Ancient Zodiacs, Star Names, and Constellations: Essays and Annotated Bibliographies

The Recovery Of Babylonian Astronomy by Gary D. Thompson

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The Recovery of Babylonian Astronomy

Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger: A History and Legacy of Their Co-operative Pioneering Effort to Recover Babylonian Astronomy

by Gary D. Thompson

(1) Introduction

The biographical essays have been written in the small country town of Melton (recently made a city), Australia yet deal with persons who worked in Western Europe, on the opposite side of the world, during the late 19th- and early 20th-century. I am writing as a biographer rather than as a historian and certainly not as an archivist. I am focused on recovering/establishing accurate biographical details. I am interested in including their professional and social environment, in addition to their life experiences and their scholarly works. There are no substantial archives from which to obtain detailed biographical information. Spanish language archives/material held in Quito regarding Epping have proven invaluable. Writing biographies of Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger brings with it a number of significant challenges. Though Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler were dominant persons in the early studies of cuneiform texts their studies were conducted privately - none held positions with secular academic institutions. A lot of information that has not been recorded is now lost and can never be recovered. Though Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler (and Schaumberger) were prominent/acclaimed figures in assyriology during their lifetimes, and left their mark in the history of scholarship, none have left sufficient traces for their stories to be pieced together in detail. The ability to write detailed biographies for each is beset by the paucity of material for each. No detailed biographies or studies exist for any of them. What limited biographical material does exist is brief and the details are not always accurate. Biographical details vary for Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler. Their respective obituaries and similar provide little more than basic details of their lives and work. Access to personal and work details has been lost with the deaths of Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger, and the people who associated with them or otherwise knew them. Material needs to be searched for in books, journals, and correspondence, etc. The basic languages involved are German, English, French, and Spanish. Interviews with one or more persons simply do not exist. Late recollections of associates show 'memory slippage.' Errors are involved with many of the obituary/biographical entry material for each person.

My research has been as meticulous as dogged research can possibly make it. Existing biographical information for Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler can be unreliable; compiled from recycled errors by early authors. (However, the origin of multiple biographical errors is not clear.) Also, they are only sketchy accounts. Also, they are usually polluted with misinformation. Reliable information has been painstakingly gathered during decades of research. Where-ever possible I have attempted to identify and use primary resources. For Epping in Quito this has meant use of Spanish-language documents. Most have been ignored by European researchers. I am indebted to assistance given in 2018 by Prof. Dr. Elisa Sevilla Pérez, docente de la Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Colegio de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Department, Faculty Member. Without her assistance and advice with Spanish-language documents correctly understanding Epping’s time in Quito would not have been possible. A detailed biography of Franz Kugler has been neglected. Hopefully my biographical essay on Franz Kugler begins to fill the gap. Off and on I have pursued biographical information on Kugler for over 50 years. After somewhat exhaustive searching some biographical/chronological details remain irretrievable. Personal demands, work demands, and academic studies and teaching demands proved quite interruptive.

My intent has been to uncover enough detailed information on Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler to be able to feel to know them on a personal level - that of close friends. This requires providing an abundance of information. The arrangement for each person is chronological order, with crossover to the others when material is available. The scope is simply involvement of any information that is available, even if seemingly insignificant. (Some trivial exceptions are made with Epping in Quito.)

I have tried to shape a narrative from those sources available to me and in the time available. Incomplete and missing records (especially the destructive effect of WWII) and the culling of records (as implemented by the British Museum), remain a problem unlikely to be able to be worked around. Archival records in foreign museums /libraries will likely remain unresearched.

I have no doubt that the story is more complex than can be told in this short work that is frequently based on lack of detailed information. Several persons gave important information: Dr Hermann Hunger, Dr Robert van Gent, Dr Paul Oberholzer, and Dr Elisa Sevilla Pérez.

Note: I have not engaged in constant citation (documentation) of sources for any of the essays comprising this project. Documenting as compactly as possible has also been passed over. I have avoided use of footnotes and endnotes. There has been no attempt to avoid all repetition. As far a feasible I have attempted to ensure the essays are suitably self-contained. Lack of source citations is deliberate. The essays comprising the project would simply become too cumbersome. Also, a lot of material has been put together with limited time being available or during protracted illness. The additional time for citing 100's of sources was not available.

The essays are free from technicalities.

Part 1: The recovery of astronomical cuneiform tablets 

The recovery of cuneiform tablets

In the course of extensive excavations at Babylon during the 19th-century thousands of tablets were found with cuneiform inscriptions. Many of these came to/were secured by the British Museum. Oriental scholars were able to decipher many of them, but the astronomical records proved difficult and understanding them remained a problem. This situation was solved by the German Jesuits Joseph Epping (died 1894), a mathematician, and Johann Strassmaier (died 1920), an assyriologist, working together. After much effort the problem of the decipherment of these tablets was solved. Their initial decipherment and interpretation of a number of clay tablets preserved in the British Museum supplied detailed knowledge of the methods practiced in Mesopotamia in the 2nd-Century BCE. The German Jesuit Franz Kugler (died 1929), a mathematician, astronomer, and assyriologist, continued their work with brilliant success. The Redemptorist Johann Schaumberger (died 1955) completed many of Kugler's unpublished studies.

Since 1843 thousands of clay tablets have been found at different archaeological sites in Mesopotamia. During the latter half of the 19th-century Western countries exhibited a fervour for collecting antiquities from Mesopotamia. Most of the excavated tablets are now part of the great collections of Museums of Europe and America. As regards the specifically astronomical and astrological tablets, most of them are in the British Museum. A large number of cuneiform tablets were initially acquired by museums through explorers and antiquarian dealers. The rush to collect resulted in the almost total absence of archaeological provenance. With the various archaeological expeditions carried out by the British archaeologists/excavators none employed any pretence of scientific methods in their excavations. They were little more than treasure hunts to acquire as many tablets and large pieces of monumental art as possible for the British Museum. For most tablets obtained during this initial period of collecting the location and findspot are unknown. Ernst Budge, from 1893 to 1924 the Keeper of Assyrian and Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, was not a big advocate of archaeological excavation. He preferred instead to use antiquities dealers as a means of acquiring material for the British Museum.

Archaeological exploration of Assyria and Babylonia began in the 1840s by Paul-Émile Botta and Austin Layard and others. The first major excavations were conducted by Paul-Émile Botta (1802-1870) - a French scientist who served as Consul in Mosul from 1841 to 1842 - who began excavating at Dur-Sharrukin, the capital of Assyria in the time of Sargon II, in 1842. He mistakenly thought he was excavating Nineveh but was actually excavating the palace of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin. During the first excavations of Nineveh (Kuyunjik) by Austen Layard (1817-1894) circa 1845 approximately 20,000 (some sources state 15,000) clay cuneiform tablets were discovered and sent to the British Museum in London. These texts formed part of the extensive library collected by King Assurbanipal (668-626 BCE, the last Assyrian king).

From 1845 until 1852 excavations were conducted for the British Museum by Austen Layard. Between 1855 and 1872 little excavation work was carried out under the auspices of the British Museum. George Smith made 3 trips to the Near East to carry out excavation work (1st trip: 1872, 2nd trip: 1873-1874, 3rd trip: 1875-1876). His last 2 trips were financed by the British Museum. After George Smith's death in August 1876, on his 3rd trip, the excavation work for the British Museum was then continued by Hormuzd Rassam. The ₤1000 balance remaining of what was voted by the British Parliament for George Smith's excavations remained available for Rassam's 1876-1877 trip. Later, Wallis Budge travelled to Mesopotamia and purchased large numbers of cuneiform tablets and other antiquities. (One source states Layard began excavation in 1850 at the site of Babylon but his work was interrupted. Obviously the later continuation of his work was carried out by Rassam.)

From 1872, thousands of cuneiform tablets from southern Mesopotamia, Babylonia, began to be sold on the market in Iraq. Many found their way to London and were purchased by the British Museum.

The Rassam-Budge era of the British Museum's procurement of cuneiform tablets involved both legal and illicit sources.

The tablets at Nineveh (Kuyunjik) were mostly recovered by Austen Layard and were mainly Assyrian script and written/copied in the 7th-century BCE. The tablets recovered by Hormuzd Rassam at Babylon were mostly Late Babylonian script, dating to the Neo-Babylonian period and Persian period. The tablets later purchased by Wallis Budge in Baghdad and elsewhere (1888-1891) were mostly Old Babylonian script, dating to the 18th- and 17th-centuries BCE. The Kuyunjik tablets recovered from Nineveh were the remains of the Assyrian royal libraries and archives (still commonly called King Ashurbanipal's library). From the last decade of the 19th-century onwards cuneiform tablets began to appear from a wide range of sites and periods.

Turkish law implemented in 1883 required that all antiquities discovered on the territory of the Ottoman Empire were to go to the Ottoman Imperial Museum. The decision to establish an Imperial Museum originated in 1869 and after delays the construction of the main building was started in 1881. The Imperial Museum was eventually founded by decree in 1891. The first cuneiform tablets reached the Museum in 1890. It is estimated the Museum now holds some 75,000 cuneiform tablets from 12 different sites. About half of these (mostly large, multiple-column tablets from the single site of Tello) are in a fragmentary state, due perhaps to conservation attempts (baking) in the 1930s.

Since the 19th-century cuneiform tablets, have been recovered in 3 different ways:

(1) Purchases. The purchase by museums of tablets from antiquities dealers dates from the 19th-century and early 20th-century. Purchase of tablet collections most usual. Usually no – or very little – provenance information is available. The assignment of tablets to particular cities is enabled through the internal evidence of the text itself and by comparison with other the material purchased in the same lot. When dealers in Mesopotamia found that the British Museum Trustees were good customers who would pay a fair price and act honourably, they became keen to reserve the best of their finds for London.

(2) Non-scientific excavations. These date from the 19th-century and early 20th-century. Usually the tablets recovered by early non-scientific excavations have little or no provenance information kept. This is lack of provenance information is the same situation for material (usually collections of cuneiform tablets) purchased from dealers.

(3) Scientific excavations. These date from the early 20th-century onwards. Detailed excavation notes indicating the exact find-spots of individual (or sometimes groups of) tablets begin with the German excavations of Ashur, Babylon and Uruk.

The tablets obtained by Hormuzd Rassam were very damaged and fragmented. The tablets obtained by George Smith were in no better condition. They were not baked clay tablets but only dried in the sun.

What are now regarded as the key astronomical texts (mathematical astronomy) came to the British Museum between 1876 and 1882. Presumably they were from Babylon. Some were recovered through excavation but most were purchased. Many tablets were being illegally excavated by local people and placed into the commercial market. (Almost the entire British Museum collection of cuneiform tablets was purchased from antique dealers in Baghdad.) Many of these astronomical texts were copied by Johann Strassmaier.

Findspots of astronomical tablets were either lost during unscientific excavations (including clandestine excavations) or during the process of Western museums collecting and registering purchased or excavated tablets. Recent research has enabled some information on tablet provenance to be recovered.

The presently identified sources for the study of late Babylonian (mathematical) astronomy are two groups of archives found at Babylon and Uruk. It has been satisfactorily established that all the mathematical astronomy texts came from these two major archives. The greatest number of surviving astronomical cuneiform records are from Babylon. In all likelihood approximately two-thirds of all the mathematical astronomical texts we have have come from the ancient city of Babylon, and the other one-third has come from the ancient city of Uruk. The archive of cuneiform tablets at Babylon was discovered earlier than the archive of cuneiform tablets at Uruk. The archive of clay tablets at Babylon was excavated during the 1870's and 1880's. The archive of clay tablets at Uruk was excavated during the early 1910's. The tablets recovered from Babylon are far more numerous, cover a longer time period (effectively the period 731 BCE-75 CE), and encompass many more different types of astronomical texts than the tablets recovered from Uruk. The astronomical cuneiform texts held in the British Museum, London, most likely belong exclusively to the archive of tablets located at Babylon. The date of their acquisition/arrival at the British Museum can be determined from the old inventory numbers used by the British Museum. It can be reliably concluded that the bulk of the archive of clay tablets from Babylon arrived at the British Museum between November, 1876, and July, 1882. During this 6 year period the number of tablets held by the British Museum is estimated to have increased from over 32,000 to more than 46,000. A small number of pioneering assyriologists, such as Johann Strassmaier (also spelled/misspelled as Strassmeyer and Strassmeier) and Theophilus Pinches came to realise that amongst this multitude of texts there were many hundreds of astronomical texts.

Not all tablets comprising the archive at Babylon were acquired by the British Museum. Some smaller batches of tablets (looted from the excavation site) were purchased by museums and collectors in Paris, Berlin, Philadelphia, and New York. A larger degree of dispersion occurred with the archive found at Uruk. Immediately with its discovery, the archive of cuneiform tablets from Uruk was dispersed all over the world by both excavators and antiquity dealers. The result was it was not until the 1920's that the additional astronomical texts from Uruk were identified and made available by museums in Paris and Berlin. The cuneiform texts from Uruk became widely known largely through François Thureau-Dangin's book Tablettes d'Uruk, à l'usage des prêtres du Temple d'Anu au temps des Séleucides (1922). However, it soon became evident that much more excavated material, including astronomical tablets, remained unpublished.

Over 4000 astronomical tablets/fragments - Babylon, Nineveh, Sippar, and Ur - are held in the British Museum, London. Over 400 astronomical tablets/fragments are held by 17 museums in Europe, North America, and the Near East. The Ankara Archaeological Museum has 11 astronomical tablets/fragments from Sultantepe (a Late Assyrian site, now in Turkey). "Lunar and planetary ephemerides and related tablets form the largest proportion of the corpus of tablets containing mathematical astronomy from Babylonia. Preserved examples come from the sites of Babylon and Uruk and mostly date to the last three centuries B.C. ("Newly Identified Lunar and Planetary Tables from Babylon in the British Museum." by John Steele (SCIAMVS, Volume 11, 2010, Pages 211-239. See page 211.))"

Babylonian mathematical astronomy comprises about 440 cuneiform tablets and fragments from Babylon and Uruk, all written within the period 450-50 BCE. The majority of the cuneiform tablets from Hellenistic Babylon originate from the temple Esagil. In Uruk, nearly all known astronomical tablets from the city derive from a scholarly library in the Rēš temple.

It is only comparatively recently that most of these astronomical cuneiform tablets have been systematically deciphered and interpreted. In the course of extensive excavations at Babylon during the 19th-century thousands of tablets were found with cuneiform inscriptions. Many of these came to/were secured by the British Museum. Oriental scholars were able to decipher many of them, but the astronomical records proved difficult and understanding them remained a problem. This situation was solved by the German Jesuits Joseph Epping (died 1894), a mathematician, and Johann Strassmaier (died 1920), an assyriologist, working together. After much effort the problem of the decipherment of these tablets was solved. Their initial decipherment and interpretation of a number of clay tablets preserved in the British Museum supplied detailed knowledge of the methods practiced in Mesopotamia in the 2nd-Century BCE. The German Jesuit Franz Kugler (died 1929), a mathematician, astronomer, and assyriologist, continued their work with brilliant success. The Redemptorist Johann Schaumberger (died 1955) completed many of Kugler’s unpublished studies.

A baked clay tablet is more durable than paper, but rather brittle. An unbaked clay tablet is very brittle. Most of the existing astronomical cuneiform texts are in very fragmentary condition. As well as being deliberately broken by dealers the methods of packing and shipping to Europe contributed to the damage done.

Well worth reading regarding the early acquisition of cuneiform tablets in the British Museum is, "The British Museum 'Sippar' Collection: Babylonia 1882-1893." by Govert van Driel (Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, Band 79, 1989, Pages 102-117). Govert van Driel taught at the University of Leiden.

The initial text of many tablets included a type of label. A typical label includes: (1) the name of the scribe who wrote the tablet, (2) the owner's name of the tablet, and (3) the date of the writing. Sometimes the label also includes an invocation to the gods/goddesses. Labels may also have prayers for the tablet to be handled and stored with care. Sometimes there is a request for a user not to divulge the contents. Because the name of the scribe is often a signature with the formula X , son of Y , the son of Z , a descendant of W, it has been possible to reconstruct family trees of scribes. For the tablets excavated at Uruk it appears that there are 2 families of scribes. Many scribes claim to be priests, and claim that their ancestors also were. From the Uruk tablets it is indicated that the mathematical and astronomical topics were practically monopolised by a few families.

Part 2: The nature and decipherment of cuneiform script

Understanding cuneiform texts

The term 'cuneiform' simply describes the way in which the letters are formed, not any specific alphabet or language. Cuneiform inscription (from the Latin cuneus, meaning "wedge-shaped") characters were pressed/jabbed obliquely into the clay - rather than drawn upon tablets - with the blunt wedge-shaped end of a reed stylus - to make linear strokes or wedges (i.e., wedge-shaped impressions = stick-like figures) when the clay was still soft. The Jesuit astronomer Aloysius Cortie (1859-1925) wrote ("Babylonian Astronomy" (The Month, Volume LXXIV, 1892, Page 529)): "The letters of the alphabet consist of one or more, sometimes of even as many as ten wedges placed in various positions relatively to one another, parallel, in contact, in proximity, or inclined at an angle of forty-five or ninety."

For the cuneiform writing system, the vast majority of inscriptions were made on clay tablets using a stylus (in Mesopotamia a reed stylus). Even when cuneiform was written on other media such as stone, a wedge-shaped script, modelled on the clay form, was used. The fundamental element of cuneiform writing is the wedge, a regular three dimensional indentation in the clay. Generally, by the turn of the 3rd-millennium BCE cuneiform was usually written from top to bottom and from left to right. After one side of the clay tablet was fully inscribed  it was turned over in a vertical position and the inscription was continued - starting at the top left of the reverse side. The term 'cuneiform' actually denotes several kinds of early writing systems, including logosyllabic, syllabic, and alphabetic scripts. Many ancient languages, including Semitic, Indo-European, and isolates, are written in cuneiform: Sumerian, Eastern Semitic (i.e., Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian), Elamite, Hittite, Hurrian, Utartian, Ugaritic (an alphabetic system unrelated to other cuneiform scripts), and Old Persian (mostly a syllabic system).

The usual writing material was a type of clay (essentially readily available river mud). The clay was to some extent processed before being formed into the shape and size that was required. Most often this was a rectangular shape, with a flat obverse (front) side and a slightly convex reverse (back side). Such objects are referred to as 'tablets'. These could vary in size but the preferred sizes were those that could comfortably be held in the palm of the hand, for writing and reading. The clay tablets could be inscribed on both sides, and occasionally on the sides or upper and lower edges. When writing on the reverse side the tablets were typically turned on a vertical axis; each side being upside-down relative to the other side.

The Sumerians created cuneiform script circa 3500 BCE. The prime motivation was economic: the need to administer economic and trade transactions. Almost all of the early cuneiform texts and a very large number of the 2nd-millennium texts are concerned with economic and administrative matters. (Recent work indicates the original homeland of the Sumerians was Turkmenistan. Their migration to the Middle East began perhaps with a persistent drought.) The first known writing, on a small limestone tablet, comes from Kish and is dated to circa 3500 BCE. Some of the symbols are believed to have originated as pictographs, but by 3000 BCE they had become completely/mostly abstract. Pictograms, or drawings representing actual things, were the basis for cuneiform writing. The controversial theory developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat holds that the origin of cuneiform writing lay in the widely spread use of three dimensional clay tokens that were used as counters. This practice was in use as early as the 9th-millennium BCE and widely spread geographically from modern-day Sudan to Iran. The use of clay bullae developed circa the 2nd-half of the 4th-millennium BCE and the token symbols were imprinted on the outside of the clay bulla. For Denise Schmandt-Besserat this latter step is identifiable as the beginning of writing. Its development was hastened at the end of the 4th-millennium BCE with the building of the first cities, large palaces, and also large temples. These developments created an economy that was more centralised.

Early pictograms resembled the objects they represented, but through repeated use over time they began to look simpler, more abstract. These types of marks eventually became wedge-shaped ("cuneiform"), that could convey sounds, or abstract concepts. The first pictograms were drawn in vertical columns with a pen made from a sharpened reed. However, two developments made the process quicker and easier: People began to write in horizontal rows, and a new type of pen was used which was pushed lightly into the clay tablet, producing 'wedge-shaped' signs that are now known as cuneiform writing. Tablets were often inscribed not only on both sides but also on the edges. The German scholars Oluf Tychsen and Georg Grotefend, and the Danish philologist Rasmus Rask, were the first to decipher several cuneiform signs. Prior to 1850 the French Orientalist Eugene Burnouf and the British Assyriologist Henry Rawlinson independently interpreted most of the signs of the Persian cuneiform system. Rawlinson's achievement of copying the Behistun Inscription was important for the study of history, but was irrelevant to the decipherment of cuneiform.

Sumerian is a 3rd-millennium BCE language that belongs to no known family of languages. Tablets containing Sumerian texts written in cuneiform were first unearthed during excavations conducted between 1880 and 1900 in the south of Babylonia. The Sumerian language has been deciphered largely through an understanding of ancient Akkadian lexical compendia and literary bilingual texts.

There are 4 main stages in understanding/reading a cuneiform text, the 1-part descriptive stage and the 3-part interpretive stage. In the descriptive phase, there is the requirement to establish what cuneiform signs, or graphemes, are actually written. The text is then copied i.e., the identified signs are copied onto a sheet of paper (a drawing ('autograph') is made of the signs on the tablet). This descriptive stage requires minimal or no knowledge of what the text means, i.e., it is context-free. In the interpretive phase, there is the requirement to make sense of the signs comprising the 'autograph.' This involves transliteration, transcription, and translation. The interpretive phase is a complex, content-bound, and iterative process due to the process requiring sign ordering, transliteration, phonemic normalization (or pronunciation), and translation.

Sumero/Akkadian cuneiform is attested by hundreds of thousands of documents in many genres and several languages from various cultures spanning three millennia. It is a complex syllabographic and logographic script system with perhaps 2000 distinct graphemes (characters). It is marked by extensive multi-valency - one grapheme can have multiple phonemic and semantic realizations. (In studies of material culture, multi-valency is the ability of a single item to represent more than one thing at once.) Almost any cuneiform sign can be used in up to four distinct ways: (1) logograms, (2) syllabograms, (3) phonetic complements, and (4) determinatives. However, cuneiform script is also characterised by 3 idiosyncratic factors: (1) multiple signs having the same (single) syllabic sound, (2) most cuneiform signs having more than one sound value (= meaning), and (3) early tendency to simply box signs that belonged together to produce a meaning.

It is the usual practice of assyriologists to represent 3 dimensional signs in 2 dimensional drawings.

The general practice among cuneiformists of working almost exclusively in Roman alphabetic transliteration, although suitable for its intended purposes, presents difficulties for the application of computers to cuneiform research and instruction. The simple addition of graphemically encoded cuneiform to the current practice of transliteration (i.e., the addition of transcription encoding to transliteration) will enable a dramatic increase in philological and linguistic productivity.

Part 3: Key terms 


Decipherment means to interpret the meaning of the cuneiform signs - to understand what the cuneiform signs mean. For the pioneers of cuneiform studies the cuneiform texts were baffling documents. Great effort was made to decipher cuneiform script. The decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform was enabled by the discovery of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis. (The site of Persepolis had been visited by Europeans from the Renaissance on.)

In the late 18th-century that the first accurate copies of the cuneiform inscriptions were made by a Danish adventurer, Carsten Niebuhr. The decipherment of Mesopotamian cuneiform began in the 18th-eighteenth century when European scholars, antiquaries, and travellers visited the ancient Near East and began actively searching for proof of the places and events recorded in the Bible. Their efforts resulted in lost cities such as Nineveh being uncovered, and a range of artefacts, including thousands of clay tablets covered in cuneiform, being brought back to Europe. Scholars began the incredibly difficult task of trying to decipher the unfamiliar cuneiform script/signs representing long dead languages that no-one had heard for some 2000 years at least. Due to the work of a small number of persons, gradually, and with great difficulty, the cuneiform script/signs were reasonably deciphered. By 1851, Edward Hincks and Henry Rawlinson could read approximately 200 cuneiform signs. In their efforts they were joined by two other decipherers: a young German scholar Julius Oppert, and the versatile British Orientalist William Talbot. (Modern research supports the Hincks (a genius with languages) as the true decipherer of Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform. See: The Edward Hincks Bicentenary Lectures edited by K. J. Cathcart (1994).)

Among the people who attempted to decipher these texts was, importantly, the German schoolteacher Georg Grotefend. In 1802 he noticed a recurring pattern in the signs. Due to his familiarity with the later Sassanian inscriptions and with the works of Herodotus, he was able to correctly deduce that these patterns probably read "Xerxes, great king, king of kings, son of Darius, king of kings" and "Darius, great king, king of kings, son of Hystaspes." The major breakthroughs in more fully understanding the writing were made in 1845 and 1846 by Niels Westergaard's and Edward Hincks. Over several years Hincks continued to make progress in deciphering the Old Persian cuneiform script and he also began examining other cuneiform inscriptions recovered from the ancient Near East, particularly Mesopotamia. Amongst a number of important conclusions he had reached, Hincks believed that the script was essentially syllabic. He also had recognised a large number of determinatives and had correctly established their readings.

Proof that cuneiform script/signs had been successfully deciphered came in 1857 with a famous experiment. In 1857 the English Orientalist William Talbot suggested that an un-deciphered cuneiform text be given to different experts to translate. The aim was to settle ongoing disputes over who could translate cuneiform. The Royal Asiatic Society, through Edwin Norris, the secretary, sent copies of a newly found clay tablet recording the military and hunting achievements of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1114-1076 BCE) to, Henry Rawlinson, Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert and William Talbot. A jury of experts empanelled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy declared itself in agreement that each person, working independently, was able to make a translation that broadly agreed with each of the other translations. There were a number of slight discrepancies. Talbot made a poor translation and had made the most mistakes. Oppert's translation was incomplete and contained a number of dubious passages due to his lack of familiarity with the English language. The clearest, true translation was by Hincks. However, Hincks' and Rawlinson's translations were almost identical. There may have been plagiarism on the part of Rawlinson. Prior to the 1857 competition George Renouard (a classical and oriental scholar, and leading member of the translation committee of the Royal Asiatic Society) shared Hincks' papers with Rawlinson "by an accident." (Rawlinson was very close to the Royal Asiatic Society.) Also, Rawlinson had the connivance of Edward Norris for access to Hincks' work without acknowledgment.

By 1858 the Akkadian language was reasonably understood. However, even today, there are still elements of cuneiform writing that are not completely understood. The study of cuneiform script/signs continues unabated amongst specialist scholars. From 1880 cuneiform tablets containing Sumerian texts were excavated in the south of Babylonia. Initially the 2 sites Girsu (modern Telloh) and Nippur produced significant Sumerian archives. The Sumerian texts were deciphered through an understanding of ancient Akkadian lexical compendia and bilingual literary texts.

The basic steps in translating cuneiform script involve (following John Heise Akkadian Language): (1) determination of the cuneiform text (= the recognition of the signs); (2) transliteration (= the determination of the values of the signs); (3) transcription or normalisation (= the values of signs are combined into Akkadian words); and (4) translation (the establishment of meanings in, for example, English).

The 4 basic steps in translating cuneiform signs (from Akkadian Language by John Heise). Transliteration is putting the characters of a foreign language into "English letters and sounds" so we can verbalize the text. Normalization or transcription (the words are synonymous) is an alphabetic representation of the language that does not give any information about the signs use to write the texts. Translation is taking the text and putting its meaning into the appropriate words of another language. In transliterations of Akkadian texts, words are separated by spaces. The syllables of a word are written in lower-case letters (often in italics) and separated by hyphens. Logograms are written in upper-case (or small upper-case) letters and separated by full stops. Determinatives are written in superscript lower-case, with no connecting punctuation. Phonetic complements are written in lower-case, often in superscript, and are connected to the rest of the word with a hyphen. Where scribes sometimes wrote explanatory glosses to help with the reading of difficult signs; we also write these in superscript. In alphabetic normalization, we write the Akkadian words just like any language: no hyphens or full stops or superscripts. It is usual to put the Akkadian in italics, just as is usually done for words of any foreign language. We mark long vowels and doubled consonants as necessary, even when they are not written explicitly in the original. Normalisation allows us to focus on the language, filtering out the writing system. It is also useful when we want to talk about words without reference to a particular text - in dictionaries and grammar books, for instance. Phonetically written Akkadian words are usually shown in italics. Sumerian words and ideograms are usually written in capitals.

(1) Recognition of signs

The traditional formal recognition of signs has involved the process of cuneiform copying (sign ordering). The process involves reproducing the contents of the original tablet as a drawing. An assyriologist/sumerologist/cuneiform philologist/epigraphist makes a line art drawing ('autograph') to show the signs on a clay tablet or stone inscription in a graphic form suitable for use/publication. The first step is to recognise the signs. Correctly identifying the cuneiform characters is difficult even in well-preserved texts. A sketch of cuneiform signs (autograph) shows the cuneiform signs identified and enables collation (where it is believed the copyist has not identified some signs correctly). Autographs also provide a backup in case the original tablet is lost or damaged, as well as enabling tablets in different libraries to be compared.

There are about 600 cuneiform signs. The written language consists of about 600 symbols, each representing what we term a syllable or word fragment. The syllables can be words by themselves or can be combined with other syllables, and they can often have multiple meanings. Recognition in practice is often difficult for a number of reasons. Signs may overlap or may be very stretched; clay tablets may be damaged or difficult to read. Interpreting a broken sign is partly done with the requirement/understanding that it makes sense in the context.

To help resolve difficulties in making an 'autograph' the assyriologist/sumerologist/cuneiform philologist/epigraphist will often arrange for another scholar to collate (compare) the existing 'autograph' against the actual tablet(s), to determine if any signs, especially broken or damaged signs, should be represented differently.

Then the languages written in cuneiform script may be rendered alphabetically in 2 different ways: transliteration (an alphabetic representation of cuneiform signs) and transcription or nomalization (an alphabetic representation of the language that does not provide any information about the signs used to write the original text).

Values of cuneiform signs

(1) Phonogram: A sign that stands for a syllable i.e., represents a speech sound (usually a 2 or 3 letter combination). Also called syllabogram when representing an entire syllable. Note: Akkadian phonograms are usually transcribed in italics, to distinguish it logograms (transcribed in capital or small capital letters).

(2) Logogram: A sign representing an entire word or concept. Note: also called an Ideogram. In Akkadian logograms are often named Sumerograms because they originate from Sumerian (or quasi-Sumerian = formed according to the rules of the Sumerian language).

(3) Phonetic complement: A phonetic sign either preceding or following a logogram which has more than one reading to indicate which grammatical form (type of word) is intended. Phonetic complements play an important role in Akkadian cuneiform because many logograms were polyvalent, having an Akkadian as well as a Sumerian reading. A phonetic complement which is not pronounced.

(4) Determinative: A sign indicating the semantic content (class) of a preceding or following word (either a logogram or a syllabically written word (i.e., sequence of phonograms)). Also called classifier. Sometimes both preceding and following determinatives are used. A determinative is usually not pronounced.

logograms and determinatives do not form separate groups of signs. In fact, nearly all determinatives are taken from logograms. Moreover, a good amount of phonetic signs also double as logograms and, by extension, determinatives. A sign that has more than one function is polyvalent. Only through the context in which a polyvalent sign occurs can one tell if it functions as a phonetic sign, a logogram, or a determinative. One common sign that can be used as all three types of signs is the logogram/sign AN, which is a phonetic sign denoting the syllable an. In addition, it also stands for three logograms: the word ilum which means "god" (but transliterated as DINGIR, the Sumerian word for "god"), the god of heaven Anum, and then by extension the word šamû which means "heaven". Additionally, it can also function as a determinative for names of gods/goddesses.

(2) Transliteration

Transliteration is the conversion (and recording) from one script (writing system) to another. In the case of cuneiform script, transliteration is the conversion from cuneiform signs to syllables or words, using alphabetic representation. Depending on the context, a cuneiform sign can be read either as one of several possible logograms, each of which corresponds to a word in the Sumerian/Akkadian spoken language. The process of transliteration involves an assyriologist/sumerologist/cuneiform philologist/epigraphist determines/deciding how to represent the cuneiform signs in Roman script. Ideally, transliteration tries to be lossless. Cuneiform has a specific format for transliteration. There are conventions about how to transliterate. Choices in how to transliterate cuneiform signs depends on the context. The transcription step depends on knowledge of the grammar. The transliteration of cuneiform signs involves decisions regarding how the signs should be read and assembled, and the converted syllables separated with dashes. In transliterations of Akkadian, the syllabic signs are presented in lower-case italics and separated by hyphens. Logograms (signs representing complete words) are written in small upper-case letters and separated by full stops. Determinatives are written in superscript lower-case with no connecting punctuation. Transliteration of Sumerian can be done in a variety of ways. One method uses lower-case bold face, separating signs with hyphens. Determinatives are also written in superscript lower-case with no connecting punctuation.

(3) Transcription or normalization (pronunciation)

The transcription in Latin letters gives the opinion on how the signs should be read. Because most cuneiform signs can be read in several ways, and words are not always separated, a transcription is an interpretation.

The words transcription and normalization are synonymous. Transcription is the conversion of the sounds of one language to the script of another language (the formation of spoken words). It involves combining the sign values forming Sumerian/Akkadian/Assyrian words. In alphabetic normalization Akkadian and Sumerian is written just like any foreign language: in italics with no hyphens or full stops or superscripts. The transliterated text when transcribed combines/joins the transliterated sign values into Sumerian/Akkadian/Assyrian as spoken (also called normalization). Anglicizing is a transcription method. Romanization encompasses several transliteration and transcription methods. The transcription step in the process to translation depends on knowledge of the grammar of the source-language. With cuneiform scripts there are no word separators (blancs) as in many ancient languages, like Latin.

(4) Translation

Translation involves turning one language into another. The translation makes the text available to a wide audience, but is still an act of interpretation. It is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. In order for this to be done successfully there has to be an understanding of the basic principles of the grammar of the source-language. The actual meaning (i.e., translation into English, or other target-language) also depends on the knowledge we have of the Sumerian/Akkadian/Assyrian culture. This involves/enables interpretation skills. Because Sumerian/Akkadian/Assyrian and English word-order are completely different, it is not always possible to translate a cuneiform text word-for-word. (Note: Sometimes in popular material, decipherment is confused with translation.)


Collation is the activity of comparing the autograph copy of a cuneiform tablet with the original tablet to ascertain its conformity. The purpose of the careful examination/comparison is to note the similarities and differences.

Miscellaneous conventions

The established convention is logograms are written in CAPITAL LETTERS and phonograms are written in lowercase letters.

Source: Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature by Johannes Haubold (2013, Page viii).

Source: "Supplementary Materials for Ancient Babylonian astronomers calculated Jupiter's position from the area under a time-velocity graph." (Page 2) by Mathieu Ossendrijver (29 January 2016, Science, Volume 351, Issue 6272, 2016, Pages 482-484).

Requirements for Fully Understanding a Text

John Steele, "Explaining Babylonian Astronomy," Isis, Volume 110, Number 2, June 2019, Pages 292-295: "Abstract: A large number of cuneiform tablets from ancient Babylonia containing astronomical texts are preserved. It is on the basis of these texts that we can attempt to reconstruct the history of Babylonian astronomical practice. In order to do so, the individual astronomical texts themselves must be understood. This essay discusses three different types of explanation of an astronomical text that are part of this process: a philological explanation, a technical explanation, and a historical explanation. It argues that a full understanding of any text can be achieved only once all three types of explanation have been provided."

Part 4: Discovery of Babylonian Astronomy

When the discoveries of cuneiform tablets were first made in the ruins of Babylon and Niniveh it was hope that reliable information on the so-called Chaldean astronomical sciences might be found. However, it was some time before this hope was realised. A few mostly astrological tablets were identified in the library of king Ashurbanipal. Therese were examined and discussed by Oppert and Sayce. Later, circa 1880/1881, a few astronomical mathematical tablets were identified by Strassmaier in the Spartali collection, and examined and discussed by Epping. This was the beginning of the recovery of Babylonian mathematical and observational astronomy.

Circa 2015 the number of cuneiform mathematical tablets and fragments from Babylon and Uruk - from the period circa 450-50 BCE - comprises approximately 440, which is thought to represent approximately 5% of the Babylonian astronomical corpus.

The astronomical cuneiform texts meant nothing at all to Assyriologists until the Jesuit Fathers Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler deciphered their contents.

The first mathematical astronomical texts were transcribed by the assyriologist Johann Strassmaier. The mathematician and astronomer Joseph Epping began the decipherment of their astronomical contents.

Definite modern knowledge of details of Babylonian astronomy only began when Joseph Epping deciphered astronomical cuneiform texts. This was done to a high scholarly standard. One of these texts was an ephemeris of positions of the Moon. Almost our entire knowledge of Babylonian astronomy is owed to the pioneering efforts of Jesuit Fathers Strassmaier, Epping, and (later) Kugler. Before the studies and publications of Epping and Strassmaier on Babylonian astronomy (from 1881 onwards), the writings of Archibald Sayce and Julius Oppert were all that existed. Both Oppert and Sayce were the first to recognise and translate (nonmathematical) astronomical cuneiform texts. But definite modern knowledge of details of Babylonian mathematical/scientific only began when Joseph Epping deciphered cuneiform texts from a Babylonian archive (the library of king Assurbanipal at Nineveh). In these texts he identified an ephemeris of positions of the Moon.

In 1847 the German Orientalist Julius Oppert (1825-1905) moved to France and in 1869 was appointed Professor of Assyriology in the College du France. In 1856 Oppert gave the first approximate correct rendering of the Michaux Stone (Caillou du Michaux) which had been brought from Mesopotamia to Paris in 1800. This was one of the earliest decipherments of the new newly discovered language on Babylonian inscriptions.

Non-mathematical astronomical texts, and astrological texts, in the British Museum were first published in WAI II (Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, published 1866) and WAI III (published 1870). WAI II can be deemed the earliest work on Babylonian astronomy. The astronomy and astrology of the Babylonians first became available with the publication of original cuneiform sources (mostly to do with celestial divination) in the 2nd and especially 3rd volumes of WAI. They were from the excavated library of Assurbanipal at Kuyunjik In WAI III were fragments of the omen series Enuma Anu Enlil, including tablet 63 of the series (later to be known as the Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa). Also published in WAI III were approximately 30 reports and letters to the Assyrian kings Esarhaddon and Assurbanipal.

Oppert and Sayce identified several astronomical (and celestial divination) documents in the Nineveh library of king Assurbanipal of Assyria. However, the content of the documents contained more astral omens than astronomy. Also, they were too badly preserved to be of scientific much use.

In 1871 Oppert published his translation - from his own autograph copy - of a letter (WAI III.51.9; now LAS 290) in Journal Asiatique, Tome 18. It was a letter from Mar-Issar to Esarhaddon concerning a watch for a (predicted) solar eclipse that did not occur.

In 1874 Sayce published a long and important pioneering paper titled the "Astronomy and Astrology of the Babylonians." (Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, Volume 3, Part 1), with transcriptions and translations of the relevant cuneiform texts. This 1874 translation by Archibald Sayce was based on numerous texts published in WAI III. Sayce initiated the modern study of Babylonian astronomy in 3 articles co-authored with Robert Bosanquet (1841-1912, an English scientist and musical theorist) and published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (Volumes 39-40, 1879-1880). The 1st article discussed the calendar; the 2nd article discussed/analysed 2 'planispheres' (astrolabe A, and K 8538); and the 3rd article discussed/analysed the so-called 'Venus tablet.'

The first critical study of Babylonian scientific (mathematical) astronomy was undertaken by the Jesuit mathematician and astronomer Joseph Epping. In this he had the collaboration of the Jesuit assyriologist Johann Strassmaier. Their first results were published as: Epping, Joseph. and Strassmaier, Johann. (1881). "Zur Entzifferung der astronomischen Tafeln der Chaldäer." [= "The decipherment of the astronomical tablets of the Chaldeans."] (Stimmen aus Maria Laach, Band 21, Number 8, September, Pages 277–292). The introduction was by Johann Strassmaier. The modest article explained the difficulties experienced in deciphering the tablets examined and their first results. With the publication of Astronomisches aus Babylon their discoveries went far beyond the results previously achieved by Oppert, and Sayce.

Aside from clay tablets and a few inscriptions the only original astronomical and astrological documents surviving from antiquity are papyrus fragments, found mostly in Egypt at the end of the 19th-century.

Source: Ancient Astronomical Observations and the Study of the Moon's Motion (1691-1757) by John Steel (2012, Page 55).

Part 5: Pioneering assyriologists on Babylonian astronomy

Regarding the use of the term "Assyriology" and "Assyriologist." In the pioneering period of Assyriology the term "Assyrian" was commonly used for the main Semitic language of Mesopotamia. The reason for this was that most of the cuneiform documents then available had been recovered from sites situated in what was once ancient Assyria. In actual fact the users of the 2 dialects spoken in Assyria and Babylonia, respectively (which were closely related), called their language "Akkadian" (not "Assyrian" nor "Babylonian"), after the Akkadians who established the first great Semitic empire in the middle of the 3rd-millennium BCE under Sargon of Akkad.

There were a number of scholars who made use of cuneiform tablets to investigate Babylonian astronomy, prior to the work of Strassmaier and Epping.

The earliest investigator in the field of Babylonian astronomy was Edward Hincks, who in 1856 published the results of his investigations of some cuneiform texts in the British Museum in the Transactions of the Irish Academy. Hincks overlooked the fact that the greater number of the texts which he regarded as astronomical were entirely astrological. In 1862 Henry Rawlinson discovered the important document, the so-called "Eponym Canon," in which an eclipse of the sun was mentioned. This discovery by Henry Rawlinson of the notice of an astronomical event recorded by the Babylonians, the accuracy of which was demonstrated by modern mathematical calculations, was the first step towards a scientific elucidation of Babylonian astronomy, and a proof that an astronomical science existed in Babylonia as early as 700 BCE. In 1871 the Assyriologist, Jules Oppert, published in the Journal Asiatique the results of his study of some syllabaries, and other texts in which the Babylonian names of the planets and other stars were given.  In 1874 Archibald Sayce published a lengthy paper entitled "The Astronomy and the Astrology of the Babylonians" in the Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, in which he reprinted, without making a new collation, most of the astrological texts published by Rawlinson in Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia, Volume III, to which he added English translations. The study of Babylonian astronomy and celestial divination began with the publication by Henry Rawlinson and George Smith of Cuneiform inscriptions of Western Asia, Volume III (1870), Plates LI-LXIV, of which LXIII, "Table of the movements of the planet VENUS and their influences," is the so-called Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa. A number of these texts, including the Venus Tablet, were soon translated by Archibald Henry Sayce in "The astronomy and astrology of the Babylonians" (1874), and a method of dating the Venus Tablet by dates of visibility phenomena in lunar months was described by Sayce and Bosanquet in "The Venus Tablet" (1880). In 1881 Strassmaier and Epping published "Zur Entzifferung der astronomischen Tafeln der Chaldaer," containing descriptions of the various classes of texts and a decipherment of two columns of a lunar ephemeris (ACT 122, K-L).

The earliest investigators in the field of Babylonian astronomy. Source: Nature, May 4, 1893, Number 1227, Volume 48, Page 2.

Edward Hincks

The Reverend Edward Hincks (born 19.8.1792 - died 3.12.1866) M.A., D.D., was an Anglo-Irish clergyman. He is best remembered as an Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform. He was born in Cork, the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Dix Hincks, a distinguished Protestant minister, orientalist and naturalist. Hincks was educated at home by his father before entering Trinity College, Dublin. He was elected a scholar of the College and in 1812 won the Gold Medal and Bishop Law's Prize for Mathematics. Standing against Thomas Romney Robinson, he won through and was elected a Fellow of the College in 1813 and 4 years later took his M.A. In 1819, following the death of Thomas Meredith, he was presented to the Rectory of Ardtrea in County Tyrone. Though Ardtrea was a valuable and highly prized Rectory, it was too isolated for him as a bachelor and he resigned the position in 1826, taking up - for the remainder of his life - the Rectory in nearby Killyleagh, County Down. The undemanding nature of his clerical duties left him with ample time to pursue his interest in ancient languages. His first passion was for the hieroglyphic writing of ancient Egypt. By 1823 the Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion had succeeded in deciphering this enigmatic script. However, Hincks had made a number of discoveries of his own which established him as an authority of ancient philology. As early as 1854 Edward Hincks had begun to competently decipher cuneiform texts, and to disagree with Henry Rawlinson's decipherments. See: "Letter from Dr. Hincks, in reply to Colonel Rawlinson's Note on the Successor of Sennacherib." (The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 15, 1855, Pages 402-403).

His pioneering papers on the decipherment of the Venus tablets of Ammisaduqa (The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa (Enuma Anu Enlil Tablet 63) refers to the record of astronomical observations of Venus, as preserved in numerous cuneiform tablets dating from the 1st millennium BCE. It is believed that this astronomical record was first compiled during the reign of King Ammisaduqa (or Ammizaduga), the 4th ruler after Hammurabi. The origins of this text are generally dated to circa the mid-17th century BCE.):

Hincks, Edward. (1859). "On a Tablet in the British Museum, recording, in Cuneatic Characters, an Astronomical Observation, with Incidental Remarks on the Assyrian Numerals, Divisions of Time, and Measures of Length." (Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Volume 23, Pages 31-57).

Hincks, Edward. (1861). "On some Recorded Observations of the Planet Venus in the Seventh Century before Christ." (Report of the 30th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, No volume number, Notes and Abstracts [Part II], Pages 35-36). (Note: Meeting held in Oxford in June and July 1860.)

Hincks, Edward. (1860). "On certain Babylonian Observations of the Planet Venus." (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 20, Pages 319-320). (Note: Dates the Venus observations to circa 685 BCE.) (Note: This is his published letter. The published letter - dated June 6, 1860 - was addressed to the secretaries of the Royal Astronomical Society. It concerns his determination that a tablet in the British Museum contains a series of observations of the planet Venus.)

Hincks, Edward. (1863). "Schreiben des Herrn Edw. Hireks (sic) an den Herausgeber." (Astronomische Nachrichten, Volume 63, Columns 221-222). (Note: Published letter. Correction to the next paper, revising the dates of the Venus observations between 750-743 BCE.)

Hincks, Edward. (1864 (1865. Note: Both letters to AN are indicated as being printed November 30, 1864. The 1st printed letter was dated "Killyleagh, 1864 Sept. 13." The 2nd printed letter was dated "Killyleagh, 1864 Sept. 2."). "Series of observations of disappearances and reappearances of Venus, recorded on the tablets in British Museum, marked K 160." by Edw. Hireks (sic), Esq. (Astronomische Nachrichten, Volume 63, Number 1502, Columns 223-224). (Note: Published letter. The published letter by Hincks - dealing with tablet K 16 - was dated September 13, 1864. Dates the Venus observations between 758-752 BCE.)

See also: "On the Assyrian Mythology." by Edward Hincks (The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, Volume 22, 1849, Pages 405-422). "On a Babylonian Tablet in the British Museum." by Edward Hincks (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869), Series 1, Volume. 6, 1853-1857, Pages 270-271).

In his somewhat unreliable book, The Rise and Progress of Assyriology, Budge goes to great length to claim that Rawlinson had not relied on Hinck's work at all, and that Rawlinson had deciphered cuneiform on his own without assistance from anyone. According to Budge's biased view, Rawlinson was single-handedly 'the father of assyriology.' In fact Rawlinson copied from Hincks, with the connivance of Edwin Norris. According to the Danish assyriologist Mogens Larsen, The Conquest of Assyria: Excavations in an Antique Land, 1840-1860 (1996, Pages 184-185), Rawlinson felt an intense rivalry with Hincks and had told Layard to withhold texts from Hincks. Rawlinson's intention being that Hincks would be prevented from being able to decipher the cuneiform script first.

For Hincks' role in the decipherment of cuneiform see: Cathcart, Kevin. 1983. "Edward Hincks (1792-1866) and the Decipherment of Cuneiform Writing." (Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association, Volume 7, Pages 24-43). Daniels, Peter. (1994). "Edward Hincks's Decipherment of Mesopotamian Cuneiform." In: Kevin Cathcart. (Editor). The Edward Hincks Bicentenary Lectures. Dublin: Department of Near Eastern Languages, University College Dublin. (Pages 30-57).

For biographical and bibliographical details see: Edward Hincks, D.D., Egyptologist and Assyriologist by Lewis Pooler (The Irish Church Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1, January 1908, Pages 38-51); "Hincks, Edward (1792–1866)" by Morris Bierbrier. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004); Edward Hincks (1792-1866): A Bibliography of his Publications by Kevin Cathcart, Patricia Donlon (Orientalia, Nova Series, Volume 52, Number 3, 1983, Pages. 325-356).

Julius Oppert

For an early decipherment of tablet K 554 (observations of the moon) by Julius Oppert see: "Tablettes Assyriennes traduites par M. Oppert." (Journal Asiatique, Sixième Série, Tome XVIII, October-November-December, 1871, Pages 443-453). (See also: Journal Asiatique, Sixième Série, Tome XVIII, October-November-December, 1871, Page 67 (Abstract by Mohl).)

Julius (Jules) Oppert (July 9, 1825 – August 21, 1905) was a French-German Assyriologist, born in Hamburg of Jewish parents. After studying at Heidelberg, Bonn and Berlin, he graduated at Kiel in 1847, and the next year went to France, where he was teacher of German at Laval and at Reims. His leisure was given to Oriental studies, in which he had made great progress in Germany. In 1851 he joined the French archaeological mission to Mesopotamia and Media under Fulgence Fresnel. On his return in 1854, he was naturalized as a French citizen in recognition of his services. In 1857 he was appointed professor of Sanskrit and comparative philology in the school of languages connected with the National Library of France, and in this capacity he produced his Grammaire Sanscrite (1859). But his attention was chiefly given to Assyrian and related subjects. In 1865 he published a history of Assyria and Chaldaea (Histoire des Empires de Chaldée et d'Assyrie) in the context of new archaeological findings. His Assyrian grammar, Éléments de la grammaire assyrienne, was published in 1868. In 1869 Oppert was appointed professor of Assyrian philology and archaeology at the College de France. In 1876 Oppert began to focus on the antiquities of ancient Media and its language, writing Le Peuple et la langue des Médes (1879). In 1881 he was admitted to the Academy of Inscriptions and in 1890, he was elected to its presidency. He died in Paris on August 21, 1905.

Hormuzd Rassam (Excavator)

Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910), was a Turkish (native Assyrian, born in Mosul, then part of the Ottoman Empire) archaeologist, also described as an assyriologist (but in a letter to William Talbott in 1876, Samuel Birch wrote: "... Rassam knows nothing about cuneiform which in my opinion is as well."), British diplomat and traveller. His friend Theophilus Pinches described him as an Assyrian explorer. (See the biography for the Second Supplement of the Dictionary of National Biography (Volume III, Pages 158-161, 1912).) It has been stated that Rassam could only read some royal names on inscriptions. Rassam is credited with making (excavating) a number of important discoveries, including the cuneiform tablets containing the Epic of Gilgamesh. He became a British citizen later in his life. Also, worth mentioning is that Rassam was not a copyist.

Rassam was the first archaeologist (excavator) born and raised in the Middle East. Rassam's family were Chaldean Christians, descendants of the ancient Assyrians who had converted to Christianity in the 4th-century and who had remained ethnically distinct from the Arab and Kurdish populations of Iraq. Rassam, who grew up in Mosul (then part of the slowly dying Ottoman Empire), was eventually appointed by the British Museum to lead the most important archaeological excavation of the period. In 1845, when Rassam was 19 years old, he met Austen Layard. By Layard’s own admission, none of what he later accomplished would have been possible without Hormuzd Rassam. Whilst Layard knew how to get funding from the trustees of the British Museum, it was Rassam who knew how to deal with the villagers of northern Iraq. Rassam also spoke Arabic, Turkish, and Syriac Aramaic ( the language of the Assyrian Christians). Rassam knew how to haggle with a tribal sheikh, how to bribe a local governor with a gift, how to hire workmen for excavating.

Rassam's chief foreman on the British Museum excavations was Daud Thoma. According to the brief British Museum records Daud Thoma (also possibly known as David Thoms) was a presumed relative of Abdulla Thoma. Daud Thoma is identified as being active 1881-1899, and an antiquities dealer/auction house. British Museum records show purchases of antiquities from from Daud Thoma in Baghdad. The 96-4-9 collection containing N/LB tablets, mostly from Borsippa, was purchased from Daud Thoma, Baghdad. The 99-10-4 collection was also purchased from Daud Thoma. The last group of cuneiform tablets offered to the British Museum by Spartali & Company was sent to them in early 1884 by Daud Thoma (then Rassam's former oversee at Babylon). In 1888 this group of tablets (for some reason) belonged to a dealer named Cutler.

The early friendship between Layard and Rassam was cemented during excavation work and lasted the rest of their lives. Layard - like so many early European Orientalists - liked dressing in eastern clothes. However, Rassam did his best to dress and present himself as a Victorian Englishman. He even wore a waistcoat and jacket whilst travelling by horseback in Iraq. He converted to Protestantism, and he also spent 18 months studying at Oxford University.

The excavations funded by the British Museum were so reliant on Rassam that, when Layard retired from archaeology to become a diplomat and politician, the British Museum appointed the still young Rassam to continue the excavations alone. In taking up this post and returning to Mosul, Rassam demonstrated an astonishing devotion to the archaeological interests of his adopted country. (Rassam organised simultaneous excavations.) However, Rassam was later replaced by George Smith. George Smith did not have the Rassam's savy when negotiating transactions for excavating. With the death of George Smith aged 36 (some sources state 37) in 1876 from dysentery, in Aleppo, Rassam was recalled to the service of the British Museum. He found and excavated the Babylonian city of Sippar and sent more than 70,000 cuneiform tablets back to London. These discoveries should have made Rassam famous. However, by the time of his final expeditions in the 1880s, Hormuzd Rassam was being erased from the record.

Both Rawlinson and Budge treated Rassam appallingly. Henry Rawlinson, who had been British Consul in Baghdad at the time of Rassam's excavations at Nineveh, claimed the discovery of Ashurbanipal's palace for himself. He wrote that Rassam was just a "digger" who had overseen the work. Another insult was the insinuation, made by Budge, a curator at the British Museum, that Rassam had profited from the illicit antiquities trade that had grown up around the excavations in Iraq. Budge had charged that Rassam had been responsible for stealing antiquities from the British Museum sites in Iraq. Hormuzd Rassam, who had been so impressed by the manners of the Victorian elite, and who had spent his life in the service of the Britain, was subject to snobbery, racism, and contempt. Rassam was unable to find a British publisher for his memoirs (and the manuscript was finally lost), and when Rassam died in 1910 at his home at Hove his name had been removed from the plaques and visitor guides at the British Museum. Austin Layard was almost the sole Englishman who stood by Rassam (Theophilus Pinches was another.) Layard wrote that Rassam was "one of the honest and most straightforward fellows I ever knew, and one whose services have never been acknowledged."

For the dark side of Budge see: "Hormuzd Rassam and his Discoveries." by Julian Reade in Iraq, Volume LV, 1993, Pages 39-62; and "Tablets for lord Armherst." by Irving Finkel in Iraq, Volume LVIII, 1996, Pages 1191-205.

Like other pioneer excavator in the Near East, Rassam had his own private collection of cuneiform tablets.

Assurbanipal's library

The library was discovered by Layard and Rassam. The Assyrian king Assurbanipal II gathered an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 cuneiform tablets in the Nineveh Library (specifically his library was stored in the South-West Palace building) - likely the first institute in history that attempted to bring together all human knowledge. The library was destroyed by fire in 612 BCE after Nineveh was conquered by the Babylonians and Medes. The library has survived partially intact. What remained of the collection was excavated in the mid 19th-century. Approximately 1,200 distinct texts remains for scholars to study today. It has been one of the most valuable collections of tablets recovered from Mesopotamia. Though the library was not the first of its kind, it was one of the largest in the ancient world and the first library modern scholars can document as having most or even all of the attributes one expects to find in a modern library. Like a modern library this collection was spread out into many rooms according to subject matter i.e., history, government, religion, magic, geography, science, poetry, etc.

George Smith (Excavator)

George Smith (Born in Chelsea, London 26 March 1840 – Died Aleppo, Syria 19 August 1876), was a pioneering English assyriologist.

As the son of a working-class family in Victorian England, Smith was limited in his ability to acquire a formal education. At age 14 (15?), he was apprenticed to the London-based publishing house of Bradbury and Evans to learn banknote engraving, at which he excelled.

From his youth, he was fascinated with Assyrian culture and history. George Smith's dedication to cuneiform studies (in which he was self-taught, being by profession an engraver) arose from his passionate interest in the historical books of the Old Testament, and the fact that the early advances of assyriology undoubtedly owed much to its relevance to Biblical study. In his spare time, he read everything that was available to him on the subject. His interest was so keen that while working at the printing firm, he spent his lunch hours at the British Museum, studying publications on the cuneiform tablets that had been unearthed near Mosul in present-day Iraq by Austen Henry Layard, Henry Rawlinson, and their Iraqi assistant Hormuzd Rassam, during the archaeological expeditions of 1840–1855. Smith's natural talent for cuneiform studies was first noticed by Samuel Birch, Egyptologist and Direct of the Department of Antiquities, who brought the young man to the attention of the renowned Assyriologist Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson permitted him the use of his room at the British Museum and placed the many casts and squeezes of cuneiform inscriptions at his disposal.

George Smith was a protégé of Henry Rawlinson. He was so frequently seen at the British Museum that Henry Rawlinson eventually employed him as a 'classifier.' Even though it was highly skilled and specialist work, Smith was paid little more than the cleaning staff. "Mr. Smith was born of poor parents, and his school-education was consequently broken off at the age of fifteen, when he was apprenticed to Messrs. Bradbury and Evans to learn the art of engraving. Smith, spent what spare time and money he had pursuing his interests of Assyriology and biblical archaeology. While in this employment he often stole half the time allowed for dinner for visits to the British Museum, and saved his earnings to buy the works of the leading writers on Assyrian subjects. Sir Henry Rawlinson was struck with the young man's intelligence and enthusiasm, and after furnishing him with various casts and squeezes, through which Mr. Smith was led to make his first discovery (the date of the payment of tribute by Jehu to Shalmaneser) he proposed to the trustees of the Museum that Mr. Smith should be associated with himself in the preparation of the third volume of the "Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia." This was in 1867, and from this year Mr. Smith entered upon his official life at the Museum and definitely devoted himself to the study of the Assyrian monuments. The first fruits of his labors were the discovery of two inscriptions, one fixing the date of a total eclipse of the sun in the month Sivan or May, B.C. 763, and the other the date of an invasion of Babylonia by the Elamites in B.C. 2280, and a series of articles in the Zeitschrift füt Ægyptische Sprache, which threw a flood of light upon later Assyrian history and the political relations between Assyria and Egypt." ("George Smith" by A. H. Sayce (Nature, Volume 14, 1876, Pages 421-422; Reprinted in Littell's Living Age, Volume 131 [= 5th Series, Volume 16], 1876, Issue 1687, Pages 124-125).)

George Smith was originally employed by the British Museum to sort through the estimated 15,000-20,000 fragments of Assyrian cuneiform tablets excavated at Kuyunjik (Nineveh) by Austen Layard and Hormuzd Rassam, in the early 1850s. As early as 1861, Smith was working evenings sorting and cleaning the mass of friable fragments of clay cylinders and tablets in the Museum's storage rooms. (One source gives the date as the late 1860s but this is indicated as too late.) Smith had taught himself to read Akkadian and also his his cuneiform reading ability was partly intuitive. (Interestingly, Rassam never learned to read cuneiform.) Smith was sometimes called by the title: "the intellectual picklock" for his ability to ascertain the substantial meaning of cuneiform passages without always being able to give a philological analysis of the words. The assyriologist Andrew George has described Smith as having a genius for sorting tablet fragments into genres, for making joins, and for reasonably understanding the content of tablets/fragments. Henry Rawlinson suggested to the Trustees of the Museum that Smith should join him in the preparation of the third and fourth volumes of The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. Following the death of William H. Coxe in 1869 and with letters of reference from Rawlinson, Layard, William Henry Fox Talbot, and Edwin Norris, Smith was appointed Senior Assistant in the Assyriology Department early in 1870.

For a brief mention of an indicated suppressed antipathy between Rawlinson and Smith see: Discovering Gilgamesh by Vybarr Cregan-Reid (2013, Page 65). It is indicated that Rawlinson only seemed to offer to help to Smith when he could derive personal benefit from Smith's work.

Amongst his accomplishments, Smith discovered and translated the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest-known written works of literature. He was also the key decipherer of the Cypriote inscriptions (On the Reading of Cypriote Inscriptions (1870)). Smith succeeded in determining the value of 40 of the characters/signs of the Cypriote alphabet (syllabarium). In 1872, Smith achieved worldwide fame by his translation of the Chaldaean account of the Great Flood, which he read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology on 3 December and whose audience included the Prime Minister William Gladstone.

In 1863 Smith married Mary Clifton (1835–1883), and they had six children. In 1876, on his 3rd journey to the Near East, he died at Aleppo on August 19, ill from fever and dysentery. Following Smith's death a public subscription was made on their behalf. Also, it was decided that Mrs Smith would receive a pension of £150 a year from H. M. Government. (See: Daily Telegraph, 20th October 1876.)

By his own account, Smith had been fascinated with the Bible since his youth and was somewhat obsessed with knowing more about the "historical" books of the Old Testament.

Archibald Sayce

Archibald Sayce. (Life dates: born 25-September-1845(also erroneously given as 1846), Gloucester, Gloucestershire-died 4-February-1933, Bath, Somerset). His family were of Shropshire descent. British Orientalist/pioneer assyriologist, language scholar, and archaeologist. Note: His place of birth is also given as Shirehampton (near Bristol), England. One of the pioneers of Assyriology in Britain. During his lifetime Sayce learned to write in about 20 ancient and modern languages. As a child his health was delicate and he suffered from tuberculosis and had a late start with his education. With the aid of a private tutor he soon caught up. When only 10 years old he began reading the Greek classics, in the Greek language.

He attended The Queen's College, University of Oxford. (The Queen's College is a constituent college of the University of Oxford, England.) In 1869 he was elected a fellow and shortly afterward appointed a tutor (1870–1890) at The Queen's College, University of Oxford (where he remained for the rest of his career). In 1870 he was ordained as an Anglican minister. He soon began writing the first of a long stream of works of wide-ranging scholarship. The appearance of his Assyrian Grammar, for Comparative Purposes (1872) and Elementary Grammar with Full Syllabary and Progressive Reading Book, of the Assyrian Language (1875) and Lectures on the Assyrian Syllabary (1877) was interspersed with a number of Assyrian translations. He also wrote general linguistic works, including Principles of Comparative Philology (1874; 2nd edition revised and enlarged 1875), and Introduction to the Science of Language (2 Volumes, 1880). In 1890 he traveled in Egypt and was instrumental in securing 2 important ancient Greek manuscripts for the British Museum, including Aristotle's Constitution of Athens, long thought to be lost. In 1891 Archibald Sayce was appointed/elected Professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford and held/remained in the position until 1919. He took lengthy sabbaticals. From 1908 to 1910 he studied in the Sudan, and from 1911 to 1912 he studied (and travelled extensively) in the Far(Near?) East. Later in life he took annual trips up the Nile river in Egypt. His primary interests were languages and philology (including the cuneiform languages such as Assyrian and Hittite, and old Hebrew), and the history of the Hebrews. In the 1900s he also became interested in Egyptology. Whilst at Oxford University he was involved in archaeological excavations in Egypt (with the British architect Somers Clarke (1841-1926)) at Meroe and El Kab. Sayce worked at El Kab in Egypt with Somers Clarke in the 1900s. In his seasonal winter excavations in Egypt he always hired a well-furnished boat on the Nile to accommodate his travelling library. This also enabled him to offer hospitality to visiting Egyptologists, such as James Henry Breasted and his wife. His lectures usually formed the basis for his publications. He published in 1887 his Hibbert lectures on Babylonian religion; in 1902 his Gifford lectures on Egyptian and Babylonian religion; and in 1907 his Rhind lectures. He is considered a "generalist" more than a "specialist", and also by 1900 had an established reputation as a great populariser. However, his work on the Assyrian language had considerable importance. His contributions to ancient Near Eastern linguistic research included the first grammar in English of Assyrian. Also, Sayce was instrumental in the decipherment of the Hittite language. He identified that the Hittite hieroglyphic system was predominantly a syllabary (i.e., its symbols stood for a phonetic syllable). Based on the evidence that some hieroglyphic scripts found at Aleppo and Hamath in northern Syria were matched to the script on a monument at Boghazkoy, Sayce surmised that Boghazkoy was the capital of the Hittites. In 1882, in a lecture to the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London, he announced that the Hittites, far from being a small Canaanite tribe who dealt with the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel, were the people of a "lost Hittite empire." He and William Wright identified the ruins at Boghazkoy with Hattusa, the capital of a Hittite Empire that stretched from the Aegean Sea to the banks of the Euphrates, centuries before the age of the Old Testament patriarchs. Major works of the later years of his career include The Early History of the Hebrews (1897), Early Israel and the Surrounding Nations (1898), and The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1907). Sayce's book, Reminiscences appeared in 1923. See also: The 'Higher Criticism' and the Verdict of Monuments (1894).

William Cooper (1843-1878), a British writer on ancient Egypt, one of the principal originators in 1870 of the Society of Biblical Archæology (note the original spelling), of which he was the dedicated secretary until 1876, wrote to William Talbot (5-January-1874): "... Mr Sayce has sent us a very long paper on the Assyrian Astronomy & Astrology with Texts and translations it will cost us much to print, and the council would like to issue entire if I can obtain private donations towards the probable expense 50 or 60 it would then make a double part and come out punctually in July. Mr Bosanquet has promised 20 towards this may I ask if you would feel inclined to assist in the publication of this important work. We are now 237 members but that is not enough to carry on all that I should like to see done. My Sayces paper will in part be read in Febry. Sir H. Rawlinson <in the chair> ..." Sayce's lengthy article "Astronomy and Astrology of the Babylonians." published (with transcriptions and translations of the relevant cuneiform texts) in 1874 in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology (Volume 3, Part 1, 1874, Pages 145-339) was one of the earliest to recognise and translate astronomical cuneiform texts. The Society of Biblical Archæology was founded December 5, 1870, under the presidency of Samuel Birch. Boscowan, Pinches, and Budge all owed their first start in a scholar's life to the educational activities and schemes of William Cooper as secretary of the Society of Biblical Archæology.

Tablets in the British Museum with pre-zodiacal astrological content from Nineveh were first translated and discussed by Sayce (and Bosanquet) in 1874. Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet (1841-1912) initiated the study of Babylonian astronomy with their 3 articles published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1879-1880. "The Babylonian Astronomy. No 2" (published 1880) included a lengthy discussion of K 8538 (an Assyrian 8-sector planisphere). The 3 articles by Sayce and Bosanquet show how little was known about Babylonian astronomy before the studies of Epping and Strassmaier. Interestingly, a series of articles by George Bertin (1848-1891, French-born, naturalized British citizen, Assyriologist and Anthropologist, on Babylonian astronomy in the journal Nature, July 4, 1889, Page 237; July 11, Page 261; July 18, Page 285; and August 8, Page 360; do not seem to indicate familiarity with the work of Epping and Strassmaier.

Robert Bosanquet

Robert H. M. Bosanquet (31 July 1841 – 7 August 1912) was an English scientist and music theorist, and brother of Royal Navy Admiral Sir Day Bosanquet (who served as Governor of South Australia (1909–1914)), and the idealist philosopher and social theorist Bernard Bosanquet (who was Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews). Charles Bosanquet, the eldest son, was a founder of the Charity Organisation Society and its first Secretary. Bosanquet was the 2nd son of the Reverend Robert William Bosanquet of Rock Hall, Alnwick, Northumberland. His mother, Caroline (MacDowall), married R. W. Bosanquet following the death of his first wife in 1835. The Bosanquet family was affluent - owning an estate and farms at Rock, and being able to travel throughout England and on the continent. He was educated at Eton College, and took first class honours in Natural Science and Mathematics at Balliol College, Oxford, and later became a fellow of St. John's College. He was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn, London but worked mainly tutoring at Oxford, notably for the Natural Science School, and later was Professor of Acoustics at the Royal College of Music. He was a musician (an accomplished organist) and an authority on organ construction, and published a number of experimental and theoretical papers on acoustics, electromagnetism and astronomy. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1871 and Fellow of the Royal Society in 1890. Between 1875 and 1890 he published a large number of scientific papers, most of which appeared in the Philosophical Magazine.

Robert Bosanquet was keenly interested in astronomy and published papers in the Monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and Astronomische Nachrichten. In conjunction with Professor Archibald Sayce he contributed a series of papers on Babylonian astronomy to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Circa 1890, due to failing health, he settled in Tenerife, but returned to England each year to spend the summer. He died at his home called "El Castillo" (The Castle [Castello Zamora]), near Los Realejos town, Tenerife Island (Canary Islands, Spain) in 1912. He never married.

See the (English-language) obituary "Robert Holford MacDowall Bosanquet." by Anon in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 73, 1913, Pages 202-203.

Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger

An enormous effort was required to translate the completely unknown cuneiform characters, with the added complication of ignorance of their grammar and other philological characteristics. Achieving such was undoubtedly one of the great triumphs of human ingenuity during the 19th-century. The pioneering assyriologists Rawlinson and Hincks, determined the nature of the calendar used by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Over time, various assyriologists like Oppert in France, Sayce, and Brown in England, and above all, Jensen, and Hommel in Germany, took the first steps for the interpretation of the Babylonian astronomical documents. Jensen, in his book, The Cosmology of the Babylonians (1890) managed to establish a series of fundamental points. But in this pioneering period assyriologists seeking to understand the astronomical texts were faced with 2 enormous obstacles: (1) the deciphering of technical terms, and (2) the deciphering of the names that the Babylonians designated the celestial bodies. Pioneers of Babylonian astronomy had to first focus on gaining a technical understanding of the astronomy recorded in the cuneiform texts. Aspects of this sometimes took decades.

When George Smith, an assistant at the British Museum, discovered a Babylonian account of a great flood - in the multi-tablet story of the Gilgamesh epic - the interest of the Roman Catholic church was naturally aroused. The Babylonian flood story unearthed by the British scholar George Smith in 1872 unleashed a scholarly debate about the origins of culture and religion. In 1879 the German Jesuit priest Johann Strassmaier began a full-time systematic investigation (and copying) of thousands of tablets and fragments collected at the British Museum. In the Spartali and Shemtob collections he soon came across tablets with long columns of numbers that he believed had an astronomical significance. Toward the end of the 19th-century, Strassmaier worked almost continuously on the deciphering of the astronomical texts, together with his former mathematics (and astronomy?) teacher Joseph Epping, who initially had shown little interest, but ultimately became completely captivated with the task.

The pioneering efforts of Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler were important for the development of methods of analysis for decoding numbers (and text) on astronomical tablets. The studies by Epping and Kugler were rigorous. Of particular importance was the unique decoding skills of Kugler as an astronomer and as an assyriologist. Not to be overlooked is the efforts of Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler were influenced by Bible politics. A major episode was the so-called Babel-Bibel Streit.

Johann Strassmaier, Joseph Epping, Franz Kugler, and Johann Schaumberger were inaugural heroes who rediscovered the foundations of Babylonian mathematical astronomy. Without the efforts of the trio of Jesuit scholars later scholars such as Schaumberger would not have been able to accomplish the further progress they did. The collaboration between Strassmaier and Epping was of fundamental importance. Prior to the 1880's there was little substantial knowledge of Mesopotamian astronomy other than the 13 reports of observations made in Babylon between 721 BCE and 229 BCE quoted in Ptolemy's Almagest. The researches of Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler began the recovery of the highly developed mathematical astronomy of Seleucid and Parthian Babylonia. The pioneering decipherment and interpretation by Epping and Strassmaier, of a number of clay tablets preserved in the British Museum, supplied detailed knowledge of the astronomical methods practised in Mesopotamia in the 2nd-century BCE. The astronomical information on the tablets show no trace of Greek influence, and were undoubtedly the improved outcome of an uninterrupted Mesopotamian tradition (primarily Babylonian). During the 1870's, 1880's, and 1890's Strassmaier systematically hand-copied thousands of Late Babylonian tablets in the British Museum. The texts were of various kinds, including some on astronomy. Strassmaier showed extraordinary skill in copying and deciphering cuneiform tablets. The first decipherment of an astronomical cuneiform text was made by Joseph Epping in 1881 in collaboration with Johann Strassmaier. Epping's brilliant decoding of the numerical content of astronomical mathematical texts was followed by the significant contributions of Kugler who analysed texts with great thoroughness. By extensive studies of the hand-drawings provided by Strassmaier, Kugler was able to establish a detailed understanding of Babylonian mathematical astronomy. The modern study of Babylonian mathematical astronomy began in 1881 with the publication of: Epping, Joseph. (1881). "Zur Entzifferung der astronomischen Tafeln der Chaldäer." [= "The decipherment of the astronomical tablets of the Chaldeans."] (Stimmen aus Maria Laach, Band 21, Number 8, September, Pages 277–292). [Note: With an introduction by Johann Strassmaier. The modest article explained the difficulties experienced and their first results. The Stimmen aus Maria Laach was described by Otto Neugebauer as an obscure theological publication. Actually, it was a well-known and highly regarded Catholic publication dealing with a range of topics, including the sciences.] The interpretation in 1889, by Epping and Strassmaier, of a number astronomical tablets held in the British Museum clarified clearly the methods of official Babylonian astronomy in the 2nd-century BCE. The methods used were perfectly effectual for the purpose of preparing yearly ephemerides identifying dates for expected celestial events, and tracing in advance the paths of the celestial bodies. Further analysis in 1899 by Kugler, of the tabulated data employed in computing the moon's place, disclosed the striking fact that the 4 lunar periods - the synodic, sidereal, anomalistic, and draconitic months - were substantially adopted by Hipparchus from his Babylonian predecessors. The investigations of Franz Kugler published in DBM (1907) and SSB (1907-1924) laid the foundations for understanding many aspects of Babylonian astronomy. The decipherment and understanding of the very complex and unique Babylonian lunar and planetary theories from broken and fragmentary columns of numbers comprising ephemeris, and a few even more fragmentary and nearly unintelligible procedure texts ranks as one of the most difficult accomplishments in the recovery of ancient history. Kugler was the founding father of the discipline of Babylonian astronomy. The results available to date have been obtained by a very small number of dedicated scholars. The penetrating technical analysis of Babylonian astronomical cuneiform texts has been a collaborative effort between historians of astronomy and assyriologists. (See: The Heavenly Writing by Francesca Rochberg (2004, Page 12).) The texts used for the recovery of Babylonian mathematical astronomy came solely from Strassmaier's copies of tablets in the British Museum. Kugler, for his investigations of many other aspects of Babylonian astral science, made use of various astronomical texts, copies of which came from various sources/publications. Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger mostly dealt with late Babylonian astronomical texts. The term "late Babylonian astronomical texts" is used to refer to the period circa 750 BCE to circa 100 CE. Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger based their investigations of the content of astronomical texts on their own translations of the texts and also on their own calculations to analyse and 'decode' them. Epping's efforts resulted in the landmark, Astronomisches aus Babylon (1889). The collaboration between Strassmaier and Epping led to the first book on Babylonian astronomy. In their publication, Astronomisches aus Babylon oder das Wissen der Chaldæer über den gestirnten Himmel (1889) Epping and Strassmaier: (1) Explained and annotated two Babylonian calendars of the years 123 B.C. and 111 B.C. (2) Succeeded in describing the Babylonian calculation of the new and full moon. (3) Identified by calculations the Babylonian names of the planets, and of the 12 zodiacal signs and twenty-eight normal stars. Kugler's efforts culminated in two comprehensive (monumental) works: Babylonische Mondrechnung (1900) and Sternkunde und Sterndienst in Babel (1907–1924). The deciphering achievements of Epping and Kugler cannot be overestimated.

Astronomical texts were first understood by Epping after working with Late Babylonian texts copied and sent to him by Strassmaier, with comments. Their collaboration led to the first book on Babylonian astronomy (Epping 1889). It was Epping's grand opus. Still mostly based on texts copied by Strassmaier, Kugler could successfully decode more and more computational and observational texts (Kugler 1900, 1907-24). These works, especially by Kugler, provided secure identifications of the names of planets and stars. This made it possible to understand the astronomical reality on which celestial omens were based (as far as they were).

Strassmaier, Epping, Kugler, and Schaumberger are worthy of biographies. Otto Neugebauer's ACT was dedicated to Strassmaier, Epping, and Kugler. I am basically interested in their backgrounds and how they interacted and cooperated. I do not intend to go into great detail regarding the methods they used to understand the late mathematical tablets. Their individual biographical essays are chronologically arranged.

The pioneering phase of Babylonian astronomy ended when in the early 1930's the mathematician Otto Neugebauer took up the study of Babylonian mathematical astronomy. By the middle of the 20th-century, Otto Neugebauer (1955) had translated most of the texts of mathematical astronomy, and Abraham Sachs (1948) had begun to classify the numerous types of observational astronomy tablets.

At its most simplistic description, the history of Babylonian astronomy is divisible into 2 parts. The first period, rudimentary, lasts until the 7th-century BCE and is characterized by the mixture of astronomy with religious ideas or with astrology. The second period, coinciding with the so-called Chaldean empire, lasted from the 7th-century until the end of the era, that is, 6 centuries, and is characterized by trying in its numerical tables, to read the apparent course of the stars and planets, separately from the predictive arts. The first period can be considered as historical, and the second as astronomical. Astronomical observations made prior to the 7th-century BCE had the basic function of establishing and verifying astrological omens; that is, apparently they did not serve a scientific purpose. It is established that in some astronomical advances, the Babylonians preceded the Greeks, although most of the advances of this science occurred in the interval that goes from Meton of Athens to Claudius Ptolemy, that is, from 450 to 150 BCE, in total, 6 centuries.

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