'Ancient Mesopotamian Plant Knowledge'

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Barbara Boeck (CSIC, Madrid)

The knowledge of plants was deeply rooted in the ancient Mesopotamian culture; this comes to the fore eg in agriculture which required familiarity with the reproductive system of various plant species or in the cuneiform lexicon which developed a specific terminology for the major stages of the plant life cycle differentiating between seeds, germination, flowering, leaves or growth. Another activity which demanded plant knowledge and which is the topic of this talk was medicine.

Plants preponderate in the cuneiform record on healing; rough estimations suggest that Assyrian and Babylonian practitioners differentiated between more than 200 species. Cuneiform recipes show that ancient Mesopotamians had a concrete knowledge of which plants had astringent, laxative or diuretic properties. Summarising the main results of my research, I outline how this knowledge was structured and transmitted and which format the ancient healers used – lists, recipes, or glossaries. In closing I present the recent publication An Ancient Mesopotamian Herbal co-authored with Shahina Ghazanfar and Mark Nesbitt, a ground-breaking reassessment of existing research, which offers identifications of some of the more important medicinal plants. Using one specific plant I show the potential of plant identification for the history of medicine.

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Hohee Cho (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (Green Templeton College), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)