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E: Late Mesopotamian Constellations

9: Late Babylonian (Neo-Assyrian) planisphere



The obverse of K 8538 (drawn by the British Assyriologist Leonard King (See CT 33, (1912), Plate 10) and corrected by Johannes Koch (1989)) in the British Museum, London. This neo-Assyrian star map (commonly referred to as a "planisphere" (the reproduction of a spherical surface as a flat map)) was recovered from the library of King Assurbanipal in Nineveh and dated to circa 800 BCE by early investigators. (The city of Nineveh was the last of the successive capitals of Assyria.) Johannes Koch has more recently (roughly) dated it to circa 650 BCE.  It is a circle divided by radial lines into 8 equal 45-degree sectors. The eight lines radiating from the centre of the circular tablet have the intention of defining eight equal stellar sectors of 45 degrees each. (First pointed out by Fritz Hommel.) Unfortunately considerable parts (comprising approximately 40%) of the planisphere are missing. Two large damaged (missing) areas account for most of the damage. This damage dates to the sack of Nineveh. It was partly vitrified in antiquity during the destruction of the place where it was found. (The planisphere was restored - quite heavily, using plaster - from fragments, hence its incompleteness. One description states the missing sectors were later restored by similarly coloured clay.) The reverse of the tablet is not inscribed. Some sources describe the restored tablet as approximately 18 centimetres in diameter; the British Museum describe it as: diameter 14.1 centimetres, thickness: 3.2 centimetres. It is on public display in Room 55 in the British Museum. K 8538 (also referred to, as least in early publications, as Astrolabe K) was one of the earliest cuneiform documents found at Nineveh by Austen Henry Layard. (It was recovered after a brief dig.) Constellations on the planisphere are identifiable by name or shape (schematic figures).

K 8538 is the best preserved of 2 surviving planispheres. (K 8538 has been loosely known as an 'astrolabe' since its discovery. However, it is more correctly a planisphere. (The word planisphere (Latin planisferium) was first used in the 2nd-century by Ptolemy to describe the representation of a spherical Earth by a map drawn in the plane. This usage continued into the Renaissance. As example: Gerardus Mercator described his 1569 world map as a planisphere. The first star chart to have the name "planisphere" given to it (for describing the representation of the starry celestial sphere on the plane) was made in 1624 by Jacob Bartsch. Bartsch, the son-in-law of Johannes Kepler.) Planispheres only show the stars visible from the observer's latitude; stars below the horizon are not included. The function of an 'astrolabe' is to 'depict' the entire sky over the course of a schematic (model) year. The exact purpose of K 8538 remains uncertain.) Star figures are found in 6 of the 8 sectors. God names are also written in addition to the star/constellation names. The tablets has always proved very difficult to to interpret. It is one of the very few known tablets which illustrates how the Assyrians (at least) depicted schematically the constellations (and constructed sky maps). For drawings of constellations see: VAT 6448, VAT 7847, and VAT 7851.

The tablet was catalogued and briefly described by the assyriologist Carl Bezold in his Catalogue of the Cuneiform Tablets in the Kouyunjik Collection of the British Museum (5 Volumes, 1889-1899; See: Volume 3, 1893, Page 937). The most detailed study of the tablet was the 1989 study by (the competent German amateur assyriologist) Johannes Koch in his book Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des babylonischen Fixsternhimmels (Chapters 7-16). He concluded represents the night sky of 3-4 January 650 BC over Nineveh. The constellations depicted would most likely be the principal constellations.

The planisphere K 8538 is a circular star map, divided into 8 equal 45-degree sectors, with star constellations depicted in addition to written constellation names, star names, and symbols. (Writing and diagrams appear in each of the sectors. Both so-called Sector 0 and Sector 1 have closed triangles.) The intact parts comprise (1) cuneiform writing naming stars and constellations, and (2) points and diagrams (the drawn shapes include arrows, triangles, intersecting lines, and an ellipse) comprising schematic drawings of 6 stars and constellations. The constellation(s) depicted in each sector are drawn as dots (representing stars) connected by lines.


Sector numbering from 0 to 7, following Koch (1989). Weidner (1915) (following Jeremias (1913) ?) numbered the sectors from 1 to 8. Where Koch has 0, Weidner has 8, otherwise their sector numbering matches.


Constellation figures are identifiable in 6 of the 8 sectors (i.e., the 6 undamaged sectors). In addition to the figures, the constellations on the planisphere are identifiable by name or phrase. Following Ernst Weidner (1915) and Johannes Koch (1989) the sectors, and the stars and constellations shown and/or named, can be described/identified (counterclockwise) as: Sector 0 - sector (only a small section of which is destroyed) with arrow figure, the long arrow in Sector 0 is quite dominant, covering almost half of the Sector, Sirius (Arrow); Sector 1 - sector with figures of two triangles, Pegasus square + Andromeda (Field + Plough); Sector 2 - sector damaged, nothing identifiable; Sector 3 sector with ellipse containing triangles, the Pleiades + Taurus ("Jaw"); Sector 4 - sector with text at upper and lower part and in the middle a figure with pointed rod (not identifiable?), Gemini [also Orion]; Sector 5 - sector damaged and almost completely lost, Crater + Corvus + Virgo; Sector 6 - sector (a large section of which is destroyed) with scales (balance) figure, Libra + Centaurus; Sector 7 - sector with small figures/text, magical incantations (?). Ernst Weidner was of the opinion that Sectors 3 and 4 (?) belonged together. John North (Cosmos, 2008, Page 47) gives the identification (starting with Sector 1 but not identifying the Sectors) as: Sirius [Sector 1], Pegasus, Andromeda (Field and Plough) [Sector 2], Aries [? see below], Pleiades [Sector 3], Gemini [Sector 4], Hydra [? see below], Corvus + Virgo [Sector 5], and Libra [Sector 6]. Not explicitly mentioned are Taurus and Orion. However, Aries would seem to be the "Hired Man" = figure holding pointed staff = Orion [Sector 4]. (But there is a mismatch as Aries and Orion are different constellations.) Hydra appears to be an error. Hydra is obviously a mistake for Hyades (= Jaw of the Bull) [Sector 3].  

Listed analysis by Koch, 1989, Pages 112-113:

Sektor (Sector) Kurzbezeichnung (Short name) Sternfigur (Star figure) Babylonisches Sternbild (Babylonian Constellation) Sternidentifizierung (Star identification)
0 Pfeilfigur (Arrow figure)   mulgag-si-sá Sirius + Betelgeuse
1 Figur zweier Dreiecke (Two triangular figures) a mulĂS-iku (Field = Pegasus square) Stars forming part of Pegasus
b mulapin (Plough) Stars forming part of Andromeda
2 No constellation(s)/star name(s) preserved -- -- --
3 Ellipse mit eingeschlossenen Dreiecken (Ellipse enclosing two triangles)   mulmul Pleiades
mulgu4-an-na Stars forming part of Taurus
4 Figur mit Zeigerstab (Figure holding pointed staff)   mulmaš-tab-ba-ga-gal/mulmaš-tab-ba-tur-tur/[etc]/izzazumeš-zu Gemini
mulSipa-zi-an-na Orion
5 Kleinfiguren (Small figures) a Schwanzende des mulmuš Stars forming part of Crater
b mulugamušen Stars forming part of Corvus
c mulab-sín Stars forming part of Virgo
6 Waage-Figur (Scale figure)   mulGI-GI (mulzi-ba-an-na) Stars forming part of Libra + Centaurus
7 No constellation(s)/star name(s) -- -- --

The following is reliant on Francesca Rochberg (2012) who has relied on Koch (1989). Beginning with Sector 0 and running counterclockwise. The arrow figure in Sector 0 is inscribed as Išhtar and Dumuzi. Koch's explanation is that because Išhtar is associated with the Bow Star, Dumuzi must be the Arrow. In Sector 1 there are 2 triangular figures. One is labelled mulIku, "The Field," the other triangular figure is labelled mulApin, "The Plow." (It is interesting that the Pegasus-square (mul Aš-iku) formed by 4 bright stars is pictured in K 8538 as a triangle.) There is no star/constellation name(s) preserved in Sector 2. Sector 3 contains an ellipse with 2 enclosed wedges. Written in Sector 3 are the names mulIs lè, "The Jaws of the Bull," and mulMUL, "Pleiades," and also Sipazianna, "Orion." (Note: Rochberg placing Orion in Sector 3 must be an error as Koch places Orion in Sector 4.) Sector 4 contains a figure with 3 dots (stars) in a row and a long pointer with a wedge shaped tip at the end, which is pointing directly to the middle/centre of the circle. Sector 4 contains the names of "The Twins who stand in front of Orion." Sector 4 also contains the divine name Lātarāk (a lion-headed minor god). Inside one of the small pointed figures on Sector 5 are the names Regulus, "The King," and Corvus, "The Crow." Inside another pointed figure on Sector 5 is the sign BE which Koch has identified with mulAB.SIN, "Libra." In Sector 6 a balance figure is inscribed with the name of Libra, written mulGI.GI (= mulZI.BA.AN.NA = zibānitu). Rochberg does not discuss Sector 7. Ernst Weidner was of the opinion that Sector 7 contained numerous magical formulas.

Thus the circular star map divides the night sky into 8 (equal) 45-degree sectors and illustrates the most prominent constellations.

Leonard Kings description of the "planisphere" in CT 33, (1912), Page 6, includes: "The planisphere is circular in shape, with a slightly rounded Reverse, the Obverse being flat and surrounded with a raised edge or rim; it has been partly vitrified and some parts are missing. The flat portion of the Obverse, within the rim, is evidently intended for the heavenly sphere, and is divided into eight equal sections. The geometrical diagrams or figures within the sections apparently represent constellations, the lines in most cases joining or enclosing stars, their positions being indicated by large of small holes impressed in the surface of the clay; the triangular impressions possibly represent stars of a greater magnitude. Some of the notes, which have been added by the scribe, give the names of the stars or constellations; others evidently refer to particular portions of the sphere, and in one place give measurements in figures. The majority of the diagrams are purely geometrical, but one, which is partly preserved and is labelled ..., was possibly intended to represent a bird."

The reason for a division of the celestial sky into 8 parts is unclear. However the number 8 was of considerable importance to the Babylonians. Ernst Weidner (HBA) thought the division into 8 sectors could simply go back to the symbol AN "sky" which in earliest times was an 8-pointed star. It may be that it was comprised of the four cardinal quadrants north, south, east and west, and the four midpoints of such. However, other reasons may exist. Cuneiform sources identify that Sargon II built 8 gates of the city of Babylon in 8 directions of the Winds. (See the illustration of the 8 gates and their names on page 46 of Nebuchadrezzer and Babylon by Donald Wiseman (1991).) In ancient Mesopotamia the number 8 had considerable significance. The practice of dividing celestial space into 8 sectors is held by some scholars to be quite old. (It was practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, India and China.) The depictions of Venus on kudurrus from the time of king Melishipak II (Cassite period, circa 1188-1174 BCE) are 8-pointed. Similarly, on kudurrus from the same period, the solar disk is depicted with four axis points and four solar rays intercalated. A later cuneiform tablet records the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705 BCE) proclaiming that "in all the sides opposite to the eight winds, I opened eight great gates." The circular zodiac depicted on the fragment VAT 7851 (dated to circa 2nd-century BCE) is indicated is indicated as having an 8-zone division.

Li Xueqin (in a paper presented in 1992) has referred to physical evidence in the form of a Neolithic Chinese jade tablet for the antiquity of the conception that the heavens are round and divided into 8 parts.

Within Etruscan/Roman legendary tradition the dome of the night sky was divided into quadrants and further subdivided into 8 sectors. Each sector represented a potency of nature and a designation of a meaning of omens located there. (See: The Etruscans by Massimo Pallotinno (1955).)

As pointed out by Asia Haleem in her essay "The Iconography of Ancient Astronomy," the Panbabylonists offered another reason. A number of Panbabylonists believed a Venusian calendar was devised in Elam and Venus cycles used as the basis of the calendar. In his pamphlet, Das Venusjahr (1910) Ferdinand Bork held there was an ancient Elamite tradition of an 8-fold division of the year based on the synodic period of Venus. Bork attempted to show that there existed in ancient Elam a year that was determined by the synodical period of the planet Venus, and that this Venus-year was more ancient than the lunar [lunar-solar] year. This was not supported by Friedrich Hrozny in his pamphlet, Das Venusjahr und der elamische kalender (1911). Hrozny contended that the facts adduced by Bork were insufficient to prove that the Elamites had a Venus-year. In his book, Der Palaeozodiakus, die prähistorische Urform unseres Tierkreises (1912) F[?]. Röck claimed that an 8-division zodiac was earliest (and was used, for example, in Java). (See: American Journal of Archaeology (1912, Page 259 and 1913, Page 272.).)

Interestingly, the assyriologist Wayne Horowitz has mentioned that a tradition of dividing the starry sky into 7 parts is perhaps suggested by a passage in Šurpu (II 165–67): “May the stars of the south wind, north wind, east wind, and west wind, the seven winds, blow upon him and release his oath.” In Mesopotamia, as in modern practice, the winds are named for the direction of their origin, not the direction in which they are blowing, i.e., a northwind blows from north to south.

The purpose of the planisphere is also unclear. In their 1880 study of the planisphere Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet concluded that it had largely an astrological and calendrical purpose. In his detailed 1915 study of the planisphere (in Handbuch der babylonischen Astronomie) the Assyriologist Ernst Weidner concluded that it had both astronomical and astrological significance and was probably a magical tablet used in exorcisms. However, he remained puzzled about the sensible meaning of the repeating syllables along the 45 degree lines. However, they are still interpreted as comprising some form of astro-magical ritual (and possibly related to incantations). (Circular astronomical and astrological texts and diagrams exist. Circular astral-magic texts/diagrams should not be unexpected.) In A Guide to the Babylonian and Assyrian Antiquities (British Museum, 1922) K 8538 is explained as "an astrological instrument for making astrological calculations and for casting nativities." Whatever the actual use, the circular star map illustrates the most prominent constellations.

Weidner's 1915 study was the last serious study of K 8538 until the detailed 1989 study by Johannes Koch in his book Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des babylonischen Fixsternhimmels (Chapters 7-16). (In many respects the discussion by Koch supersedes those by Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet, and by Ernst Weidner.) Koch places K 8538 within the Mul.Apin tradition. He also identifies that it was used at Niniveh circa 650 BCE. Koch suggests that the disk should be rotated to a particular position for each sector, which then literally pictures the heliacal rising or setting of the constellations involved as they were visible above the horizon of Niniveh circa 650 BCE. (It facilitates a type of alignment system. This makes it an instrument. Ernst Weidner (HBA) wrote that the joining of various stars through lines made for easier orientation in the starry sky.) The results of Koch's explanation of K 8538 challenges a number of the traditional identifications of Babylonian constellations.

Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet believed that K 8538 was a star map. Ernst Weidner believed that it was a diviner's tool. Johannes Koch believed it was a star map having a practical purpose (i.e., assistive to naked-eye observation). Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell (see below) believe that it is a Sumerian period 'field note'! Asia Haleen ("The Ancient Theory of Correspondences." (2008)) finds agreement with Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet, that it had a calendrical purpose. Its design and use helped to estimate the start of the New Year/New Year Festival. 

K 8538 is considered similar to a Neo-Babylonian (1st-millennium BCE) circular tablet from Sippar depicting a ziqpu-star planisphere. The planisphere is on the obverse of the circular tablet and a list of ziqpu-stars is on the reverse. Basically the Neo-Babylonian tablet from Sippar shows the ziqpu (i.e., zenith) stars (as dots) in a circular arrangement of 12 (equal) 30-degree segments (marked by lines). (See: Horowitz, Wayne. and Al-Rawi, Farouk. (2001). "Tablets from the Sippar Library IX. A Ziqpu-Star Planisphere." (Iraq, Volume LXIII, Pages 171-181).) Within the genre of circular planispheres we have the examples: (1) "Three stars each" dating to the late 2nd-millennium BCE: Extant circular exemplars include: CT 33 11 (= Sm. 162) and CT 33 12 (= K. 14943 +); extant list (tabular) exemplars: KAV 218 (= VAT 9461), LBAT 1499 (= 34713) and LBAT 1500 (= BM 34387). Also, BM 82923. This late 1st millennium BCE star catalogue preserves identification of Astrolabe month-stars; (2) A tablet perhaps depicting helically rising stars within key constellation figures, divided into 8 equal sectors: The sole exemplar being: K 8538 dating to the first half of the 1st-millennium BCE; and (3) A tablet depicting ziqpu-stars: A tablet dated to the first half of the 1st-millennium BCE depicting a ziqpu-star planisphere: The sole exemplar being: A Neo-Babylonian (626/625-539 BCE) tablet from Sippar.


Appendix 1: A Recent Fantasy Interpretation of K 8538

An amount of often confused comment has been generated by the recent (apparently self-published) book A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels' Impact Event (2008) by Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell. The authors state it is the result of 8 years of research. Alan Bond is Managing Director of Reaction Engines Limited and Mark Hempsell is Senior Lecturer in Astronautics at the University of Bristol. The latter author holds that any criticism of the book is precluded until it is read. (This "mantra" is repeated in his more recent personal communication dated July 24. A suitable response would seem to be: Why don't you send out copies for people to read?) This argument for excluding criticism also precludes any support for the book until it is read. There seems to be a clear intention to ensure the book sells. The expectation that people will first purchase the book in order to be deemed to be able to review it simply turns the traditional process on its head. (I am not aware that the authors have submitted a copy of their book for critical review.) The co-author seems unfamiliar with the concept and function of the "executive summary" that is included as a part of book length reports. Sufficient information is available to comment on the claim by the co-authors that K 8538 records the path of a meteoroid/asteroid (over one kilometre in diameter) in space within one degree accuracy to reference stars to enable the co-authors to determine an atmospheric meteor path (trajectory) ending at Köfels. The co-authors claim the impact of the disintegrated meteor at Köfels resulted in a giant landslide five kilometres in diameter and 500 metres thick. Ignoring conventional dating Mark Hempsell also linked the back plume from the explosion to the destruction of the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. (According the science reporter Lewis Smith (The Times, March 31, 2008) the connection was explicitly made by Mark Hempsell. In his personal communication, July 28 Mark Hempsell agrees he gave this example "[W]ithout thinking through the implication ....") The traditional timeline of biblical chronology (placing Sodom and Gomorrah circa 1900 BCE) makes this assertion impossible. There is a complete lack of archaeological evidence for Sodom and Gomorrah. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is likely one of the many fictional stories that underpin the Old Testament books.

The British authors, both scientists (but not assyriologists or historians), claim to have successfully translated K 8538 as a copy of a Sumerian "night diary" record of an asteroid impact which in 3123 BCE hit Köfels, Austria. According to Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell the information on the path of the asteroid is in what is designated Sector 0 of the planisphere. The Sumerian/asteroid idea is little better than fantasy. There is no substantial evidence for a Sumerian system of constellations and star names. There is no evidence for any sophisticated Sumerian astronomy; especially the concept of Sumerian "astronomical diaries." It also needs to be reiterated that half of the face of K 8538 is missing (i.e., has been obliterated). Also, there is no text on the tablet stating it is a copy of an earlier tablet. This was certainly the usual practice with Seleucid tablets.

Mark Hempsell claims (personal communication, June 16) that "... ALL the constellations and star names in the later Semitic languages of Mesopotamia are purely Sumerian. This suggests a) Sumerians had astronomy and b) they are the source of the later Babylonian astronomy." This oversimplification shows complete ignorance of the issues. (In his personal communication, July 24) he has conceded this indeed is not correct.)

There are problems associated with the later Babylonian and Assyrian use of Sumerian words. (For Semitic Akkadian scribes Sumerian was a language learned during scribal education.) Overlooked by Bond and Hempsell is Sumerian was used long after it ceased to be a commonly spoken language. It is not possible to decide whether the Sumerian words used in later (non-Sumerian) times are actually Sumerian in origin or are just later Babylonian notions recorded in anachronistic Sumerian. Because of the ability of the Sumerian language to express multiple words with the brevity of a single logogram the Sumerian language was later used for either technical or ritual purposes. In some ways the later use of Sumerian in Babylonian texts is somewhat similar to the continued use of Latin in the Middles Ages in Europe (termed 'Classical Latin'). It was the language of the cultural elite (i.e., the lingua franca). As such no conclusion can be confidently drawn from the later use of Sumerian terms regarding the time or place of the origin of the content of the texts. Also, there are very few original Sumerian tablets containing any significant astronomical references. One of the very few possible astronomical references relates to the "House of the Stars." Circa 2700 BCE the goddess Nisiba (the patron goddess of scribes) had a knowledge of astronomy attributed to her and her temple in Eres was called the "House of the Stars." She had a lapis-lazuli tablet which is sometimes called the "tablet with the stars of the heavens" or "tablet with the stars of the pure heavens." It was kept in her "House of Wisdom." It is possible that this lapis-lazuli tablet - which was connected with astronomy - was a kind of star-map or symbolic representation of the heavens.

The common use of Sumerian logograms for constellations and star names amongst the Semitic peoples inhabiting Mesopotamia is, as far as I am aware, a late occurrence. Most of the names of all celestial bodies were Sumerian throughout the later periods of Mesopotamian history. (Just as the invention of many Mesopotamian constellations was a late occurrence dating to circa the last quarter of the 2nd millennium BCE.) Even so, it was not complete. Not all of the names used were Sumerian. For example, I do not recall any use of Sumerian words for the Assyrian period star/constellation names anunitu, mul he-gal-a-a-a, and tultu. (Interestingly, no Sumerian term for constellation has been identified. However, in his e-book Introduction to Sumerian Grammar (2008, Page 13) Daniel Foxvog has: "Determinative: mul, Meaning: star, Category: planets, stars and constellations." The Assyrian period reign of Asshurbanipal (668-627 BCE) saw a renaissance in things Sumerian. The later reign of Nabonidus over Babylon (559-539 BCE) also saw a similar renaissance in things Sumerian. (The Late Babylonian Period broadly encompasses the last seven centuries BCE. By the beginning of the Late Babylonian Period (circa 750 BCE) Assyrian domination began to decline. In 612 BCE the Assyrian capital Niniveh was sacked and the Assyrian Empire was more or less extinguished.) Numerous Sumerian-Akkadian syllabary’s existed (but Sumerian and Akkadian are vastly different languages).

Mark Hempsell (personal communication, July 28), in an attempt to correct my statement "Interestingly, no Sumerian term for constellation has been identified." writes: "The Sumerian word for "constellation is very well established. It is the same as for star; that is MUL. This is the entry in Halloran ....." (In their book John Halloran is mistakenly called Holloran (page 12).) As much as I respect the efforts of John Halloran and his publication Sumerian Lexicon I would note that the standard (and most complete) professional publication is The Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary (PSD). (Rather amazingly this monumental publication seems to have been completely ignored by the authors.) The electronic edition of PSD basically states: mul (shine) means "star; to shine, radiate (light) ...." and references Early Dynastic IIIb Period (circa 2540-2350 BCE); Lagash II Period (circa 2141-2122 BCE), and Old Babylonian Period (circa 1900/1800-1600 BCE). The assyriologists Michael Rolf and Annette Zgoll also state ("Assyrian Astroglyphs." ZA, Volume 91, 2001) that MUL is a Sumerian logogram that means "star." A cursory read of the literature shows that the replicated MUL.MUL means "the stars." Whilst some people would hold that MUL-AN means "constellation" the PSD basically states: mulan, written mul-an (star), means "heavenly star" and references the term to the Old Babylonian Period. The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (CAD) identifies that the (Akkadian) term lumāšu means constellation. In Akkadian the term lumāšu referred to the zodiacal constellations and logographically lumāšu was written as MUL.LU.MAS or LU.MAS.ŠI (lumāšu-stars). Picking up on this John Steele writes "The zodiacal signs as a group were referred to using the term LU-MA (Akkadian: lumāsŭ), literally meaning 'constellation'." (See: "Celestial Measurement in Babylonian Astronomy." by John Steele (Annals of Science, Volume 64, Number 3, 2007, Pages 293-325).)

It is not clear how many assyriologists and sumerologists accept/agree with the etymologies given by John Halloran. In his posting on ANE (Thursday, 13 May, 2004) E. Adams stated all assyriologists and sumerologists he had spoken to did not accept Halloran's etymologies. No examples of use of words are given and also no sources are given for the derivation of meanings.

Johannes Koch has identified that K 8538 is placed in the Mul.Apin astronomical/omen tradition of circa 1200 BCE. The idea that the tablet information could be copied and recopied for some 2000 years without copyist errors being introduced is rather difficult to believe. The so-called "Venus tablets" from perhaps circa 1600 BCE contain evidence of numerous copyist errors. The date given for the Sumerian/asteroid theory takes us back to the early proto-cuneiform period beginning circa 3100 BCE. Tablets from this early period simply list goods. The co-authors hold that later copyists could accurately deal not only with the complex (and inefficient) proto-cuneiform pictographic script but could also successfully deal with the earlier astronomical concepts expressed in proto-cuneiform pictographic script. Modern expert assyriologists, with the benefits of modern professional schooling and examples of tablets from all periods, point out that proto-cuneiform (circa 3200-3000 BCE is a rudimentary language that is extremely difficult to decipher. (The 7th-century BCE Assyrian language and cuneiform script was a version of Akkadian. The Babylonian language and cuneiform script of the 1st-millennium BCE was a variant version of Akkadian.) If K 8538 is evidence of Sumerian astronomy then it is an extraordinary "stand-alone" tablet. There is a bigger case to be made for it as extraordinary proof of the existence of Sumerian astronomy - and a sophisticated Sumerian astronomy at that. I find it impossible to believe their particular claimed "translation."

The confidence of the co-authors in their translation is bolstered by the fact that K 8538 lacks flowing text and only contains short "notes." These short "notes" (containing highly repetitious use of terms) have presented problems to experienced cuneiform philologists. However, the authors make it clear in their book that prior to tackling the translation they had already decided on the type of information recorded on the tablet (i.e., an asteroid hit with earth). (Quite fantastically Mark Hempsell has several times claimed their translation success was enabled by their knowing the content of the tablet prior to making the translation!) Well worth reiterating is the fact our knowledge of the Sumerian language is incomplete. Anyway, the tablet is not written in Sumerian. According to the authors the (Sumerian) proto-cuneiform has been replaced with 7th-century BCE (Assyrian) cuneiform. Proto-cuneiform script represents a very early stage in the development of writing and the symbols are not always clearly decipherable. Exact meanings are open to interpretation.

Several other fantastic claims by the authors are: (1) the Pisces sector of the tablet shows the position of the celestial equator (page 5), (2) the marking of the celestial equator possibly enabled later (Assyrian) scribes to gain knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes more than 500 years before Hipparchus (page 5), and (3) there is an Aries sector marked on the tablet. Regarding this latter claim they also assert that Aries was identified in Sumerian times as a zodiacal constellation (page 41). However, all the evidence indicates that Aries first appeared in the Greek zodiac. It replaced the Babylonian constellation of the Hired Man (which became one of their 12 ecliptic constellations). (Even though they do their "sheep" philology "thing" in their book Mark Hempsell now claims (personal communication, July 24) the Aries identification they made was simply "another opps [oops]."

In his personal communication (July 24) Marl Hempsell writes: "I am not sure why you have such a problem with the celestial equator and and the precession of the equinoxes points...." The point is I really wouldn't have an issue with such if the evidence could be "rolled out." All the available evidence is clearly on the "against" side. The authors seem to be misled by the publications of Werner Papke and Vladimir Tuman that argue the Mul.Apin information existed in the 3rd-millennium BCE.

Mark, Hempsell, one of the authors, informs me that both he and co-author Alan Bond did the translation themselves "with some help from the British Museum" (whatever that means). The nature of this assistance is not even made clear after its acknowledgement on page xiii of their book. It tends to suggest a legitimacy for their translations. Neither of the authors of the book are cuneiform philologists and neither is an expert on the history of the Ancient Near East. Between the study of K 8538 by the competent assyriologist Ernst Weidner (published 1915) and the more informed study by Johannes Koch (published 1989) relatively little interest has been shown in it. (A detailed discussion of the history of attempts to understand K 8538 is contained in Egypt: "Image of Heaven": The Planisphere and the Lost Cradle by Willem Zitman (2006).) (Mark Hempsell (personal communication, July 24) writes I "seem to indicate ... [this] book .... is a perfectly credible work." This assumption is not justified by the reason I mention it.) One Dutch author in a relatively recent book has linked the interpretation of K 8538 with the Egyptian god Horus.

In a more recent personal communication (July 24) Mark Hempsell states: "In mentioning the British Museum I was simply pointing out experts had seen what we were doing before we published." In the next paragraph he quite amazingly states: "So far (despite many comments such as yours on our amateur status) we have not received one negative comment on its accuracy." One can only ask the two obvious questions: Does this include the experts at the British Museum? Can we accept their absence of criticism (or rather absence of public criticism) as de facto support for the accuracy of the translation? It appears the authors simply relied heavily on some "text books" on the Sumerian language by René Labat, Alain Lassine, and John Halloran. (On his website Alain Lassine refers to the PSD as a better resource.)

Nic Fleming, Science Correspondent, The Telegraph, March 31, 08, 2008 reports Mark Hempsell saying: "All previous work has drawn a blank on what the tablet is about." It is certainly not, however, the work of a Sumerian astronomer. There is a total absence of evidence for this claim.

The geological evidence indicates the so-called Köfels landslide (and forming of pumiceous glass) did not occur from a single event (such as a meteor impact, or impact of a disintegrated meteor) but was a process involving multiple large conventional landslides. Also, the evidence indicates these landslides occurred thousands of years earlier to the date claimed for the Köfels impact impact event. Excepting for the need to force-fit facts to accommodate eccentric theories there is no reason to question the conventional dates for the landslides. The enormous size of the landslide process (approximately 2 to 3 cubic kilometres in mass) provides sufficient kinetic heating to melt the rock. (See: Lehoux, H., and Doukhan, J-C. (1993). "Dynamic deformation of quartz in the landslide of Köfels, Austria." (European Journal of Mineralogy, Volume 5, Number 5, Pages 893-902); Deutsch, A., et al. (1994). "The impact-flood connection: Does it exist?" (Terra Nova, Volume 6, Pages 644-650); Kubrik, P., et al. (1997). Multiple prehistoric landslides at Köfels (Austria): Timing by cosmogenic 10Be." (Geophysical Research Abstracts, Volume 9); Kubik, P., et al. (1998). "10Be and 26Al production rates deduced from an instantaneous event within the dendro-calibration curve: the landslide at Köfels, Ötz Valley, Austria." (Earth and Planetary Sciences, Letters, Volume 161, Pages 231-241); Sorensen, S-A., and Bauer, Berthold. (2003)."On the dynamics of the Köfels sturzstrom." (Geomorphology, Volume 54, Number 1-2, Pages 11-19); Bruckl, E. (2004). "Cause-Effect Models of Large Landslides." (Natural Hazards, Volume 23, Numbers 2-3, Pages 291-314); Hermanns, R., et al (2006). Examples of multiple rock-slope collapses from Köfels (Ötz valley, Austria) and western Norway." (Engineering Geology, Volume 83, Numbers 1-3, Pages 94-108). Currently (2009) the authors A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels' Impact Event (2008) are claiming that the content of the asteroid has contaminated the Kőfels site and affected the current dating attempts.

There is every indication that the authors of A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels' Impact Event need to sharpen their pencils. Both the philological and geological arguments fail. Submitting a paper to a relevant refereed journal would seem a good suggestion.

Update: The Wikipedia entry for Alan Bond includes: "The landslide is normally dated to about 9800 years ago long before the tablet was recorded and over 4500 years before the Bristol researchers date. Bond and Hempsell have suggested that there was contamination, a claim that has been denied by other research. The impact theory had already been proposed in 1936 by the Austrian scientist Franz Eduard Suess and later on by Alexander Tollman, who hypothetized impacts in around 7640 BCE and 3150 BCE, respectively. The issue of whether an impact caused the landslide has been researched and no evidence was found for an asteroid, meteorite or comet, and geologists believe it was caused by other factors such as 'deep creep'."

Regarding the meaning of the Akkadian terms lumāšu = constellation and lumāši = constellations. The assyriologists Michael Rolf and Annette Zgoll also state ("Assyrian Astroglyphs." ZA, Volume 91, 2001) that the terms were used in the sense of a form of writing with astral pictographs or 'astroglyps.' The god Marduk drew the 'constellations of the gods' (lumāši ša itani) on the (jasper) stone surface of the starry sky (= the Lower Heaven).


Appendix 2: British Museum Website Description of K 8538

Object types: Tablet.

Title (series): Library of Ashurbanipal.

Materials: Clay.

Place (findspot): Excavated/Findspot Kouyunjik (Asia,Iraq,North Iraq,Kouyunjik (Nineveh)).

Period/Culture: Neo-Assyrian.

Description: Part of a circular clay tablet with depictions of constellations (planisphere); the reverse is uninscribed; restored from fragments and incomplete; partly accidentally vitrified in antiquity during the destruction of the place where it was found.

Inscriptions: Inscription Type: inscription; Inscription Script: cuneiform; Inscription Language: Babylonian.

Dimensions: Diameter: 14.1 centimetres (maximum); Thickness: 3.2 centimetres.

Condition: Heavily restored with plaster.

Curator's comments: For comment on the interpretation of the text and identification of the constellations see Koch 1989 [Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des babylonischen Fixsternhimmels]. Celestial planisphere; in this stylised map the sky has been divided into eight sections. It represents the night sky of 3-4 January 650 BC over Nineveh. The rectangular shape at the top has been identified as the constellation known today as Gemini and the stars contained with an oval shape are the Pleiades. The two triangles in the lower right mark the bright stars of Pegasus.

Associated names: Associated with Ashurbanipal.

Acquisition name: Excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard (et al).


Appendix 3: Recent Supporters of the Fantasy Interpretation of K 8538 by Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell

"The destruction of the city of Akkad by a cosmic asteroid impact and the link to global climate change." by Joachim Seifert and Frank Lemke (Published online on: May 15, 2013 (15 pages). Abstract: "We focus on one of the most important events in human history, the 4.2 kiloyear event, when great civilizations around the world collapsed into anarchy and social chaos. From this moment on, climate cooling and widespread aridification began, lowering agricultural food production and human living conditions. Various hypotheses exist about its cause; the most promising approach links the 4.2 kiloyear event to a cosmic asteroid crash into Mesopotamia. The asteroid landed in a densely populated area; we examine at first major translations of preserved Sumerian documents on details and progression of this catastrophic event. We quote major impact features as observed by historical Sumerian eyewitnesses. The impact, as a full strike, eradicated the Imperial city of Akkad. The impact damaged all other Sumerian towns to different degrees. Based on our findings, we identify the location of the missing city of Akkad. We analyze the onset of global cooling and severe aridification in the framework of our cosmic climate footprint analysis for a selected 1,000 year timeframe. This footprint analysis of Holocene climate change affirms the occurrence and date of the impact event. We also identify volcanic mega-eruptions, which are responsible for multi-decadal global temperature dips but which cannot cause centennial-long climate changes. The footprint analysis takes 5 climate macroforcings into account and explains global cooling and aridification based on impact-related causes."

Joachim Seifert (= Joachim Seifert (Dr.-Ing. habil.), Technische Universität Dresden, Institut für Energietechnik?) describes himself as a climate author (whose theory of climate change relates to solar variations), and Frank Lemke sells modelling software. Both jointly and individually publish highly speculative papers that contain numerous fundamental flaws. One of their joint papers is an impact(s) from space speculation using K 8538 as an historical source. The theme is that cosmic impacts are a contributor to climate change effects. Belief in the establishment of the present Western constellation set prior to the Greeks forms part of the belief and argument. For whatever reason Seifert believes the book, A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels' Impact Event (2008), by Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell is reliable. Also, he mistakenly believes the planisphere contains "a simple, generally understandable astronomical message with sufficient celestial details given to understand the content of the tablets." Seifert (personal communications) mistakenly refers to the planisphere as K 8536 and its claimed dating by the British Museum staff as circa 1650 BCE.     


Appendix 4: The Ziqpu Planisphere

The noun ziqpu (meaning 'height, altitude' as a mathematical term) comes from zaqapu (having a technical sense relating to vertical distance) and refers to consecutive culminations of stars moving in a 'ferris-wheel' type motion over the sky from the perspective of an earth-based observer. The 'recently' published (by Horowitz and al-Rawi in the journal Iraq, Volume 63, 2001) ziqpu-star planisphere from Neo-Babylonian period Sippar has a rosette at its center. The diagram on the planisphere set out consecutive risings of ziqpu-stars over the course of the schematic year; represent the 'ferris-wheel' type motion of the ziqpu-stars as they ascend, reach their zenith in the center of the sky, and then descend. Rochberg (2012) writes: "It is inscribed on both sides. The obverse of the tablet shows parts of twelve 30-degree segments indicated with straight lines radiating out from a central rosette. The names of ziqpu stars and arrangements of dots [representing stars] are preserved in six of the twelve segments. The ziqpu star names show the disk is to be read in a clockwise direction. ... The circular arrangement of the ziqpu stars ... on the obverse of the disk corresponds to the list of ... stars on its reverse. The list [of ziqpu stars] ... seems to parallel the astrolabe's presentation of stars both in lists [list/rectangular astrolabes] and in circular diagrams."

Copyright © 2001-2014 by Gary D. Thompson


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