SCIENCE, TIME AND MEASUREMENT IN MESOPOTAMIA

SCIENCE IN BABYLON AND MESOPOTAMIA

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Nimrud lens
Mesopotamia gave the world writing, the zodiac, the 12-month year, the 60-minute hour, the 360-degree circle, the potter's wheel, sailboats, wheeled vehicles, kiln-fired bricks, maps and irrigation. The Babylonians conducted censuses of agriculture. The Neo- Babylonian ruler Ashurbanipal founded the world’s first known serious library. Archaeologists found the library and unearthed good copies of the epic of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamia poetry there.

Mesopotamian cultures developed astronomy, mathematics, logarithms and exponents values. They were able to calculate compound interests but algebraic and geometrical problems could not be solved. In ancient times people, sciences such as chemistry, biology and physics did not exist. People believed that natural processes were caused by spirits. Even so, a great deal of practical knowledge was ascertained. The properties of metals were observed and processes such as glassmaking and alloy production were figured out.

Larry Freeman wrote in his Astronomy & Navigation Page:“The Babylonians were great astronomers, they noticed that they to adjust their observations every day also. Also their calendar had 12 months of 30 days and 5 year end holidays giving 365 days a year. It was hard to compute fractions of 365 (they did not have multiplication or division) so they used 360 as the number of days for astronomy. They divided a circle into 360 parts so by setting it back one part every day they could keep the observations of the stars constant from one day to the next (within 1.5 percent). The number 360 is 3*4*5*6 which give a great many factors and therefore great for doing ratios. This is where we got 360 degrees in a circle. Note: Modern day observers use {1/364.24219889 - .0000000614(t-1900) -- sidereal time} to adjust their observations. The Babylonians were less than 1.5 percent off or about 5 degree per year. This was good since there were no accurate way to keep time in those days. The would occasionally adjust their based on the helical rising of certain stars. These are the stars that would just have risen in the area of the sun when the sun rises. [Source: Larry Freeman's Astronomy & Navigation Page]

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

First Wheels and Wheeled Vehicles

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The wheel, some scholars have theorized, was first used to make pottery and then was adapted for wagons and chariots. The potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia in 4000 B.C. Some scholars have speculated that the wheel on carts were developed by placing a potters wheel on its side. Other say: first there were sleds, then rollers and finally wheels. Logs and other rollers were widely used in the ancient world to move heavy objects. It is believed that 6000-year-old megaliths that weighed many tons were moved by placing them on smooth logs and pulling them by teams of laborers.

Early wheeled vehicles were wagons and sleds with a wheel attached to each side. The wheel was most likely invented before around 3000 B.C.”the approximate age of the oldest wheel specimens---as most early wheels were probably shaped from wood, which rots, and there isn't any evidence of them today. The evidence we do have consists of impressions left behind in ancient tombs, images on pottery and ancient models of wheeled carts fashioned from pottery.◂

Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium B.C., near-simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe. The question of who invented the first wheeled vehicles is far from resolved. The earliest well-dated depiction of a wheeled vehicle---a wagon with four wheels and two axles---is on the Bronocice pot, clay pot dated to between 3500 and 3350 B.C. excavated in a Funnelbeaker culture settlement in southern Poland. Some sources say the oldest images of the wheel originate from the Mesopotamian city of Ur A bas-relief from the Sumerian city of Ur---dated to 2500 B.C.---shows four onagers (donkeylike animals) pulling a cart for a king. and were supposed to date sometime from 4000 BC. [Partly from Wikipedia]

In 2003---at a site in the Ljubljana marshes, Slovenia, 20 kilometers southeast of Ljubljana--- Slovenian scientists claimed they found the world’s oldest wheel and axle. Dated with radiocarbon method by experts in Vienna to be between 5,100 and 5,350 years old the found in the remains of a pile-dwelling settlement, the wheel has a radius of 70 centimeters and is five centimeters thick. It is made of ash and oak. Surprisingly technologically advanced, it was made of two ashen panels of the same tree. The axle, whose age could not be precisely established, is about as old as the wheel. It is 120 centimeters long and made of oak. [Source: Slovenia News]

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Ur chariot
The wheel and axle were found near a wooden canoe. Both the wheel and the axle had been scorched, probably to protect them against pests. Slovenian experts surmise that the wheel they found belonged to a single-axle cart. The aperture for the axle on the wheel is square, which means the wheel and the axle rotated together and, considering the rough ground, the cart probably had only one axle. We can only guess what the cart itself was like. The Ljubljana marshes are a perfect place for old objects to be preserved. There have been many finds uncovered in this area. Apart from the wooden wheel, axle and canoe, there have been innumerable objects found which are up to 6,500 years old.

A wheel dated to 3000 B.C., was found near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Wheels with similar dates have been found in Germany and Switzerland. One very old wheel was a wooden disc discovered at an archeological sight near Zurich. The wheel now can be seen in the Zurich museum.

The invention of the wheel paved the way for more advanced technology such as pulleys, gears, cogs and screws. A flint point or stick spun with a bow was another important advancement. It could be used to make fire and employed as a drill.

Years and Calendars in Mesopotamia

What may be the world’s oldest calendar was unearthed in Iraq. It is 10,000 years old and is comprised of a pebble with 12 notches.

The were various Sumerian calendars. Ones with 12 months of 30 days, which added up to 360 day years, soon fell out of sync with the season so extra months were added every few years. The Eblaite calendar affixed a different name to every year that commemorated a great event. The year 2480 B.C., for example, is referred to as Dis mu til Mari ki (the Year of the defeat of Mari).

The Babylonians are often given credit for devising the first calendars, and with them the first conception of time as an entity. They developed and used the 360-day year---divided into 12 lunar months of 30 days (real lunar months are 29½ days)---devised by the Sumerians and introduced the seven day week, corresponding to the four waning and waxing periods of the lunar cycle. The ancients Egyptians adopted the 12-month system to their calendar. The ancient Hindus, Chinese, and Egyptians, all used 365-day calendars.

The Babylonians stuck stubbornly to the lunar calendar to define the year even though 12 lunar months did not equal one year. In 432 B.C., the Greeks introduced the so-called Metonic cycle in which every 19 years seven of the years had thirteen months and 12 years had 12 months. These kept the seasons in synch with the year and the roughly kept the days and months of the Metonic year in sync with those on the lunar calendar. The Metonic calendar was too complicated for everyday use and used mostly by astronomers.

Many cuneiform tablets are dated by the year, month and day. The Mesopotamians used sundials and water clock. These technologies were improved by the Egyptians,, Greeks and Romans.

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Sumerian_Calendar

Hours and Minutes

The Mesopotamians also invented the 60 minute hour. The idea of measuring the year was more important than measuring the day. People could judge the time of day by following the sun. Judging the time of year was more difficult and important in knowing when to plant crops, expect rain or snow and harvest crops. That is why a yearly calendar was developed before clocks and minutes and seconds didn’t come to the Middle Ages.

The Babylonians have been credited with coming up with the idea of dividing the hour into 60 minutes. The number 60 seemed to be prized especially since 360 divided by six is 60 and some scholars have speculated that is why hours are made up of 60 minutes and minutes are made up of 60 seconds. Other believe the number 60 was arrived at by multiplying the visible planets (5, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) by the number of months (12).

Mesopotamian Measurement

The Sumerians had standard measurements of length, area and volume. The mina was the standard weight measurement. It was divided into 60 shekels, which roughly equivalent to a pound. Sixty minas made up one talent.

Stone blocks from the Sumerian period, dated to 2400 B.C., have been found that have the roughly equivalent weight of around 24 ounces and are inscribed with the same name. They may be part of a system of weights and measurements.

The world's oldest known long-distance linear measurement is the "farsang”---a measurement of about four miles used in Babylon 4,000 years ago. A cubit, based on the length of a man's forearm, was the unit of measure throughout much of the ancient world. The measurement varied a great deal however. In ancient Egypt, for example, a cubit for a man was 17.72 inches while the cubit for a king was 20.62 inches.

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Nippur cubit

Astronomy and Maps in Mesopotamia

The Mesopotamians invented astronomy. A Sumerian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum describes the sighting on an exploding star in 4000 B.C. Modern astronomers have found the remnant of a star that may have exploded at that time.

The Babylonians excelled at astronomy. Many of the constellations that we see in the sky were first categorized by them. The kept careful records and recorded celestial events under the belief they could shape future events. Under Hammurabi the Lawgiver, in 1800 B.C., star catalogs and planetary records were compiled.

The Neo-Babylonian used ziggurats as observatory and mapped the night time sky into constellations. They developed the 12 signs of the zodiac, recorded the motions of the planets and even predicted eclipses.

The world's oldest map is a clay tablet with the Euphrates River and Mesopotamia. It dates back to 2250 B.C. A Babylonian world map was drawn on clay in 900 B.C. A world map, dated at 600 B.C., show Babylon as a rectangle pierced by two vertical lines representing the Euphrates River. Small circles indicates other kingdoms. An ocean surrounds the world.

See Astrology and Zodiac

Babylonians Discovered Astronomical Geometry More than 2000 Years Ago

Babylonian astronomers, writing on cuneiform tablets, used surprisingly sophisticated geometry to calculate the orbit of what they called the White Star — the planet Jupiter — according to Mathieu Ossendrijver of Humboldt University in a paper published in the journal Science. By comparing a tablet named BM 40054 by the British Museum, and dubbed Text A by Ossendrijver, to the four previously mysterious tablets, Ossendrijver was able to decipher that the five tablets computed the predictable motion of Jupiter relative to the other planets and the distant stars. “This tablet contains numbers and computations, additions, divisions, multiplications. It doesn’t actually mention Jupiter. It’s a highly abbreviated version of a more complete computation that I already knew from five, six, seven other tablets," he said. [Source: Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, January 28, 2016 |||]

Joel Achenbach wrote in the Washington Post: “Most strikingly, the methodology for those computations used techniques that resembled the astronomical geometry developed in the 14th century at Oxford's Merton College. The tablets have been authoritatively dated to a period from 350 B.C. to 50 B.C. "This discovery shows that there is still more to learn about ancient science, and that every new thing we do learn demonstrates just how clever the ancient astronomers were," said John Steele, a Brown University professor who specializes in ancient astronomy and was not involved in the new study.|||

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Mari Disk

“But Ossendrijver said nothing in the newly decoded computations suggests that the ancient scientist or scientists who etched the tablets understood that heliocentric model [planets revolving around the sun]. The calculations merely describe Jupiter's motion over time as it appears to speed up and slow down in its journey across the night sky. Those calculations are done in a surprisingly abstract way — the same way the Oxford mathematicians would do them a millennium and a half later. “It's geometry, which is itself old, but it's applied in a completely new way, not to fields, or something that lives in real space, but to something that exists in completely abstract space," Ossendrijver said. "Anybody who studies physics would be reminded of integral calculus." Which was developed in Europe in 1350, according to historians. “In Babylonia, between 350 and 50 B.C., scholars, or maybe one very clever guy, came up with the idea of drawing graphs of the velocity of a planet against time, and computing the area of this graph — of doing a kind of computation that seems to be thoroughly modern, that is not found until 1350," Ossendrijver said. |||

“Alexander Jones, a professor at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, praised Ossendrijver's research, which he said shows the "revolutionary brilliance of the unknown Mesopotamian scholars who constructed Babylonian mathematical astronomy during the second half of the first millennium BC." Anthropologist Alexander Nagel of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, after reviewing the new paper, wrote in an email, "I think Mathieu's article shows very well the complexities modern researchers encounter (and have to master) in understanding what immense knowledge the communities by the Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq had." |||

“The Babylonians realized that the area under the curve of a graph of velocity against time represented distance traveled. Kenneth Chang wrote in the New York Times: “When Jupiter first appears in the night sky, it moves at a certain velocity relative to the background stars. Because Jupiter and Earth both constantly move in their orbits, to observers on Earth, Jupiter appears to slow down, and 120 days after it becomes visible, it comes to a standstill and reverses course.” [Source: Kenneth Chang , New York Times, January 28, 2016 ***]

“Dr. Ossendrijver said he did not know the astronomical or astrological motivation for these calculations. It was an abstract concept not known elsewhere at the time. “Ancient Greek astronomers and mathematicians didn’t make plots of something against time,” Dr. Ossendrijver said. He said that until now, such calculations were not known until the 14th century by scholars in England and France. These mathematicians of the Middle Ages perhaps had seen some as yet unknown texts dating to Babylonian times, or they developed the same techniques independently. “It anticipates integral calculus,” Dr. Ossendrijver said. “This is utterly familiar to any modern physicist or mathematician.”“ ***

Influence of Babylonian Astronomy on Ancient Greek Science


Babylonian tablet recording Halley's comet

John Burnet wrote in “Early Greek Philosophy”: “The other source from which the Ionians were supposed to have derived their science is Babylonian astronomy. It is certain, of course, that the Babylonians had observed the heavens from an early date. They had planned out the fixed stars, and especially those of the zodiac, in constellations. That is useful for purposes of observational astronomy, but in itself it belongs rather to mythology or folklore. They had distinguished and named the planets and noted their apparent motions. They were well aware of their stations and retrograde movements, and they were familiar with the solstices and equinoxes. They had also noted the occurrence of eclipses with a view to predicting their return for purposes of divination. But we must not exaggerate the antiquity or accuracy of these observations. It was long before the Babylonians had a satisfactory calendar, and they kept the year right only by intercalating a thirteenth month when it seemed desirable. That made a trustworthy chronology impossible, and therefore there were not and could not be any data available for astronomical purposes before the so-called era of Nabonassar (747 B.C.). The oldest astronomical document of a really scientific character which had come to light up to 1907 is dated 523 B.C., in the reign of Cambyses, when Pythagoras had already founded his school at Croton. Moreover, the golden age of Babylonian observational astronomy is now assigned to the period after Alexander the Great, when Babylon was a Hellenistic city. Even then, though great accuracy of observation was attained, and data were accumulated which were of service to the Alexandrian astronomers, there is no evidence that Babylonian astronomy had passed beyond the empirical stage. [Source: John Burnet (1863-1928), “Early Greek Philosophy” London and Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1892, 3rd edition, 1920, Evansville University <|>]

“We shall see that Thales probably knew the cycle by means of which the Babylonians tried to predict eclipses; but it would be a mistake to suppose that the pioneers of Greek science had any detailed knowledge of Babylonian observations. The Babylonian names of the planets do not occur earlier than the writings of Plato's old age. We shall find, indeed, that the earliest cosmologists paid no attention to the planets, and it is hard to say what they thought about the fixed stars. That, in itself, shows that they started for themselves, and were quite independent of Babylonian observations, and the recorded observations were only made fully available in Alexandrian times. But, even if the Ionians had known them, their originality would remain. The Babylonians recorded celestial phenomena for astrological purposes, not from any scientific interest. There is no evidence that they attempted to account for what they saw in any but the crudest way. The Greeks, on the other hand, made at least three discoveries of capital importance in the course of two or three generations. In the first place, they discovered that the earth is a sphere and does not rest on anything. In the second place, they discovered the true theory of lunar and solar eclipses; and, in close connection with that, they came to see, in the third place, that the earth is not the center of our system, but revolves round the center like the planets. Not much later, certain Greeks took, at least tentatively, the final step of identifying the center round which the earth and planets revolve with the sun. These discoveries will be discussed in their proper place; they are only mentioned here to show the gulf between Greek astronomy and everything that had preceded it. On the other hand, the Greeks rejected astrology, and it was not till the third century B.C. that it was introduced among them. <|>

“We may sum up all this by saying that the Greeks did not borrow either their philosophy or their science from the East. They did, however, get from Egypt certain rules of mensuration which, when generalized, gave birth to geometry; while from Babylon they learnt that the phenomena of the heavens recur in cycles. This piece of knowledge doubtless had a great deal to do with the rise of science; for to the Greek it suggested further questions such as no Babylonian ever dreamt of.”

Gold, Bronze, Iron and Mesopotamia Metallurgy

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Mari Pyxid_
Bronze was first developed in Iran, various places in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but Mesopotamian cultures invented many of the metalworking processing we still rely on today: smelting from ore, casting, alloying and soldering.

Iron made possible sturdy plows and strong weapons. Crude iron was first used around 2000 B.C. Improved iron working from the Hittites became wide spread by 1200 B.C.

Mesopotamia didn't have its own source of metal ores. It imported them from other places. Ores and precious metals were obtained through long distance caravan trade with places like southern Anatolia and present-day Jordan.

The ancients determined the quality of gold by making a streak on it with a hard, black stone known as a touchstone, The brightness of the streak was an indication of the amount of gold. As early as 1500 B.C. the Mesopotamians learned how to purify gold by "cuppelation," in which impure gold was heated in a porcelain cup. The impurities were absorbed into the porcelain and pure gold remained.

One of the most effective weapons that was developed was the double headed ax head which could mounted socket-fashion onto a handle.

Ancient Inventions

The book Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe (Ballantine Books, 1995) is a compendium of curiosities dating from the Stone Age to 1,000 A.D., the book argues that just because our ancestors lived long ago and had less technology at their disposal does not mean they were any less intelligent than we are. [Source: Laura Colby, New York Times, May 16, 1995]

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Mari mirror
“In fact, many of the inventions that we believe belong to our own modern era already existed hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years ago. Our ancestors were not quaint superstitious people mystified by the problems of everyday life; they were, much as we are today, hard at work on ingenious solutions. The authors have broken down the inventions into different categories such as medicine; food, drink and drugs; transportation and communications; and military technology, making the book easy to thumb through in the coffee-table style, rather than one to be read from start to finish. [Ibid]

“We learn that our ancestors used birth control---everything from a condom to a rudimentary form of the pill---abused drugs ranging from hallucinogenic mushrooms to cocaine, and were entertained by sport, music and theater. We see homes many thousands of years old with plumbing, indoor ovens, and many other conveniences we associate with our own era. [Ibid]

“But by far the most interesting parts of the book are those that provide examples of technology, rather than everyday objects. Inhabitants of present-day Iraq, for instance, had developed a form of electric battery about 2,000 years ago, using a clay jar that contained a copper rod sealed with asphalt. The so-called Baghdad Battery, discovered in 1936, was probably used by jewelers to electroplate bronze jewelry. Medicine, including brain surgery, the making of artificial limbs and plastic surgery, is one of the most hair-raising chapters. Early military technology, including a "machine gun" in the form of a crossbow that could fire 20 arrows in less than 15 seconds, is also covered.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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