Gendered Observation: The Contribution of Women to the Astronomical Diaries of Mesopotamia

Clay cuneiform tablet showing an astronomical diary from 331BC
Clay cuneiform tablet. Astronomical Diary, 331BC-330BC. © Trustees of the British Museum | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

By E. L. Meszaros

Even though much scholarly material from Mesopotamia lacks a named author, it is assumed to have been produced by men. This includes the Astronomical Diaries, some of humanity’s earliest records of observational astronomy. These records enabled much of later Babylonian astronomy from the 5th century BCE onward, and they helped identify cycles of appearances for the known planets, the moon, and the sun, contributing to the later mathematical astronomical texts. Examining whether there is any room for women observers in something as significant as the Astronomical Diaries, or if there is even value to searching for them, can rewrite a domain of Mesopotamian culture where gender is traditionally assumed male or forgotten entirely.

The Astronomical Diaries currently include more than 1200 preserved and identified fragments of clay tablets with written cuneiform records. These tablets collect naked-eye observations made nightly over the course of half a year with the aid of little more than a water clock for timing. Eventually, the content of the diaries standardized to contain information on what Francesca Rochberg-Halton describes as “collected lunar, planetary, meteorological, economic, and, occasionally, political (or otherwise peculiar) events.”

The information collected in the Diaries provided the basis for many of the predictive systems that came in later Babylonian mathematical astronomy. The zig-zag functions and almost algorithmic methods for determining planetary positions made famous by Babylonian astronomy depended on accurate observations and likely grew out of the record keeping of the Astronomical Diaries. Additionally, keeping these records became part of the astronomical culture and defined Babylonian astronomy for almost a millennium. They were even integrated into later Greek astronomy to help establish cycles of astronomical phenomena. Because the Astronomical Diaries were an integral part of early Babylonian astronomy and were kept for hundreds of years, it is imperative to consider whether during this thousand-year span of time women were able to participate in such defining activities.

Examining whether there is any room for women observers in something as significant as the Astronomical Diaries, or if there is even value to searching for them, can rewrite a domain of Mesopotamian culture where gender is traditionally assumed male or forgotten entirely.

Mesopotamia is conventionally viewed as a patriarchal culture. Specialized arenas such as the scribal school and realms of astronomy and astrology were often reserved for men. There is, however, some evidence that women took on these traditionally masculine roles. Cuneiform letters sent between women famously comprise the archives at Mari, for example. Because the evidence of women in ancient sciences is lacking, scholars frequently attribute astronomical and observation texts to men, but the question of who wrote these texts is not so straightforward.

Ancient Mesopotamian culture did not prioritize authorship, meaning that even familiar texts such as Gilgamesh and certainly less familiar astronomical texts including the Astronomical Diaries or Enūma Anu Enlil have made their way to us with no identified writer. For the Diaries, the number of fragments covering a range of time suggests the possibility of not just an author but rather authors — an idea supported by the general lack of authorial information for most Mesopotamian texts. The most likely candidates for authors of the Astronomical Diaries are those capable of writing these observations down and interested in noting these astral phenomena: the literate. Since these roles have traditionally been assumed to be the reserve of men, much of the previous research on literacy has privileged a male focus.

In addition to writing letters, there is also evidence for women working in the more specialized scribal schools. Though apparent in smaller numbers than their male counterparts, women are attested to in the cuneiform record from the third millennium BCE into the first. Perhaps the area where scribal women are best found is around other influential women. Though little is known about them, the women Ana-makanišu and Hannabnatum specifically selected other women as messengers, including Qudašu and other unnamed messengers. There is also evidence of a Neo-Assyrian queen choosing a woman for her scribe. These scribal women were the daughters of pre-established scribes, such as Inanna-amamu and her scribal father Abba-ṭābum, a practice that imitated the traditionally male lineage practice of scribal education. Assyriologist Rivkah Harris argues that women only had the leisure to work as a scribe if they had given up other traditional aspects of their gender roles, such as “the embroilment of wifely and motherly demands.” The women who found their way into scribal life seem to have made a deliberate choice to be there.

Seeking out women scribes, however, is hindered by the general lack of information provided on the lives of women as well as the frequent anonymity of our sources. Certain knowledge of instances where a woman scribe was the author may be lacking, but it was rare for a scribe to identify themselves anyway, so maybe the evidence simply hasn’t been preserved or hasn’t been found. Anonymous texts prevent scholars from determining with confidence whether they are reading the work of a woman scribe. But the fact that women could be writers and that many authors remain unknown suggests that it may be entirely possible to think of women contributing to the Astronomical Diaries.

Although women were authors, scholars seem more hesitant to allow for their presence in the specialized domain of astronomy. It is misguided to attribute to women the same education as their male counterparts and then claim that they lacked the required specialized knowledge in the astral fields. If women could have the same education — and there is evidence of them serving as scribes — then it is easy to imagine they played a role in the specialized field of astronomy as well.

Women scribes were both defined and limited by their gender. While scribal work was open to women, it was open in a way that seems to have made them give up aspects of their femaleness while relegating them to areas traditionally defined as female. Those women who entered a field like astronomy were viewed as “acting as men.” In fact, as Charles Halton and Sanna Svärd claim in Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia, “the elite role or the scribal role of these female individuals was more important than their gender.” The experience of any woman scribe or woman astronomer would likely have looked vastly different from the experience of many other Mesopotamian women, with training in reading and writing and access to the palace and elite culture.

Any examination of the authorship of the Diaries is plagued by uncertainty. This is partly the fate that awaits any examination in Assyriology, burdened as the field is by the accident of discovery and the dearth of available evidence. New archaeological excavations regularly provide new sources of information, yet even the finds of older dig-sites still wait in the basements and storage areas of museums for study and translation. Despite this gap in the record, it is safe to say that there was space for women in these astronomical observations.

Given how wary many people are to credit women with astronomical progress even today, establishing that they have always been a part of astronomy and shaping science is critical.

Acknowledging the possibility of women observers in the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries can shape how we think about the role of women in ancient science more broadly. Unsurprisingly, women are typically left out of the narratives of ancient science, specifically when told by later male scholars. But reasserting the possibility of their presence can allow us to view women as a part of astronomy from the start. With limited evidence from Mesopotamia, we won’t and can’t know everything about the situation, and the majority of actors might indeed be male. But gatekeeping women out from their role in Babylonian astronomy based on these assumptions denies them crucial agency. Given how wary many people are to credit women with astronomical progress even today, establishing that they have always been a part of astronomy and shaping science is critical.

Asking about the role of women in the Mesopotamian astronomy is a rough question — it was a world unfriendly and unwelcoming toward women, especially women scholars. But in a culture of anonymous texts, it is a mistake to discount women as observers or authors entirely and doing so paves the way for continued denial of the role that women have played in astronomy. The Astronomical Diaries, which recorded observations over a span of  hundreds of years, provided many opportunities where women may have left a fundamental mark on the history of astronomy.

Further Reading

Charles Halton and Saana Svärd, Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Rivkah Harris, Gender and Aging in Mesopotamia: The Gilgamesh Epic and Other Ancient Literature (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity and frequent researcher with the Autonomy Incubator at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

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