ArticlePDF Available

Calendars and Years: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient Near East, edited by John M. Steele

Book Reviews F 141
using various strengths of grey-scale infill, particularly
clear or eective. Given these limitations, the drawings
are mostly superfluous except as schematic guides to
the position of the figures and texts. Thankfully, the
excellent photographs contained in Part 3, along with
the high-resolution color digital images contained on
the DVD-ROM, make it possible for the reader to
form an appreciation of the baroque elegance and so-
phisticated detail that characterize the decoration of
this monument.
The only other complaint that this reviewer would
like to make concerns the physical quality of the books
themselves; the glossy card covers are rather flimsy,
while within the volumes the ink from the printing has
bled through the paper in several places, obscuring the
other side of the page, and the thin cardboard slipcase
quickly shows signs of disintegration. Such flaws do
not accord with the tradition of excellence maintained
heretofore by the press of the IFAO, from whom the
high price of this publication might also entitle the
reader to expect better.
These considerations notwithstanding, the appear-
ance of Athribis II is of immense significance for the
community of scholars interested in Ptolemaic and
Roman temple texts and the religious developments
of the terminal Pharaonic age. Among the major ques-
tions still to be answered is whether this monument
was in fact a mammisi, as is suggested by the tripartite
central shrine, the colonnade surrounding the core
of the temple, and perhaps even its orientation with
respect to the Ptolemy IX gateway. Many of the texts
and scenes presented in this volume reinforce this idea,
and if Prof. Leitz avoids committing himself abso-
lutely on this point, it is doubtless out of a reasonable
prudence, given that the remaining inscriptions have
not yet been studied in full.
Leitz and his team are at all events to be com-
mended for undertaking an epigraphic project fraught
with an unusual set of physical obstacles, but which
nevertheless will continue to enrich the corpus with
a wealth of previously unknown inscriptional mate-
rial. Innovative methods of presentation, especially the
inclusion of a full set of digital color photographs,
have enhanced the utility of this publication for both
philologists and students of art and iconography, and
this reviewer will join his colleagues in eagerly antici-
pating the appearance of future volumes in the series.
Calendars and Years: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient Near East. Edited by John M. Steele. Oxford: Oxbow
Books, 2007. Pp. vii + 167 + 23 figs. + 36 tables. $50 (paperback).
revieWed By maThieu ossendriJver,
Humboldt University
This work contains seven papers devoted to astronomy
and calendars in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the
Greco-Roman world. Except for the paper by Jones,
all were presented at the seventh Biennial Workshop
for the History of Astronomy held at Notre Dame
University on 8 July 2005.
In her contribution “A Star’s Year: The Annual
Cycle in the Ancient Egyptian Sky,” Sarah Symons
discusses Egyptian “diagonal star clocks” and their re-
lation to the calendar. This group of now twenty-one
sources from the Ninth to the Twelfth Dynasties, usu-
ally painted on wooden cons, continues to pose vex-
ing problems for interpretation. Symons argues that
the “standard” interpretation proposed by Neuge-
bauer and Parker1 does not hold up in light of newly
1 O. Neugebauer and R. A. Parker, Egyptian Astronomical Texts,
Volume 1: The Early Deacons (London, 1960).
discovered exemplars. It was commonly believed that
the star clocks were, ideally, used for telling the time
at night. However, due to the wandering nature of
the Egyptian 365-day year they become useless after
about forty years. Furthermore, the variations among
them cannot be explained as revisions designed to
keep them up to date.
Leo Depuydt (“Calendars and Years in Ancient
Egypt”) discusses the Egyptian calendar, which is
based on a 365-day year consisting of twelve months
of thirty days each, plus five epagomenal days, with
a focus on the period 1500–500
. His contribu-
tion begins with an extensive review of the history
of research on this topic, including a discussion of
double dates (Egyptian/West Asian) preserved in Ara-
maic papyri from the fifth century
(pp. 53–60).
The West-Asian dates employ a Babylonian-type lunar
calendar (i.e., a true lunar calendar anchored to lunar
This content downloaded from on Tue, 26 Mar 2013 10:39:40 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
142 F Journal of Near Eastern Studies
phases). Indeed, for nearly all of these dates, day 1
of the month occurs one to three days after the New
Moon (the conjunction of Sun and Moon), suggest-
ing that day 1 was defined by the first appearance of
the crescent, as in Mesopotamia. Depuydt neverthe-
less challenges this obvious conclusion (p. 56), pro-
posing instead that ancient lunar calendars might be
“untidy,” that is, they might be linked to the first ap-
pearance of the crescent only in some mean sense. He
rightly points out that any sequence of month lengths
(twenty-nine or thirty days) producing a mean month
of 29.53 days would suce to obtain a functional,
“untidy” lunar calendar. However, the existence of
“untidy” lunar calendars remains speculative, and can
be virtually ruled out for Mesopotamia. Subsequently,
Depuydt presents a lucid discussion of the foundations
of Egyptian chronology for the period 1500–500
concluding that there is no viable alternative to the
“standard chronology” derived from reported dates
of the heliacal risings of Sirius (Sothis).
Lis Brack-Bernsen (“The 360-Day Year in Mesopo-
tamia”) examines Mesopotamian usage of an admin-
istrative calendar containing twelve months of thirty
days each. The available evidence suggests that, from
the Early Dynastic III period (ca. 2600
) until the
end of cuneiform, this calendar was used for admin-
istrative and divinatory purposes, alongside the civil
luni-solar calendar with its variable month lengths (of
twenty-nine or thirty days) and occasional intercalary
months. It appears that the schematic calendar was no
longer used for administrative purposes after the Old
Babylonian period, but it does show up in later omen
astrology (e.g., the series Enūma Anu Enlil), where
deviations from the ideal calendar were considered
auspicious. In the Seleucid Era, so-called Calendar
Texts, which feature a division of the month into
thirty “days,” testify to an application of the schematic
calendar to zodiacal astrology. In some of these texts,
the days of the schematic calendar are correlated either
with cultic activities or their prohibition. This raises
the question of how precisely these texts were used,
since the cultic (civil) calendar governing religious
festivals and temple rituals was, as always, based on
months of variable duration.
Wayne Horowitz (“The Astrolabes: Astronomy,
Theology, and Chronology”) discusses Mesopotamian
Astrolabes,” the conventional name for a group of
star lists comprising thiry-six stars, arranged in twelve
groups of three, corresponding to the three “paths
of the sky.” Each month of an ideal year the three
stars listed for that month are supposed to rise helia-
cally, while three others set heliacally. Horowitz elabo-
rates on the accepted theory that the main specimen,
Astrolabe B,” was composed in the same political
context as Enūma eliš (commonly known as the Epic
of Creation), namely as a reflection of the victory
of Nebuchadnezzar I over Elam around 1100
Hitherto unexplained, seemingly anomalous features
of Astrolabe B, such as the appearance of a star called
Nēberu (“Crossing”) in month XII, can be explained
with reference to Enūma eliš. Horowitz stresses the
multifunctional nature of the text, which serves as an
astronomical treatise as well as a theological work.
Given the highly schematized nature of the astronomi-
cal content, it may be even more strongly the latter
than suggested by the author.
In his contribution “Calendars, Intercalations and
Year-Lengths in Mesopotamian Astronomy,” the late
John Britton reviews intercalation practices and year
lengths in Mesopotamia. After dividing Mesopota-
mian calendars into civil, administrative, and sche-
matic calendars, he turns to intercalation, that is, the
occasional insertion of an extra month in order to
reconcile the lunar and solar cycles. Without interca-
lation, phenomena anchored to the year (equinoxes,
solstices, heliacal risings etc.) shift backwards by about
365.25 - 12 ∙ 29.53 ≈ 11 days per year, 29.53 days
being the mean synodic month. Figure 8 (p. 123)
shows the Sun’s tropical longitude on day 1 of month I
(Nisannu) between 750
, in the Neo-Assyrian Era,
and 300
, in the Seleucid Era. Britton makes a
number of interesting observations concerning the
spring equinox, when the Sun’s tropical longitude is
0°. The dates, not shown by Britton, can be estimated
from the longitudes in figure 8 by assuming a daily
solar motion of 1°. If, for instance, the Sun’s longi-
tude on 1/I is 15° then the spring equinox falls
on 16/I. Figure 8 reveals that, as early as the eighth
, the spring equinox varied within a nar-
row thirty-day band of calendar dates, suggesting that
intercalation was already a highly controlled phenom-
enon. Secondly, the midpoint of the thirty-day band
slowly drifts from roughly 15/I in 750
to 15/
XII in year 2 of Xerxes (484
). In that year the ac-
curate nineteen-year intercalation cycle was adopted,
causing the drift to come to a halt. Britton suggests
that the drift reflects 1) a rejection of the Assyrian
calendar preserved in, for example, MUL.APIN, in
which the spring equinox occurs ideally on 15/I, and
2) a gradual return to the Old Babylonian convention
This content downloaded from on Tue, 26 Mar 2013 10:39:40 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Book Reviews F 143
preserved in, for example, Enūma Anu Enlil Tablet
14, according to which it occurs ideally on 15/XII.
The question remains why the Babylonians, having
decided to abolish the Assyrian equinox convention,
would implement this over several centuries while they
could have done so within a year by inserting one extra
intercalary month. Furthermore, in the sixth century
the short-term behavior of the equinox shows
curious anomalies partly in a direction away from the
assumed goal. It therefore remains to be seen to what
extent the evolution of the Babylonian calendar was a
deliberate process.
Next, Britton turns to Babylonian year lengths (pp.
125–31), their possible derivation from empirical data,
and transmission to Greek astronomy. Year lengths are
rarely mentioned explicitly in texts and must usually
be derived from period relations or other astronomi-
cal parameters. A minor point concerns the three-year
(thirty-seven month) intercalation cycle known from
the astronomical text MUL.APIN, which is said to
imply a 364-day year since 37∙29.53/3 ≈ 364 whole
days. One might also argue that three years amount
to 37∙29.53 ≈ 1093 whole days, which, divided by 3,
yield 364 1/3 days as the implied year length. Brit-
ton dates the year length 365 1/6 days—mentioned
in the astronomical procedure text BM 36712—to
the early fifth century
. However, this tablet from
Babylon can hardly be dated more accurately than
, so that the mentioned year length may
well be later than assumed by Britton.2 The survey
ends with a discussion of all year lengths, including
those implied by the nineteen-year cycle and by lunar
systems A and B (Fig. 10). Britton concludes that year
lengths exhibit a systematic trend to higher accuracy.
Since some of the assumed dates of the year lengths
are open to debate, this trend may be less systematic
than claimed.
John Steele (“The Length of the Month in Meso-
potamian Calendars of the First Millennium BC”)
explores how the beginning of the month was de-
termined in Mesopotamia. Steele begins by quoting
evidence from a wide range of textual sources proving
that the start of each month was defined by the first
appearance of the lunar crescent shortly after sunset
at the end of day 29 or 30. Before the first millen-
, this was established through observation.
If the new crescent was not seen at the end of day 30
2 For a new edition, cf. M. Ossendrijver, Babylonian Mathemati-
cal Astronomy. Procedure Texts (New York, 2012).
(e.g., because of bad weather), the first day of the new
month was nevertheless declared that evening. The
earliest evidence pointing to the prediction of the first
crescent is found in Neo-Assyrian astrological reports,
but the method of prediction, which is probably based
on the circumstances of the immediately preceding
Full Moon, is not really understood. No later than
the early sixth century
the so-called Goal-Year
method was developed in Babylonia. This method,
reconstructed by L. Brack-Bernsenn,3 exploits the
eighteen-year (“Saros”) periodicity of the so-called
Lunar-Six intervals for long-term prediction of the
first crescent. Steele compares the month lengths re-
ported in the Astronomical Diaries and other Baby-
lonian observational texts from the Seleucid and
Parthian Eras with those mentioned in contempora-
neous Almanacs and Normal-Star Almanacs, which
were predicted with the Goal-Year method (Table 3).
Interestingly, they agree essentially 100%, much better
than what would be expected if the data in the former
group of texts would result from pure observation.
Steele therefore concludes that the month lengths in
the Astronomical Diaries were, in fact, also predicted
by the Goal-Year method. Since the algorithms of
mathematical astronomy (e.g., lunar systems A and
B) would yield slightly dierent results, they were not
used for these predictions. There are interesting impli-
cations, not only for our understanding of the Baby-
lonian calendar, but also the purpose of Babylonian
predictive astronomy. Since mathematical astronomy
had no calendaric application, at least in the Seleucid
and Parthian Eras, its purpose becomes even more
elusive than previously thought.
Alexander Jones (“On Greek Stellar and Zodiacal
Date-Reckoning”) explores the usage of purely solar
calendars by Greek astronomers. Jones traces these
calendars back to lay traditions in which astronomi-
cal and weather phenomena are linked to the annual
course of the Sun, as can be found, for instance, in
Hesiod’s Works and Days, several works from the
Hippo cratic corpus, and so-called parapegmata. This
culminated in the “Dionysian Calendar”—named
after an astronomer Dionysius, probably from Alex-
andria—in which the months are defined by the entry
of the Sun into a zodiacal sign.
3 L. Brack-Bernsen, Zur Entstehung der babylonischen Mondtheo-
rie (Stuttgart, 1997); L. Brack-Bernsen and H. Hunger, “TU 11: A
collection of rules for the prediction of lunar phases and of month
lengths,SCIAMVS 3 (2002): 3–90.
This content downloaded from on Tue, 26 Mar 2013 10:39:40 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
144 F Journal of Near Eastern Studies
Altogether this volume oers valuable accounts
of current research on calendars in Ancient Egypt,
Mesopotamia, and the Greco-Roman World. It can be
recommended to anyone with an interest in chronol-
ogy or the history of astronomy.
American Egyptologist: The Life of James Henry Breasted and the Creation of his Oriental Institute. By Jerey
Abt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. xix + 510 + 125 figs. + 4 maps. $45 (cloth).
revieWed By emily TeeTer,
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
James Henry Breasted (1865–1935) was one of the
towering figures in Egyptology and ancient Near East-
ern Studies. He conducted epigraphic expeditions in
Sudan and Egypt, he developed a method for mak-
ing accurate copies of texts and inscriptions, he in-
troduced the public to the concept that the roots of
Western civilization lie not in the Classical world, but
in the ancient Near East, and he wrote wildly popular
books to support and disseminate his ideas. With the
massive financial support of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.,
he outlined ambitious research plans for his Oriental
Institute that included the monumental undertaking
of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary and a program of
excavations throughout the Middle East. His legacy
lives on through the University of Chicago’s Chicago
House in Luxor, an ambitious publication program,
the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, and the Ori-
ental Institute in Chicago.
Jeery Abt’s meticulously researched and fascinat-
ing biography traces Breasted’s life from his humble
youth in Rockford and Chicago to his rise as the
premier Orientalist of his time. The volume is a wel-
come supplement to the only other full biography of
Breasted, Pioneer to the Past (1943), a near-hagiogra-
phy written by Breasted’s son Charles who spent his
adulthood as his father’s assistant. Abt has diligently
scoured archives throughout the world to recount
the arc of Breasted’s career. Even those who are very
familiar with the story will find surprises and new in-
sights. What makes this volume especially interesting
and valuable is Abt’s recounting the influence that
individual scholars had upon Breasted’s career and the
influence of Breasted on others, including Freud.
Considering Breasted’s success, it is fascinating to
note the uncertainty of his early career path as he
shifted from pharmacy to the ministry and then finally
to Oriental studies, along with a series of setbacks,
dithering, and financial reliance upon his family, which
was hard pressed to finance his career changes and
advanced studies. Breasted always seemed to find a
helping hand when it was needed most. Samuel Ives
Curtiss of the Chicago Theological Seminary gave
Breasted a firm grounding in Hebrew and redirected
his student from the ministry to Oriental studies. As
Breasted became aware of the mistranslations in the
King James Bible and turned away from the minis-
try, Curtiss cautioned “You are torn . . . because the
pulpit appeals emotionally to your imaginative and
somewhat dramatic temperament. But intellectually, it
confounds you with doubts which will only grow . . .
You have the passion for truth which belongs to the
scholar” (p. 9). Once on the path of Egyptology, Cur-
tiss steered his student to William Rainey Harper, who
became the first president of the University of Chi-
cago. Curtiss, like Harper, had studied in Germany,
setting an example for Breasted to follow. The rigors
of the German academy appealed to Breasted and
there his facility for languages proved itself, adding
ancient Egyptian and Arabic (in later years Breasted
taught Classical Arabic texts) to his German, Hebrew,
Greek, and Latin. In 1894, he returned to the United
States to assume the prestigious first lectureship in
Egyptology at the new University of Chicago but with
few students and a low salary.
In 1905, he initiated the first of two seasons of an
epigraphic expedition to Sudan and Egypt funded
by the General Education Board of the Rockefeller
Foundation. This undertaking was a harbinger of his
organizational ability and vision, considering that he
had been to Egypt only once before, on his honey-
moon in 1893–94. The expedition posed incredible
logistical challenges in transporting huge amounts of
supplies, including a cumbersome wooden box cam-
era with its glass-plate negatives and chemicals. It was
on that expedition that he recognized that combining
photography with the trained eye of an epigrapher
was the key to ensuring accuracy of the texts he was
copying and that the addition of the camera provided
This content downloaded from on Tue, 26 Mar 2013 10:39:40 AM
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.