Jun 04, 2015
Every Wednesday, ancient Near Eastern studies scholar Mark Geller, 64, and his doctoral candidates trade in their usual roles to become detectives. Geller pulls his drawings of ancient cuneiform tablets out of a black folder and sits down with the rest of the team around the oval table in the middle of his office, and everyone bends their heads over the papers. The texts they deal with demand these kinds of rituals and routines. Decoding the writings, which are about 4,000 years old, and sifting through them, sign by sign, to unlock knowledge about life in ancient Babylon requires vast amounts of time and patience.
U.S.-born Geller has been researching the practice of medicine and healing in Mesopotamia at Freie Universität Berlin since 2010. He is a Guest Professor at the Topoi cluster of excellence, which brings together scholars and researchers from Freie Universität, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and various institutions not affiliated with the universities to explore the transformation of knowledge in the ancient world. He came to the university together with his wife, anthropologist Florentina Badalanova Geller, and the two of them work just a couple of offices away from each other.
Geller, a friendly man with a gray beard and round glasses, is considered a pioneer in his field. He wrote the first detailed treatise on medicine in Mesopotamia. Now he has been awarded more than two million euros in funding by the European Research Council (ERC). This is a major success, since the ERC has provided little funding in the past for these kinds of “exotic” projects geared toward fundamental research in the humanities.
In his book, Ancient Babylonian Medicine in Theory and Practice (2010), Geller showed that medicine and magic were more closely intertwined in Babylon than was previously known. There were two professions that dealt with patients in Mesopotamia, Geller says: conjurers and physicians. The Babylonians believed that diseases were punishments sent by demons or angry gods. Conjurers were viewed as equivalent to priests, using magic in an attempt to cure patients’ symptoms. Geller thinks this group served an important psychological function in this role: “They took care of patients’ mental health.”
Physicians in ancient Babylon were more like freelance pharmacists, alleviating symptoms with ointments or powders made from seeds, roots, or oils. Many of their formulas have been preserved on cuneiform tablets. But Geller and his fellow specialists do not know what plants or minerals the Babylonians describe in their instructions, since an exact translation of the terms is not possible.
Babylonian medicine was practiced without equipment or surgery. Fearing contagion – and probably also for religious reasons – the Babylonians did not cut cadavers open, so they had no knowledge of human anatomy. “The Babylonians knew more about the anatomy of sheep than they did about the human body,” Geller writes in his book. Nonetheless, he believes people in Mesopotamia developed effective medications through trial and error.
In his latest project, which is being funded by the ERC, Geller’s goal is to explore Babylonian medicine in even greater depth. He also aims to show that cuneiform was in widespread use for much longer than previously assumed. He hopes to find clues in Jewish texts such as the Babylonian Talmud. These texts have also been preserved in Aramaic, a language that was in common use at the time of Jesus and followed the languages written down in cuneiform. Geller believes that if he can succeed in showing that terms and ideas from the cuneiform era are present in Aramaic texts, it would be evidence that cuneiform had survived for a longer period.
Patience is one of the most important virtues a scholar of ancient Near Eastern studies can possess. It took Geller ten years to learn cuneiform. He says it was like learning to play music, involving a great deal of laborious practice before finally mastering an instrument. At the start of his career, he devoted his attention to a series of Sumerian clay tablets on which Babylonians had written conjuration formulas to use against evil demons.
For years, he only had a few poor-quality black-and-white photographs of the tablets to work with; the originals were stored in the archives of the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. But Geller knew that if he wanted to truly understand the texts, he would have to see the actual tablets at some point. After a tenacious struggle, he was finally granted permission to do research in the museum storerooms in Istanbul. Otherwise, six years of work would have been in vain, he says.
Geller was born in Texas. His mother was originally from Vienna, and his father was an eighth-generation rabbi. Alongside classical languages and literatures, Geller also studied Jewish studies. But Hebrew was something he learned from childhood; the real challenge, he discovered, lay in cuneiform, the vehicle for language, history, and culture in the ancient Near East. He studied ancient Near Eastern studies in the 1970s under Wilfred George Lambert at the University of Birmingham, a scholar famed for his discoveries regarding the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The two men met every Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. to have coffee and study; Geller never missed an appointment. He only had to cancel once, when his first wife was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Lambert, “an eccentric Brit ,” never asked about the child afterward. “We always just talked about our texts,” Geller says. And that was the start of the same ritual Geller practices today with his doctoral candidates at Freie Universität.
After studying at Princeton, Brandeis, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Geller found a lasting academic home in the UK as head of the Institute of Jewish Studies at University College London (UCL). Various universities and research institutions all over Europe have sought him out, including LMU, in Munich, and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, in Berlin. In 2010 UCL gave him a leave of absence for his work with Topoi, so he can stay until 2018.
The funding line in which Geller has now won support from the ERC supports “high-risk” projects that have good potential to yield groundbreaking research findings. Proof that cuneiform had survived much longer than scholars had previously thought would be one such advance. It is certainly an ambitious project – and an open-ended one, as Geller says. He plans to use the funds from the ERC to finance positions for two doctoral candidates and four postdocs over the next five years. Each of his researchers is supposed to write a monograph on an area of Babylonian medicine – lung disease, gynecology, or impotence, for example.
Geller vividly recalls what he thought the first time he visited London, in the 1970s, and was given access to the archives of the British Museum. He says it was like being in a treasure trove holding “vast amounts of clay tablets that no one had studied yet.” To this day – 40 years later – each sentence decoded from the ancient Near East feels like a major discovery to him. “It’s like antiquity is talking to me,” Geller says.
This text originally appeared in German on January 2, 2014, in the daily newspaper Tagesspiegel. It was translated and used here with permission of the publisher.