Mesopotamian Civilization

So much of our contemporary culture and civilization stems from the Mediterranean basin and ultimately from Mesopotamia that it is not surprising to find the roots for astronomical concerns and practices there too. It is an understatement to say that this ancient world has had a profound effect on the development of our own, but it may not be realized that astronomical records have illumined much more than how the ancients carried out their observations. In his Henry Norris Russell Lecture to the American Astronomical Society in 1967, Otto Neugebauer described the history of decipherment of Babylonian astronomical texts, and said of Fr. J. Epping, that "Few modern historians know that their chronological framework for the history of the 'Hellenistic' period (from Alexander to the Roman imperial period) rests on astronomical data established by Epping." Although this is an overstatement,1 it conveys something of the importance not only of our heritage, but also of how we continue to benefit from the ancient root and source of science. The heritage is demonstrated in such widely diverse matters as the way we refer to angles and time intervals and adminster legal systems. Here, however,

1 See, for example, Bickerman's 1968/1969 Chronology of the Ancient World for a more comprehensive and detailed view.

we summarize only the most basic aspects of our knowledge of the astronomy of ancient Mesopotamia, and for further details refer the reader to studies by Neugebauer, Sachs, Aaboe, and van der Waerden, cited below.

The region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers has been traditionally known as the "cradle of civilization" because of the origin of many ideas carried forward into modern society, including that most important early incentive to stationary life, agriculture. The chronology of the region is given in Table 7.1. For a good summary, see A. Leo Oppenheim's Ancient Mesopotamia (1977) and the Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. I and II. Most of the characteristics that have been used to define civilization first appeared together in Mesopotamia about 3500 b.c. Writing seems to have developed out of the use of tokens to represent animals in various sorts of exchanges. Architecture had been getting more complex in Anatolia, the Syrian coast, and Mesopotamia over nearly two millennia, and thoroughly urban walled cities with massive monumental buildings for religion and administration had become normal. The building material was normally baked or sun-dried clay, because all stone had to be imported to this sandy area. The transport systems included elaborate use of reed and skin boats, with sails, and good canals and docking facilities. A variety of carts and wagons were in use both to supply the needs of the cities and for warfare. Food was supplied primarily by farming, using plows, and heavily dependent on sophisticated irrigation systems. The most important crops were wheat in Assyria and barley in Babylon. Emmer wheat and millet were also grown. Among the vegetables, only onions, garlic, and leaks were important. Many fruit trees were grown, among which only the date palms were economically important. Flax was grown primarily for its fibers and secondarily for its oil. Sheep and goats supplied meat, wool, and perhaps milk, and cattle and pigs were important sources of meat. There were special birdkeepers for many kinds of birds; ducks and geese were most important. Donkeys, mules, and horses were important in transport and farm work, although not ridden. Chariots were used from lo h-1 lO

Table 7.1. Chronology of Ancient Mesopotamia.

Age/tradition

Date

Culture/group

Kings/events/inventions

Literary sources

Cross-dating

Neolithic Chalcolithic

Bronze Age

Iron Age

6000 b.c. 5500 4500 3750 3200 3000 2600 2300

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