ISAW Director and Student Receive NEH Grant

By Hannah McDonald
02/07/2020

Shanati Cover PHoto Reconstructing the Daily Ancient Babylonian Chronology in Synchronization with the Propletic Julian Calendar

Since the first major discovery of cuneiform texts, 180 years ago, scholars have been studying the ancient Near East from native sources. One of the most basic aspects of this historical endeavor has been to reconstruct the timeline of pre-Roman civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia. Due to the nature of the available texts, for much of this 3,000 year period, only an annual chronology is possible. Even, when sources are abundant and closely grouped in time, the variable nature of the ancient Babylonian luni-solar calendar makes further granularity difficult. This is because decisions were made on a monthly and annual basis about the length of months and years. The problem is that the Babylonians did not write a calendar, recording those decisions.

Professor Alexander Jones and doctoral candidate David Danzig of ISAW were recently awarded a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to solve this problem. Their project, Shanati, is named after the ancient Babylonian word for “years.” Shanati will achieve precision to the day in reconstructing the ancient Babylonian Calendar from 750 BCE and on, by drawing on over 85,000 business documents, administrative notes, and scholarly treatises, which contain attestations of dates.

This seemingly gargantuan task is feasible since, in recent years, tens of thousands of cuneiform texts have been read by scholars and added to databases. By digitally integrating these databases and other published materials, a large percentage of ancient Babylonian calendrical decisions will be substantiated. In order to cover the remaining gaps, Shanati will employ and calibrate a state-of-the-art astronomical computational model of the first visibility of the crescent moon, as it would have been seen in ancient times. Harnessing the capabilities of its digital platform, shanati.org, Shanati will contain automation to allow the input of further textual data as new texts are discovered, databased, and published. This will facilitate reaching a complete daily chronology in the coming years.

Shanati’s ancient Babylonian chronology and conversion to proleptic, or backward-counting, Julian Calendar dates will be available on its website and in a free embeddable widget. Free access to the full trail of evidence supporting each day and conversion will be offered as a service to other websites via an API and to scholars via an advanced, customized search. A book will also be published.

We invite you to learn more about the project and meet the team members on Shanati’s website, SHANATI.ORG.