Reading Signs: Shedding Light on Ancient Science

Near Eastern Studies’ newest faculty member brings an understanding of ancient science and its direct connections to the present

By Kate Rix

The planets and stars were all aligned when Francesca Rochberg received an offer to come teach at Berkeley. She joined Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department this year as the Catherine and William L. Magistretti Distinguished Professor, bringing expertise in the study of ancient Mesopotamia and, among other things, the Babylonians’ methods of reading the natural world for signs of impending good or catastrophe.

RochbergHer passion for the subject developed early in her career. As a research assistant with the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, she worked with a professor who was studying Babylonian planetary omens. The ancients read the movements of planets and stars, as well as the behavior of animals and insects, for signs of impending good or ill. Harvests could be predicted, battles planned, and even the king’s health and safety protected by the readings of scribes and scholars employed by the court.

If, for example, Venus has a reddish hue on the fourteenth day, then there will be universal flood. If, however, the Pleiades constellation enters the moon’s orbit and then moves toward the north, then the outlook is good.

“It’s a really rich area,” Rochberg says, surrounded by books in her Barrows office. “The mere idea that everything in the world can be read as a message from the divine says something about the ancients’ response to their physical environment, that the divine is imminent in everything that crossed one’s path. This raises questions about their notion of causality, fate, and determinism.”

Rochberg moved from U.C. Riverside and turned down an offer from Brown University to join the faculty at Berkeley, where her research into the history of science will form rich connections with ongoing work in several areas.  “I’ve never been in a place where I have had such significant interlocutors,” she says. “My field is rather unusual — not too many people are studying Babylonian astronomy and astrology or doing it in the way I do. But there are so many programs I can plug into at Berkeley.”

Among them are her home department of Near Eastern Studies, the History and Classics departments, and the graduate group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archeology. “I have been doing this by myself for decades,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve been in situ in a place where all this is going on.”

Rochberg’s work has evolved out of her graduate studies in Chicago, where she painstakingly cataloged texts about planetary omens. The texts, written in cuneiform, were made by ancient scholars who used a reed stylus to press wedge-shaped letters into soft clay tablets. The clay was abundant and, once baked, lasted a long, long time if stored and handled carefully. Four thousand years later, many still exist for scholars like Rochberg to decipher and interpret.

As a graduate student she was assigned the work of translating cuneiform texts about lunar eclipse omens. Ancient Assyrians, she says, didn’t know much technical detail about planetary phenomena, but eclipses were a different matter. Visible to the naked eye, eclipses were terrifying events portending wholesale social upheaval, utter destruction of states, and even, in the case of solar eclipses, cannibalism.

She made a file for every word that appeared in a large corpus of cuneiform texts. “This was before computers,” she says. “Had I been able to do it using a computer, it would have been purely mechanical. I would have learned nothing. As it was, I read each of those texts. I was saturated in them.”

Drawing on this cuneiform evidence, Rochberg’s work overturns the standard scholarly assumption that Babylonian thought was non-scientific.  Instead, she argues, the historical roots of astronomical science go all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia.

“All their work on astronomy has direct line to the modern era,” she says. “There is an unbroken line of continuity from Babylonian astronomy to Ptolemy, Kepler, the medieval Arab astronomers, then to Newton and on up to the present.”

As an historian, Rochberg sees her work as helping us to understand the most basic questions we ask when we explore the world scientifically.  “Science does not rest only on epistemology, but also practice,” she says. “It is at bottom humanistic exercise.” 

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| Updated: Jun 03, 2009