Areas of Interest: Ancient Mesopotamian Literature, Religion, Science, Astronomy.
For most of my adult life I have lived in Israel and taught Assyriology at The Hebrew University, but before that I was born in the United States, and studied for my Ph.D in England. My B.A. was in Classical and Oriental Studies (Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Akkadian) at Brandeis University in the United States. It was there that I first met the Ancient Near East and its cuneiform script, and decided to continue my studies in this direction. After a year at the University of California at Berkeley, I moved to England, to study with the great Professor W.G. Lambert at Birmingham University, and to work with the tablets of The British Museum. My Ph.D. topic was Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography, a study of the physical universe, Heaven, Earth, and Underworld, as they are represented in cuneiform sources, both Sumerian and Akkadian. After completing my Ph.D. in 1986, my family came to Israel as olim chadashim (new immigrants), and I began my now nearly 30 years of work at the Hebrew University, as a teacher of Sumerian and Akkadian texts and traditions, with a particular interest in literature, religion, science, and most of all ancient astronomy. Over this time I have written on a wide range of topics relating to the Ancient Near East, and supervised many fine graduate students in their M.A. and Ph.D. research. For many years, I was also a key member of the faculty of the Rothberg International School, serving as Academic Advisor in both the Undergraduate and Graduate Programs of the school for overseas students, and participating in the development of the M.A. Program in Bible and Ancient Near East.
The completion of my most recent book, The Three Stars Each: The Astrolabes and Related Texts, now accepted for publication as Archiv für Orientforschung, beiheft 33, represents both an end and a new beginning for me and my academic career. This book, consisting of over 800 pages of manuscript in its final form, has occupied most of my professional life. I began my research on the Astrolabe group of cuneiform texts in 1991, and spent the following years and decades discovering new manuscripts in various tablet collections around the world, as I tried to understand the history and impact of this group of astronomical texts on Mesopotamian and world civilization. Now, that the final pieces of this puzzle have come together, I expect the book to appear in press sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.
My other main area of research at the Hebrew University has been the study and publication of cuneiform documents from The Land of Israel. This work began with an invitation to study and publish newly discovered tablets at Hazor in the 1990's and exanded into a research project to collect and publish all the known cuneiform texts from the Ancient Land of Israel. The project has continued on long after the publication of our 2006 Cuneiform in Canaan volume. A trickle of tablets continue to be recovered at Hazor, and I have also recently had the honor to publish the first two cuneiform tablets ever found in Jerusalem. Such documents have been published by myself and my research team in primary publication in The Israel Exploration Journal, and will be revisited in a revised 2015 2nd edition of Cuneiform in Canaan to be published by Eisenbrauns in The United States.
In addition to these two main projects, I have published a number of articles relating to my main interests in Ancient Near Eastern astronomy, science, and religion, but with an eye towards the full richness of the cuneiform corpus which has allowed me to publish on topics as far afield as Sumerian as a tonal language based on parallels with phenomena in Chinese, and the domestication of the camel. To this, of course, should be added the joys of teaching, particularly my pleasure at having shepherded five research students to their Ph.D. degrees, with three more officially on the way. Further, my growing international reputation has allowed me to teach and study with colleagues and students around the world, for example during my 2006-07 sabbatical in China, and during a sabbatical in 2012, with colleagues in the Canadian Arctic, California and Australia.
With my responsibilities to the Astrolabe project now completed, I am ready to begin a time of new projects and challenges, which should bring me forward in time (unbelievably) to retirement. I envision three major projects for the coming years. First, remaining in the realm of cuneiform astronomical texts, I plan to write a monograph length study and edition of a text known as The Great Star List, which like the Astrolabes themselves has intrigued me since my days as a graduate student in Birmingham. This work, which presents a mixture of scientific astronomy, astrology, and astral lore, is known from a number of exemplars at the British Museum, and now one example held in The Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. While at Berkeley in the Winter of 2012, I had the opportunity to study this tablet and found that it holds the key to restoring and understanding The Great Star List as a whole; a text which hitherto had been misunderstood. In fact, I am now able to propose with near certainty that what we know as The Great Star List is in fact a set of texts for which we have canonical and alternate versions. The Great Star List is the last remaining long work of the cuneiform astronomical tradition which has yet to be fully edited. My planned edition will in a sense complete the work on the cuneiform astronomical corpus begun by the fathers of Assyriology in the 1800's, making all the major works of the cuneiform astronomical tradition finally fully available to the academic community and other interested parties.
My second project is centered on the Southern Hemisphere. While on sabbatical in Australia, I joined with colleagues there to begin a project to collect and publish the cuneiform inscriptions held in Australian and New Zealand collections. This project, now known as CANZ (Cuneiform in Australia and New Zealand), is in its first stages but already has produced two preliminary short articles, and a major discovery, that the Otago Museum in Dunedin New Zealand holds a collection of approximately 150 tablets, making it the largest known collection in the Southern Hemisphere. My colleagues in CANZ and myself are now working to publish this collection in book form.
My third project brings me to the opposite side of the world from Australasia. In recent years, I have become very interested in the world of ethno- and archaeo-astronomy. This interest originated when I was invited to a set of conferences on the subject, culminating in a visit to archaeo-astronomical sites in the American southwest, mostly in New Mexico. As I prepared my lectures for these conferences, and learned the discipline and techniques of these new (to me) fields, I realized that the cuneiform data base, with its thousands of cuneiform tablets relating to astronomy and astrology, formed the greatest reservoir of untapped knowledge for native astronomical traditions of the type being studied by my colleagues in the realm of ethno-astronomy. After lengthy contemplation of the issues involved, I formulated a preliminary research question which I hoped would guide my research: How much of what we see in a given culture’s astronomical traditions is universal, i.e. common to all mankind, and how much is particular to that culture alone? In search of answers to this question I have begun intensive anthropological field work on the astronomy of the cultures of northern Canada, these being as far away from Ancient Mesopotamian astronomy in time, place, and experience as possible: north rather than south, hot rather than cold, and with the sun, moon, and stars as seasonal phenomena in the far north (the midnight sun in Summer, noon time stars in Winter), rather than daily phenomena in the temperate zone to which Mesopotamia belongs. A generous research grant from The Halbert Center for Canadian Studies of The Hebrew University allowed me to pursue this line of inquiry in the Yukon and Northwest Territories of Canada in the winter of 2012. For the past two winters, I have continued this study with colleagues from the Gwich’in People of the Mackenzie Delta under the supervision of The Gwich’in Social and Cultural Institute (GSCI), and with the cooperation of The Aurora College of The Northwest Territories, and in Alaska with colleagues at The University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF). The first publications resulting from this research may be expected in 2015-16, and will include a survey of what I have learned thus far. The ultimate aim of the Canadian side of this project is to produce a book on Gwich’in astronomy and cosmology together with the GSCI. In the long term, I hope to use the tools and methods that I am learning from the GSCI and my Alaskan colleagues to publish a book-length study of the cuneiform astronomical tradition from the perspective of ethno-astronomy, using the cuneiform corpus as my data base in-lieu of living informants. In addition, I hope to someday be able to publish a comparative work examining Mesopotamian ethno-astronomy in relation to the astronomical traditions of the peoples of northern Canada, and perhaps Australia.
There are also a number of smaller projects, most notably a joint work with colleagues in North America to publish a newly identified group of cuneiform texts that describe how to draw constellations that is now nearing completion. To this I can also add my involvement with The Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem which will allow me to make an important contribution to the field of Jewish History, as well as Assyriology, through the museum’s December 2014 exhibition of an archive of administrative tablets from the town of Al-Yahudu, the City of the Jews, this being a new Jerusalem in southern Babylonia. These tablets, the earliest of which date to the 570's BCE, document the life and times this exilic Judean community on Babylonian soil at the start of the Babylonian exile. Beyond all this, I look forward to spending much of the next decade training the generation of scholars who will eventually take my place and bring my field of study forward into the middle of the 21st century.