S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

In the Ruins of Babylon

Last week, I had dinner with a postdoc student in my department who is one of perhaps ten people worldwide who specializes in Babylonian astronomy. He's here to study with Alexander Jones, a professor in the same subject with whom I took a course a few years back on his area of specialization. What was particularly memorable about the dinner, however, was our discussion of the archaeological search for more information on the astronomy of Babylon in modern Iraq, where once was Babylon.

John mentioned how, unlike other Muslim leaders, Saddam Hussein has modeled himself to large degree on the kings of Bablylon - i.e. pagan rulers, but ones who maintained substantial, spectacular, and well-known empires within the lands of his own country. To that aim, he's funded an archaeological project at Nenavah, I believe it was, to continue research on the subject. This effort is undermined, however, by one of his most spectacular building projects, a palace on the ruins of Babylon. H.D. Miller currently has a discussion of this palace and its archaeological damage, with hopes that the palace will not exist in the near future. (He cites several articles about the palace and situation, including this one.)

After last week's discussion however, this made me wince even more. John noted that the best thing for the archaeological remains is to be simply left alone. The more damage that is done to them in any form, the more they are rendered useless as evidence of the past. Since historians of Babylonian astronomy rely upon cuneiform tables, the best thing for them at the moment is just to be left in the ground. In part during the Gulf War, the Baghdad Museum, once home to numerous cuneiform tablets, has been pillaged, and many of those tables are now for sale in antique dealers' shops worldwide. Indeed, as of about six months ago, the British Museum was in negotiations with the Museum in Baghdad to repatriate many of their tablets. John expressed fervent hope that the repatriation had not yet happened, especially if there is to be war.

Some of the worst damage, however, was, he reported, done with the best of intentions by bombers during the Gulf War, who, seeing them from the air, believed some of the subterranean archaeological structures to be airplane landing strips, and bombed them accordingly.

(If you're in Toronto and interested in the subject, there's a daylong symposium on February 8th on the subject of ancient near eastern astronomy at which both A. Jones and J. Steele will be speaking.)

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