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European Research Council Supports Project at Freie Universität Berlin to Study Ancient Babylonian Medical Science

Funding Amounts to 2.25 Million Euros over Five Years

№ 371/2013 from Nov 29, 2013

The European Research Council (ERC) is sponsoring a project of the orientalist and Jewish studies scholar, Professor Mark Geller, at Freie Universität Berlin for the study of medicine in ancient Mesopotamia. Geller was awarded a prestigious ERC Advanced Grant amounting to 2.25 million euros over a five-year period until 2018. The project "Babylonian Medicine" (BabMed) represents the first ever comprehensive study of ancient Babylonian medical science since the decipherment of cuneiform, comprising the largest ancient collection of medical data before Hippocrates. The researchers in Geller’s group are investigating the largest collection of older cuneiform medical texts in Akkadian, an extinct Semitic language. They are also systematically studying the latest phase of Babylonian medicine, as preserved in Aramaic in the Babylonian Talmud. The researchers at Freie Universität are cooperating in a subproject with colleagues at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. BabMed aims to introduce a new paradigm for knowledge transfer that will recognize the barriers between ancient arts of medicine and how they were overcome in antiquity. One such barrier was script and language.

Within the BabMed project Babylonian medicine in the Talmud is being systematically studied for the first time in light of older cuneiform materials. Recent research on the history of medicine has largely ignored Babylonian medicine due to the limited accessibility to older cuneiform medical literature. The Aramaic medical texts in the Babylonian Talmud have also so far received little attention. The BabMed researchers are dealing with two main issues: Did cuneiform survive much longer than previously suspected? Are the Aramaic texts on medicine in the Babylonian Talmud mainly derived from Akkadian medicine?

The project aims to make Babylonian medical texts and the knowledge they contain available not only to cuneiform specialists, but also to a wider academic audience and the public. Until now these writings were published only in cuneiform copies or not at all, and even for scholars they were difficult or impossible to access. A further aim is to study Babylonian medical texts in the Babylonian Talmud and to draw comparisons with later medical traditions from the same region in Aramaic. In addition, BabMed will also be pursuing parallels in Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, as well as other traditions, in order to clarify transfers of medical knowledge from Mesopotamia into later traditions, and to help reconstruct the early history of medicine and influences upon Western medicine.

Mark Geller, who was born in 1949 in the USA, studied classics at Princeton University. He received his doctorate in Semitic studies at Brandeis University. He has been teaching Jewish studies and Assyriology at University College London since 1976, and since 2010 he and his wife Florentina Badalanova Geller have been guest professors at Freie Universität. Both are members of the Excellence Cluster Topoi. Geller's main fields of research include the history of knowledge in antiquity and medicine in antiquity. He is the author of numerous books and essays, most recently Ancient Babylonian Medicine, Theory and Practice (2010).

Further Information

Prof. Mark Geller, Professor of the History of Knowledge, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-57687, Email: