Slab with inscribed with cuneiform arranged in two columns, with several cracks and small missing pieces.

Research project

Reconstructing a 2,500 year old medical encyclopaedia

Supported by

Wellcome Trust

Key project information

Duration

1 May 2020 – 30 June 2023

Contact details

Email: jjtaylor@britishmuseum.org

Partner

University College London, UK

Supported by

Wellcome Trust

Grant number

Wellcome Trust Research Resources Awards in Humanities and Social Science 220149/Z/20/Z

This project will provide meaningful access to the rich corpus of ancient Assyrian medicine for the first time.

The Nineveh Medical Encyclopaedia is the world's most standardised, structured and systematised collection of medical literature prior to the writings of the Greek physician and philosopher Galen (about AD 130–210). It survives in fragments found in the Library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (about 669−630 BC) and represents the culmination of many centuries of medical research, codified into a highly structured compendium.

This project, Introducing Assyrian medicine: healthcare fit for a king, will enable the reconstruction of the Encyclopaedia and its translation into clear English, helping scholars reveal Assyria's place in the history of medicine. The text will provide new perspectives on drugs, symptomology and prognosis. Its value extends beyond Mesopotamian studies to its relationship with ancient Egyptian, Syriac-Aramaic and Greek and Roman medical traditions.

Find out about the latest project news

About the project

Recent research by the BabMed project, led by Markham Geller, has revolutionised our understanding of what the fragments in Ashurbanipal's collection of medical texts represent. The material forms a single body, not a disparate assembly of unconnected works, and consists of 12 treatises dedicated to parts of the body, ordered from head to foot. The treatments listed there facilitate research into ancient medicine, health and understanding of the human body. 

The challenge is that much of the Encyclopaedia has not been studied before, and many of its tablets are still in fragmentary condition. This project seeks to identify and reunite the broken fragments to reconstruct the original complete documents. These will then be read and translated.

Each text in the Encyclopaedia has three main building blocks: prescriptions, medical incantations and concise ritualistic healing procedures. Most prescriptions begin with a diagnostic description, then alternative drugs used for each therapy are listed together with precise instructions for preparing and administering the medication. Finally, there is an optional prognosis for recovery.

Once translated, an open access version of the Encyclopedia will be published, including digital transliterations and full English translations. This will enable researchers to gain a clear understanding of ancient Assyrian medicine and its place in the broader history of medicine.

Project aims

This project is designed to facilitate future research on Assyrian medicine and its ingredients. For the first time, all the treatises of the Encyclopaedia will be reconstructed as far as the surviving texts allow, and translated into a language intelligible to more than just a handful of specialists.

The project's aims are very simple. The primary outcomes will be:

  • Full transliteration and English translation of each of the 12 works comprising the Nineveh Medical Encyclopaedia, plus necessary explanatory notes – all resources will be made freely available on a dedicated website hosted on the Oracc platform.
  • A complete analytical index of all the ingredients and procedures used in the medical recipes, supplemented by information from related ancient works. This will show how the ingredients were chosen, and how they were used.

The project will engage a range of expert and non-expert audiences interested in the history of medicine, through talks, blog posts, YouTube videos and other social media. The completion of the project will be marked with an article explaining the Encyclopaedia and its most important implications.

Meet the team

Jon Taylor.

Jon Taylor

Principal Investigator
Department of the Middle East
British Museum

Markham Geller.

Markham Geller

Project Partner
Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies
Unversity College London

Irving Finkel.

Irving Finkel

Project Advisor
Department of the Middle East
British Museum

Strahil Panayotov.

Strahil Panayotov

Researcher
Department of the Middle East
British Museum

Krisztián Simkó.

Krisztián Simkó

Researcher
Department of the Middle East
British Museum

The team

Project supporter

Project supporter 

Supported by

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