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History of Science eAncient Mesopotamia

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 2: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia

Reading 2 + Quiz

# Due Date Pts Activity Time
3 Thursday
11:59 p.m.

Topic2 + Quiz
Background: Without a sense of context, history is anachronistic.
Primary sources: Without documentary evidence, history is speculation
The second of two topic assignments per week involving both background and primary sources.

90 min.

Before reading further, make sure you are familiar with the general description of the Reading 2 assignments and with the description of the various course websites. Information on these pages will not be repeated here.

Shape of the Earth from Kerry Magruder on Vimeo.

  1. First, spend 15 minutes exploring an interactive website on ancient Babylonian astronomy prepared by the British Museum. It includes translations of portions of some of the cuneiform tablets you learned about in the Stars over Ancient Babylon background assignment. Here is the British Museum website: Astronomers of Babylon. Browse the entire website at the above address, including the sections called "Story" and "Explore." Then do the "Challenge" section. Be sure to click on "More..." links, and on highlighted words you don't know.
  2. Explore this example of an early Babylonian mathematical tablet: Bill Casselman, of the University of British Columbia, walks you through the Plimpton 322 tablet. As you read this web page, do not panic if some of the mathematics is over your head -- rather, reflect on the fact that this tablet reflects a more advanced mathematical knowledge than you probably expected to find in the Near East, ca. 1800 BC. Be sure to click on definition links (like the one for "Pythagorean triples") when you are unsure of the meaning. (30 minutes)
  3. Jona Lendering, a historian of antiquity at the Free University of Amsterdam, sponsors the excellent www.livius.org website. This website includes many pages relating to the ancient Near East, some of which help to amplify the Stars over Ancient Babylon background assignment. Please read the following pages by Lendering (30-45 minutes):

A classic introduction to ancient mathematical astronomy, including the System B method of Kidinnu, is Otto Neugebauer, The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (1957; a reprint ed. is still available from Dover Press).

TOPIC QUIZ: The statements are either True or False. When you take the quiz at Janux, you will see 12 of these statements, chosen at random, 2 points each.

  1. T or F? Only the king could decree an adjustment to the Babylonian calendar.
  2. T or F? The king relied upon his astronomical scribes to advise him when an extra month was needed.
  3. T or F? Mul Apin texts contained information used by scribes to determine when an extra month was needed.
  4. T or F? Scribes wrote only on one side of cuneiform tablets.
  5. T or F? Hammurabi ruled Babylon in the first millennium BC.
  6. T or F? Extra months, when needed, were added at the beginning of the Babylonian year.
  7. T or F? The Scribes of Enuma Anu Enlil compiled astronomical observations for hundreds of years.
  8. T or F? “Daily diaries” contained guidelines for interpretion of astronomical events as omens foretelling the fate of the king and empire.
  9. T or F? In “Monthly summaries,” scribes summarized the observations of the Moon and planets recorded in the daily diaries.
  10. T or F? In the series of Enuma Anu Enlil tablets, scribes recorded observations of each night, including the position of bright stars.
  11. T or F? Titles of cuneiform texts like “Enuma Anu Enlil” usually consist of the last two or three words of the text.
  12. T or F? Mul Apin tablets contain rising and setting times for bright stars and constellations.
  13. T or F? According to the Diviner’s Manual, the Babylonian calendar consisted of 12 months and 360 days.
  14. T or F? The Scribes of Enuma Anu Enlil openly shared their knowledge of astronomy with foreigners and lay people.
  15. T or F? “Goal year” texts were used to predict planetary positions based on their positions in similar previous years.
  16. T or F? The Plimpton 322 tablet contains a sign for zero.
  17. T or F? The far-left column of the Plimpton 322 tablet numbers each row beginning with 1.
  18. T or F? The headings of the second and third columns of the Plimpton 322 tablet are words meaning “width” and “diagonal.”
  19. T or F? Neugebauer and Sachs argued that the Plimpton 322 tablet contains part of a list of Pythagorean triples.
  20. T or F? Bill Casselman argues that the Plimpton 322 tablet suggests that the Babylonians knew how to generate primitive Pythagorean triples.
  21. T or F? A ziggurat was an underground cave used as a royal tomb.
  22. T or F? All known ziggurats in Mesopotamia were built before 2000 BC.
  23. T or F? The Temple of Esagila, devoted to Marduk, was located in the center of Babylon near the Etemenanki.
  24. T or F? The seventy tablets of Enuma Anu Enlil typically contain astronomical observations, arranged day by day, coupled with events thought to have been signified by the astronomical omens.
  25. T or F? One extant astronomical diary recorded a total lunar eclipse and interpreted it as signifying the defeat of king Darius by Alexander the Great in 331 BC.
  26. T or F? Callisthenes, a Greek astronomer who accompanied Alexander, had cuneiform texts translated and sent back to Greece.
  27. T or F? The period from one full moon to the next full moon is called a sidereal month.
  28. T or F? Kidinnu’s estimate of the length of a synodic month is within a half a second of the modern value.
  29. T or F? Kidinnu’s estimate of the length of the solar year is within five minutes of the modern value.
  30. T or F? Babylonian astronomers in the era of Kidinnu could predict lunar eclipses.
  31. T or F? A Greek astronomer named Meton discovered that 235 lunar months are almost identical to 19 solar years.
  32. T or F? The Greek astronomer Callipus of Cyzicus discovered a cycle of 76 years to reconcile solar and lunar calendars.
  33. T or F? Babylonian astronomers such as Kidinnu predicted the positions of the Moon using an arithmetical system that took into account the Moon’s apparently non-uniform motion by changing the Moon’s speed over time.
  34. T or F? Kidinnu lived in the fourth century BC.
  35. T or F? System-B astronomical methods were used by later Greek astronomers including Critodemus, Hipparchus and Ptolemy.
  36. T or F? According to an astronomical diary, in Year 5 of Darius, the sixth month, a total lunar eclipse occurred on the 13th day.
  37. T or F? According to an astronomical diary, in Year 5 of Darius, the sixth month, Darius’ soldiers deserted him on the 24th day.
  38. T or F? Most of the cuneiform texts that survived antiquity were published in the 19th century.
  39. T or F? If interpreted by the omen literature of Enuma Anu Enlil, the astronomical observations of September 331 would signify that the king of Persia and Babylon would lose his throne to a western enemy.
  40. T or F? Berossus was a Babylonian priest who wrote a history of Mesopotamia in Greek in the early 3rd century BC.


"Why did not somebody teach me the constellations,
and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead,
and which I don't know to this day?"
Thomas Carlyle

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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Many thanks to the pedagogical model developed in Mythology and Folklore and other online courses by Laura Gibbs, which have been an inspiration for this course.

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This course is currently undergoing major reconstruction to bring it into alignment with the new version of the course at Janux