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Shining a Light on the Knowledge Practices of Ancient Cultures and Communities

Official Opening of the Institute for the History of Knowledge in the Ancient World and “ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation” on June 17, 2022

№ 096/2022 from Jun 16, 2022

A newly established research institute at Freie Universität Berlin will focus on the knowledge practices of ancient cultures and communities – and the archive of knowledge that they left behind. The Institute for the History of Knowledge in the Ancient World will celebrate its official opening on June 17 starting at 11:00 a.m. Located at Arnimallee 10 in Dahlem, Berlin, the institute is directed by Professor. J. Cale Johnson. It is part of the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin.

The opening of the institute marks the official start of the research project “ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation” (“Zodiac” is taken from the Latin Zodiacus, meaning “cycle of animals”), led by Dr. Mathieu Ossendrijver and funded by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC). Following a welcome address from Professor Günter M. Ziegler, president of Freie Universität Berlin, keynote lectures will be held by Francesca Rochberg (Assyriology, University of California, Berkeley, USA) and Daryn Lehoux (ancient sciences, history, and philosophy of science, Queen’s University, Canada). The event will be rounded off with a garden party at the institute (Arnimallee 10, Dahlem, Berlin). The event is open to the public; those interested in attending are kindly requested to register at: wissensgeschichte@geschkult.fu-berlin.de

Professor Johnson has held the chair for History of Knowledge in the Ancient World since 2020. He studied Assyriology, comparative Semitics, linguistics, and linguistic anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles and Kyoto University. His academic career ultimately led him to Freie Universität Berlin, where he has carried out research at the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, the TOPOI Cluster of Excellence, and the Collaborative Research Center Episteme in Motion. He also acted as deputy head of the ERC-funded BabMed (Babylonian Medicine) research project. Furthermore, Johnson has also taught Assyriology at Leiden University and the University of Birmingham. His research interests include proto-cuneiform and the origins of writing; Sumerian literature and grammar; Babylonian medicine; and the history of Near Eastern law and economics. Johnson has also recently joined the Principal Teaching Faculty, which governs the International Max Planck Research School “Knowledge and Its Resources: Historical Reciprocities” (IMPRS-KIR).

The Institute for the History of Knowledge in the Ancient World aims to take an interdisciplinary approach towards the research of the knowledge practices of ancient cultures and communities, and the archive of knowledge that they have left behind. The history of knowledge begins with the development of knowledge practices that are preserved in the form of artifacts and systems of notation or writing in particular. “For this reason, ‘History of Knowledge in the Ancient World’ not only encompasses the traditional fields frequently studied by historians of knowledge, such as medicine and astronomy, it also takes all forms of practical and theoretical knowledge into consideration, including the development of writing, divination, astrology, and the creation of artifacts,” Johnson says. This includes acknowledging additional, more “informal” types of knowledge and analyzing evidence for how these were practiced or understood in the past. The new institute’s main geographical focus will be on the Mediterranean and its connections to the Near East and Asia and will incorporate findings from the earliest stages of human activity to the first millennium CE.

The English-language master’s degree program “The History of Knowledge in the Ancient World” is currently in the process of being designed and approved. It is expected that students will be able to begin the program as early as the summer semester of 2023. The institute will bring together new aspects from “smaller” academic subjects, both in terms of teaching and research. The overall content of the program and its international curriculum make the master’s degree an attractive option for those considering studying the ancient world. As part of the Department for History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, the institute joins the department’s twenty-one individual institutes. At one of Germany’s leading locations for studies in ancient civilizations, students and researchers alike profit from the department’s connections to other universities in Berlin, as well as to numerous other external institutions, such as the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science or the many museums in Berlin.

The grand opening of the institute coincides with the official beginning of the “ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation” research project. The project began in April 2021 and will run for a total of five years. It is funded by the European Research Council through an Advanced Grant worth just under 2.5 million euros. Consisting of researchers from around the world, the ZODIAC team investigates the concept of the zodiac using text-based and iconographic sources. It also examines the astronomical, astrological, and social practices for which these sources acted as a basis, and which spread from Babylonia to Egypt, to the Greco-Roman world, and beyond. The aim of the project is to find out how the zodiac and its related practices (e.g., horoscopes and mathematical astronomy) developed in the ancient world and how they spread to different cultures. ZODIAC is a reflection of the new institute’s interdisciplinary approach that views astral science as a combination of closely connected astronomical, astrological, mathematical, religious, and social practices.

Dr. Mathieu Ossendrijver is the principal investigator of the ZODIAC research project. He specializes in the history of ancient science, Assyriology, and astrophysics. He held the position of Professor for History of Ancient Science at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin from 2013–2018. His research interests include Babylonian astral science (astronomy, astrology) and mathematics; institutional, social, and other contextual aspects of Babylonian scholarship; and cross-cultural transformations of knowledge between Babylonia and neighboring cultures such as Egypt and the Greco-Roman world.

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