Neo-Assyrian cuneiform tablet provides insight on ancient medical practices

Clay tablets from the Neo-Assyrian Empire found in Ashur, North Iraq, written at the end of the 7th century BC by a man called Kisir-Ashur describe his education to become a doctor, and how he combined magical rituals with medical treatments.

Mesopotamian clay tablet (by The Trustees of the British Museum)

A corpus of clay tablets, preserved for 2700 years, in the ruins of the city of Ashur, was found at the beginning of the 20th century. Within a family library of a man called Kisir-Ashur, which burnt down in the year 614 BC, during the dissolution of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The recent study is the first time that the tablets written by Kisir-Ashur, which have been known for decades, have been studied together.

The writings Kisir-Ashur are one of the earliest examples of medicinal writings describing ancient medical education and practice. Troels Pank Arbøll from University of Copenhagen, who studied the texts, states that these sources give a unique insight into how an Assyrian doctor was trained in the art of diagnosing and treating illnesses, and their causes. The residents of Mesopotamia did not distinguish between what we today call magic and medicine. Treatment typically included identifying the illness according to the power that caused it. Then medical agents were applied to heal the disease and its symptoms, alongside rituals to appease the gods.

According to the researcher the texts consists of both diagnoses, descriptions of symptoms, prescriptions, incantations, prayers, and rituals. The ancients believed that disease could be caused by sinful or objectionable behaviour, or it could be the result of witchcraft performed against the patient. Moreover, illness was not the only type of divine punishment. Other examples include economic ruin or social exclusion. Such problems were treated on the same level as physical illness by healers like Kisir-Ashur. The texts of the ancient healer revealed that religious or magical rituals were a regular part of treatment.

(after The Trustees of the British Museum & Science Nordic)

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