In this project the transformation and diffusion of ancient science was investigated with a focus on two key periods of change: a formative period, 400330 BC, during which mathematical astronomy developed in Babylonia; a subsequent expansive period, 330 BCE–500 AD, during which there was a marked increase in the exchange of scientific knowledge and practices between Babylonia and its neighbouring cultures in the eastern Mediterranean region.


The development of predictive astronomical techniques and their transformative effects on astrology, divination and medicine is traced. The relation between these developments and the evolution of the concept of natural signs is investigated. Furthermore the diffusion of astronomical, geographical, divinatory and medical knowledge and practices between Babylonia and various cultural spheres of the eastern Mediterranean and their subsequent transformations are studied. These issues were addressed in several seperate projects, which are summarized below. The transformation and the diffusion of science were also among the central topics of the workshop “Scholars, Priests and Temples – Babylonian and Egyptian Science in Context”, which was organized by research project (D-1-4) Organisation and practice of ancient science.

Transmission of Babylonian mathematical astronomy to Ptolemaic Egypt

In collaboration with Andreas Winkler (Egyptology, Oriental Institute, Oxford) Mathieu Ossendrijver translated and analysed several unpublished Demotic ostraca from Ptolemaic (Roman-era) Egypt with Babylonian-style astronomical computations. The ostraca contain instructions, i.e. procedures, for computing several phenomena of Mercury. The computational methods are mathematically equivalent to well-known Babylonian algorithms, but the formulation of the ostraca is not found in the extant Babylonian texts. These ostraca constitute the first written evidence that Babylonian astronomical procedures were transmitted to Egyptian scholars writing in Demotic.

Mathieu Ossendrijver and Andreas Winkler, “Chaldeans on the Nile: Two Egyptian Astronomical Procedure Texts with Babylonian Systems A1 and A2 for Mercury”, in: Jay Crisostomo, Terri Tanaka, Eduardo Escobar and Niek Veldhuis (Eds.), The Scaffolding of Our Thoughts: Essays on Assyriology and the History of Science in Honor of Francesca Rochberg, Leiden: Brill, 2018, 382–419

The manuscript transmission of Aratus’ Phaenomena and its Latin translations

Fabio Guidetti aims to achieve a better understanding of the appropriation and transformations of Graeco-Roman astronomical knowledge from Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages by investigating the manuscript transmission of Aratus’ Phaenomena and its Latin translations between the 4th and the 10th century AD. Three key historical moments have been identified: 1) the reshaping and canonization of the corpus of Aratean materials (text, introductions, commentaries, and illustrations) in both Greek and Latin in the 4th and 5th centuries; 2) the attempt at founding a new Christian astronomy, leaving out the traditional constellations and their mythological associations, during the 6th and 7th centuries in the West; 3) the recovery of Aratean manuscripts in the 8th and 9th century by the Carolingian scholars, who used their texts and images to develop the measurement of time and the science of computus; this recovery in the West was paralleled in Byzantium by an effort to adapt the Graeco-Roman tradition to the new discoveries made by Arab and Persian astronomers. The project brings together these moments, with the aim of building a more accurate narrative of this key period in the transformation of ancient science in a new Christian context. Results of this investigation are presented in:

Fabio Guidetti, “A Sky without Myth? Pagan Imagery in Early Mediaeval Astronomy”, in: Miriam Marotzki and Ulrich Rehm (Eds.), Mittelalterliche Mythenrezeption – Paradigmen und Paradigmenwechsel, 2018

Severus Sebokht’s Treatise on the Astrolabe and other Syriac astronomical texts

Emilie Villey produced a first critical edition and English translation of the Syriac Treatise on the Astrolabe by Severus Sebokht (7th c. CE). The basis of the edition are a 14-15th c. manuscript from Mardin (Turkey) and two other copies preserved in Berlin and Paris. The edition is presently in preparation. As part of the project, the technical astronomical knowledge of Syriac scholars from the eastern Mediterranean region during the sixth and seventh centuries was also analyzed.