worth mentioning that this speech is taking place in the middle of a problematic political situation where the body of the dictator Francisco Franco is being removed from el Valle de los Caídos. 

Image 4: Conference about "Valle de los Caidos"

Image 5 and 6. Halle main street.

Donnerstag, 25. Juli 2019

Report on the 30th AKAN Conference, June 28-29, Marburg

A blog post by Aleksandar Milenković.

Traditionally, every fifth year, the AKAN conference is organized at another university. This year’s 30th AKAN took place at the Philipps-Universität in Marburg, a beautiful university town in Hessen. The conference was organized by Univ.-Prof. Dr. Jochen Althoff and Prof. Dr. Sabine Föllinger. This time, the programme was divided into two days, with the keynote lecture taking place on June 28th and the rest of the talks on June 29th.

Fig. 1: AKAN flyer.
The keynote speaker, Prof. Dr. Georg Wöhrle, gave a talk about western science and philosophy with a focus on Thales of Miletus, one of the early Greek philosophers from the 7th-6th century BC.
Fig. 2: AKAN program.

Angela Pabst from Halle focused on Aristotle’s zoology and looked into traces of phronesis and ethos in animals. She examined Aristotle’s observation of behaviour in living animals, trying thereby to answer the question of how Aristotle obtained the information on this topic.

Sergiusz Kazmierski offered his research on the ever-intriguing question of the soul in the body according to Aristotle by cross-examining several texts, while Gottfried Heinemann focused solely on Aristotle’s Physika and investigated argumentation and demonstration in this treatise.

Katharina Bick investigated the role of astronomy and astronomical events within the agricultural calendars in the works of Varro, Columella and Pliny the Elder. She showed how Columella’s information is imprecise and unreliable due to his lack of knowledge of astronomy, while Pliny instructs the readers to observe the stars and nature themselves, thus betraying considerable astronomical knowledge.

Lothar Willms researched the Stoics’ reception of the so-called Presocratic philosophers in the 1st century BC/1st century AD. Namely, he offered an overview of passages from Poseidonius and Seneca the Younger (Naturales Quaestiones) that focussed on early philosophers whose works are otherwise lost.

Christoph Hammann spoke about Plotin’s differentiation between plants, animals and humans, a question that had been raised in previous talks in the context of Aristotle as well. Hammann began by tackling Plotin’s explanations to the question: how is it that different creatures come to be at all, when the soul is by itself unchangeable and imperishable and all souls have the same nature because they all stem from the world’s soul. Humans are seen closer to animals and plants than to gods and they are not considered as the center of the universe.

In the closing talk of this year’s AKAN, Wolfgang Hübner presented a rather fascinating connection between the constellation of Engonasin-Hercules, the cross of Saint Peter and the Vatican obelisk. 
Fig. 3: Old town in Marburg (Photo by A. Milenkovic).

Between the morning and afternoon sessions, there was enough time to take a walk through Marburg and even walk up to the castle overlooking the whole town, or to grab ice cream and enjoy the sun at the busy campus. Next year the conference is coming back home, and hopefully we will welcome curious scholars from Marburg in Mainz in June. 
Fig. 4: Old town in Marburg (Photo by A. Milenkovic).

Last year’s AKAN papers came out of print this year, and can already be ordered online.