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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Evidence and Representation - Keeping Watch in Babylon: the astronomical diaries between science and history. (Conference)

24th June 2016, 09:30 to 16:45, Department of Classics and Ancient History, Durham University, North Bailey

International Conference sponsored by the British Academy
, the IAS, the Department of Classics and Ancient History and the Durham Centre for the Study of the Ancient Mediterranean and the Near East

The Astronomical Diaries are a set of texts from ancient Babylon which, over a period of several centuries (8th - 1st century BC), charted the movement of celestial bodies as well as reporting on the weather, the economy, and historical events in and around Mesopotamia. Observations were recorded in a dispassionate style, and with an accuracy that has long made the Diaries an important source of scientific and historical evidence. However, in the wake of Sachs and Hunger’s ground-breaking edition, scholars have begun to ask how the Diaries functioned as texts with an agenda and discursive texture of their own. Thus, Yasuyuki Mitsuma has studied the elaborate process whereby they were assembled from the raw data of astronomical and historical observation; while Reinhard Pirngruber has investigated how the genre adapted to shifts in Babylonian scientific and historical thought. This conference – the first ever devoted to the Astronomical Diaries as literature – takes inspiration from the work of these scholars. We ask in what sense the Diaries might be said to function as a ‘cardiogram’ of successive empires (to use Drews’ apt metaphor): what symptoms did they collect, and how did they describe them? Does it matter, for example, that they associated astronomical observation with eyesight whereas they framed historical knowledge as hearsay? We also ask how the genre developed over time: can we make out a distinctly Achaemenid, Seleucid or Parthian style of ‘keeping watch’ (Akk. naşāru ša ginê), as the authors themselves referred to their activity? Or are there other factors that account for changes in tone and narrative texture? Then again, we are interested in the Diaries’ literary affiliations: what scholarly and historical literature (e.g. Šumma izbu and other omen compendia; Babylonian chronicles) influenced the development of the genre at different points in time, and what impact, if any, did the Diaries have on other texts? Throughout the conference, our emphasis will be not on the data contained in the Diaries, as evidence for modern historians and astronomers, but rather on how the data were selected and presented in the Diaries themselves,as a means to ascertain the state of Babylon, the empire, and the cosmos as a whole.


Lucinda Dirven (Amsterdam)

Johannes Haubold (Durham)

Hermann Hunger (Vienna)

Paul Kosmin (Harvard)

Irene Madreiter (Innsbruck)

Mathieu Ossendrijver (Berlin)

ReinhardPirngruber (Vienna)

Eleanor Robson (London)

John Steele (Brown)

Kathryn Stevens (Durham)

Christopher Tuplin (Liverpool)

Marijn Visscher (Durham)


Friday, 24th June

9.30 Registration

10am-10.15 Welcome and introduction

10.15-11am J. Steele: ‘The development of observational practice and the early history of the Astronomical Diaries’

11-11.30am Coffee

11.30-12.15 E. Robson: ‘The Diaries in Babylonian political and institutional context’

12.15-1pm: ‘Keeping the tablets: archival aspects of the Astronomical Diaries’

1pm – 2pm Buffet Lunch

2pm-2.45 K. Stevens: ‘From Bahtar to Hani...’: imperial geographies in the Astronomical Diaries

2.45-3.30 M. Visscher: ‘Royal presence in the Astronomical Diaries’

3.30pm – 4pm Tea

4pm-4.45 P. Kosmin, ‘Aspects of empire in the Astronomical Diaries’

5.30-6.30 J. Steele, ‘Reading the sky in antiquity’, IAS-sponsored public lecture, Birley Room, Hatfield College

7.30 Conference Dinner at St. Chad’s College

Contact for more information about this event.