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Treatment for Ear-Ache, 7th century BCE

Treatment for Ear-Ache.jpg

Mesopotamia’s contribution to the history of medicine was probably considerable, but the question of what scientific knowledge is embodied in the texts still requires serious investigation. Medical texts in cuneiform script are rare before the first millennium BC, but large numbers have been discovered in the Assyrian capital cities, especially Ashur and Nineveh, as well as further south in Babylonia.

Most such documents are compendia, short recipes for related medical problems collected together for easy reference. Subsequently these individual compendia were grouped into long series running over several large tablets. The recipes take the form, ‘If a man is suffering from the following symptoms, the problem is… take the following drugs, prepare and administer them as follows.’ Within this format much information is to be found, although descriptions of symptoms are mixed up with other data, and it is not easy to identify modern diseases from ancient descriptions. Diseases were often attributed to the ‘hand’ of a certain god, and a large collection of medical omens were gathered in which symptoms were described and their cause diagnosed in this fashion. These omens, like other categories of medical writing, were arranged following the parts of the body, from head to foot.

Medicine was in the hands of two practitioners. The first, the asu, was closer to what we would call a doctor. He operated with poultices, salves, potions, enemas, and so on, depending on a vast pharmacopoeia of which only a handful of plants can be identified for certain. His colleague, with whom he appears to have collaborated, was the ashipu, rather more of a conjurer, whose healing repertoire entailed spells, incantations, amulets and related practices. The consistent way in which recipes were preserved suggests that at least some herbal treatments were effective in healing, although it is obvious that no modern understanding of the disease was achieved. Knowledge of anatomy was slight, and mostly derived from animal sacrifice. Some texts hint at an idea akin to contagion, but if this did exist, it was a matter more of instinct than of science.

Treatment for ear-ache

This tablet contains incantations and prescriptions for the treatment of ear problems, chiefly the sensation of roaring in the ears. Each ruled section gives a recommended procedure, and the tablet thus consists of a collection of varied remedies brought together for convenience in a large compendium. An interesting point is that the spells quoted belong to the category of untranslatable mumbo-jumbo, since they seem to be corrupted versions of older texts in Elamite from Iran. These have been borrowed as ‘foreign magic’ and have become unintelligible through repeated copying.

7th century BC

From Nineveh

WA K2472

H 16 cm W 9 cm TH 1.5 cm

Kocher 1979- no. 506

Curtis, J.E. and J. E. Reade, eds. Art and Empire; Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum. London- British Museum Press, 1995.

See also-

Treatment for Headache, 7th century BCE

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