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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Evidence and Representation: Public Lecture - ‘Reading the sky in antiquity’

24th June 2016, 17:30 to 18:30, Birley Room, Hatfield College, Durham University, Professor John Steele, Brown University


Professor John Steele (Brown University) is taking part in a 2-day conference, Keeping watch in Babylon: from evidence to text in the Astronomical Diaries. This lecture concludes day one of the conference.

About Professor John Steele
John Steele is Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity and Chair of the Department of Egyptology and Assyriology at Brown University. He is a historian of science and an Assyriologist who is particularly interested in the history of Babylonian astronomy and its place within Mesopotamian scholarly traditions.

Professor Steele is the author of three books including most recently Ancient Astronomical Observations and the Study of the Moon’s Motion (1691–1757) (Springer 2012). His previous book, A Brief Introduction to Astronomy in the Middle East (Saqi Books, 2008), has recently been translated into Chinese. He has published more than sixty research papers including an important study of Babylonian methods of eclipse prediction, and a co-authored paper in Nature on the ancient Greek astronomical ‘computer’ known as the Antikythera Mechanism. In 2012 he appeared in the documentary film ‘The 2000 Year Old Computer’, which has been shown on TV stations around the world. In recognition of his work, Professor Steele has been awarded an honorary Professorship at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, and was invited to be a guest member of the ERC funded project ‘Mathematical Sciences in the Ancient World’ hosted by the University of Paris-Diderot in January 2015.

Professor Steele founded and edits the book series Scientific Writings from the Ancient and Medieval World (Routledge), which is devoted to the publication of translations with commentaries of key works of early science for all parts of the world. He also co-edits the bookseries Wilbour Studies in Egyptology and Ancient Western Asian Studies (Lockwood Press) and is a member of the editorial board of the bookseries Time, Astronomy, and Calendars (Brill). Between 2013 and 2015 he served as an advisory editor to the journal Isis, and since 2012 he has been a member of the editorial board of the Journal for the History of Astronomy. He has organized several conferences, including most recently The Circulation of Astronomical Knowledge in the Ancient World (Brown University 2014) and Scholars and Scholarship in Late Babylonian Uruk (University of Paris-Diderot 2015, co-organized with Christine Proust).

About the Conference
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.

The 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.