Intellectual history

What the Digital Dark Age Can Teach Us About Ancient Technologies of Writing

Editors’ Note: due to the disruption of academic networks and institutions caused by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, JHIBlog will shift to once-a-week publication for the time being, supplemented by a selection of older posts from our archives. We are grateful for our readers’ understanding, and hope to resume normal scheduling as soon as possible.

By guest contributors Sara Mohr and Edward C. Williams

In contemporary science fiction it is hard to avoid the trope of an archaeologist or explorer unearthing a piece of ancient advanced technology and finding that it still functions. This theme may have its roots in the way we often encounter artifacts from the ancient world—decayed but functional or legible, as material culture and/or as carriers of written language. However, the prototypical “ancient technology” in fiction often resembles the electronic information technology of our modern age. Keeping our modern technology active and functional requires orders of magnitude more energy than the neglect implied by ancient ruins—delivery of spare parts fueled by cheap energy, complex schematics and repair manuals, and even remote connections to far-off servers. The idea that our technology would work hundreds of years in our future without significant intervention is unbelievable. In a certain sense, a Mesopotamian clay tablet is far more similar to the ancient advanced technology found in media—if it’s in good enough condition, you can pick it up and use it thousands of years later.

Will the archaeologists of the future see the information storage of the digital age not as sources of knowledge about our time, but undecipherable black boxes?  The general problem of data preservation is twofold: the first is preservation itself and the second is the comprehensibility of the data. The BBC Domesday Project recorded a survey of British life in the 20th century on adapted LaserDiscs—a format that, ironically, requires considerable emulation (the process of enabling a computer to use material intended for another kind of computer) efforts to reproduce on a modern machine only 35 years later. This kind of information loss is often referred to as the coming of the Digital Dark Age (Bollacker, “Avoiding a Digital Dark Age”). Faced with the imposing pressure of a potential Digital Dark Age and the problematic history of modern data storage technology, perhaps it is time to rethink our understanding of ancient technology and the cultures of the past who were able to make their data last long into the future.

Scholars of the Ancient Near East are intimately familiar with the loss and recovery of written information. Our sources, written in the wedge-shaped script called cuneiform, are numerous and frequently legible despite being thousands of years old. Once the scribal practice that transmitted the script was interrupted, considerable scholarly work was required to reconstruct it, but the fundamental media of data storage—the clay tablets—were robust. Even then, many valuable tablets have been lost due to mishandling or improper storage. Despite the durability of the medium, once the system of replicating, handling, understanding, and deliberately preserving these tablets were lost much information was lost as well.

But cuneiform writing is more than just the act of impressing words onto clay with a reed stylus; it is deeply rooted in the actions and culture of specific groups of people. This notion is certainly true of technology as a whole. An interrelationship exists between all elements of a society, and each constituent element cannot be considered or evaluated without the context of the whole (Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, 4). Rather than focus on the clay and the reeds, it is necessary to take into account the entire “socio-technical system” that governs the interaction of people and technology (Schäfer, Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production, 18). Comparative studies of cuneiform writing and digital technology as socio-technical systems can inspire further insight into understanding ancient technology and illuminating why it is that humble cuneiform writing on clay tablets was such a successful method of projecting information into the future, as well as informing us about the possible future of our contemporary data storage.

Only recently have those who work regularly with cuneiform tablets studied the technology of cuneiform.  Cuneiform styli could be made of various materials: reed, bone, bronze, or even precious metals (Cammarosano, “The Cuneiform Stylus,” 62). Reed styli were the most common for their advantageous glossy, waterproof outer skin that prevented them from absorbing humidity and sticking to the clay. Another key part of scribal training was learning the art of forming tablets by levigating and kneading raw clay (Taylor and Cartwright, “The Making and Re-Making of Clay Tablets,” 298), then joining lumps of clay together in a grid pattern or by wrapping an outer sheet of clay around a core of a thin piece of folded clay (Taylor, “Tablets as Artefacts, Scribes as Artisans,” 11).

But cuneiform technology goes beyond the stylus and tablet and must include the transmission of cuneiform literacy itself. Hundreds of thousands of legible cuneiform tablets have been found and documented to date, with many more in the processes of being excavated. With such perishable materials as clay tablets and organic styli, how is it possible that these texts have survived for thousands of years? Surprisingly, the answer may lie in how we think about modern technology, data preservation, and our fears of losing records to the Digital Dark Age.

The problem is growing worse, with more recent media demonstrating shorter lifespans compared to older media. We see a variety of different projects that look back to older forms of information storage as a stop-gap between now and the possibility of a Digital Dark Age. For example, The Rosetta Project, from the Long Now Foundation, has been collecting examples of various languages to store on a 3-inch diameter nickel disc through microscopic etching. With minimal care (and the survival of microscopy), it could last and be legible for thousands of years.

We tend to think that a return to older forms of information storage will solve the problem of the Digital Dark Age—after all, the ancient technology of stylus + clay preserved Mesopotamian data neatly into the modern era. However, such thinking results from an incomplete understanding of the function of technology as it applies to the past. Technology is more than just machinery; it is a human activity involving technological aspects as well as cultural aspects interwoven and shaping one another (Stahl, “Venerating the Black Box: Magic in Media Discourse on Technology,” 236). Regardless of the medium or time period, the data life cycle largely stays the same. First, people generate data, which is then collected and processed. Following processing comes storage and possibly analysis.

But in the end, we always have humans (Wing, “The Data Life Cycle”).

Humans are the key to why information written in cuneiform on clay survived as long as it did.  In ancient Mesopotamia, scribal culture meant copying the contents of clay tablets repeatedly for both practice and preservation. There are texts we know from only one copy, yet in order for that copy to survive several other copies had to have existed. The clay and the stylus did not ensure the preservation of cuneiform information—it was the people and their scribal practice.

It is somewhat surprising that the discussion of ancient technology has not yet embraced the social aspect that accompanies the machinery, especially when we so readily acknowledge its impact on modern technology. To avoid losing electronic data, users are exhorted to intercede and make regular backup copies. We also find that the history of obsolete technology is based in innovative technology that died as a result of socioeconomic pressures (Parikka, “Inventing Pasts and Futures: Speculative Design and Media Archaeology,” 227). The technology was perfectly sound, but it was never a good match to the social and economic times of its release.

This need for protection from loss largely comes from the idea that “electronic writing does not have the permanence of a clay tablet” (Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet, 268). However, those of us who work with clay tablets are more than aware of the frightening impermanence of the medium. We are well acquainted with the experience of opening a box meant to contain a cuneiform object only to find that it has been reduced to a bag of dust. It has been said that more redundancy usually means less efficiency, but that does not hold for all circumstances. Mesopotamian scholars generated redundancy through productive training, and we now look to redundancy to save our digital future. However, redundancy was not a part of the physical technology, but rather the surrounding cultures that used it.

At its core, writing is an information technology. It is a system of communication developed for use by particular groups of people. In the case of cuneiform, the scribe who wrote the latest known datable cuneiform tablet composed an astronomical text in 75 AD (Geller, “The Last Wedge,” 45). Despite being able to date its final use, the last wedge, we are still able to read and understand Akkadian cuneiform today. However, it was not the process of incising the wedge itself that made this continuity possible. Rather, it was the scribal culture of ancient Mesopotamia that committed to copying and re-copying over the course of millennia.

The possibility of a Digital Dark Age has the world thinking of ways in which we can adjust our cultural practice around technology. Examples from Mesopotamia highlight the importance of the connection between human activity and machinery in technology. We would do well as historians to take notice of this trend and use it as an inspiration for expanding how we study ancient technology like cuneiform writing to incorporate more on human attitudes alongside the clay and the reeds.

Sara Mohr is a PhD student in Assyriology at Brown University. Her research spans from digital methods of studying the ancient world to the social function of secrecy and hidden writing. 

Edward Williams (Brown ‘17.5) is a software engineer at Qulab, Inc, working on machine learning and computational chemistry software for drug discovery. He acts as a technical consultant for the DeepScribe project at the OI, developing machine learning pipelines for automated cuneiform transcription.

Intellectual history

Genres of Math: Arithmetic, Algebra, and Algorithms in Ancient Egyptian Mathematics

By contributing author E.L. Meszaros

As non-native readers of Egyptian hieratic and hieroglyphics, our understanding of the mathematics recorded in these languages must necessarily go through a process of translation. Such translation is both necessary to allow us to study these problems, but also precarious. If done improperly, it can prevent us from true understanding. One way that we approach translating Egyptian math problems is by grouping them into genres, using categorization to aid in our translation by thinking about problems as algebraic or geometric equations, crafting them into algorithms, or piecing together word problems from their prose. If the process of understanding Egyptian math problems relies so heavily on translation, and translation in turn is influenced by categorization, then we must consider how our processes of categorization impact our understanding of ancient Egyptian math. 

The necessity of translation for the modern study of ancient mathematics has been the source of a great schism within the community. In an infamous 1975 paper, Unguru argued that one of the unintentional consequences of translation was the attribution of algebraic thinking to these ancient cultures. Mathematicians and historians tend to translate the word problems of ancient Iraq or Egypt into the abstracted symbolic statements we are familiar with today. This has helped us to better understand ancient mathematical ideas, but has also done a disservice to the math itself. The process of abstraction manipulated the geometry or arithmetic of ancient math into algebra, a way of examining mathematical problems that Unguru argued these ancient cultures never used (78).

Image of a fragment of the Moscow Papyrus showing problem 14 on how to calculate the volume of a frustum. The top portion shows the original hieratic, which has been translated below into Egyptian hieroglyphics.

However, others have pushed back against Unguru. Van der Waerden suggests that Unguru has misunderstood “algebra” by attributing such importance to the symbolic representation of data. Rather, van der Waerden emphasizes the convenience of symbols as a way of interpreting, analyzing, and comparing data, rather than the structural language of understanding data (205). Freudenthal similarly takes umbrage with Unguru’s understanding of what algebra is. “Symbols,” he writes, “…are not the objects of mathematics…but rather they are part of the language by which mathematical objects are represented” (192).

We can compare the strict translation of an Egyptian word problem to its algebraic translation by looking at problem 14 of the Moscow Papyrus.

Prose English translation:
Method of calculating a / ̄\.
If you are told a / ̄\ of 6 as height, of 4 as lower side, and of 2 as upper side.
You shall square these 4. 16 shall result.
You shall double 4. 8 shall result.
You shall square these 2. 4 shall result.
You shall add the 16 and the 8 and the 4. 28 shall result. 
You shall calculate  ̅3 of 6. 2 shall result.
You shall calculate 28 times 2. 56 shall result.
Look, belonging to it is 56. What has been found by you is correct. (Translation by Imhausen 33)

Algebraic Translation:
V = 6 (22 + (2*4) + 42)/3

Abstracted Algebraic Translation:
V = h (a2 + ab + b2)/3
h (height) = 6
a (base a) = 2
b (base b) = 4
V = volume

The algebraic translations are at once easier to take in but also visibly shorter, clearly missing information that the prose translation contains.

As an alternative to these translation techniques, Imhausen proposes the use of algorithms. Imhausen suggests that we translate Egyptian mathematical problems into a “defined sequence of steps” that contain only one individual instruction (of the type “add,” “subtract,” etc.) (149). These algorithms can still represent math problems in multiple ways. A numerical algorithm preserves the individual values used within Egyptian problems, while a symbolic form abstracts the actual numbers into placeholders (152). 

Numeric Algorithmic Translation:

  1. 42 = 16
  2. 4 x 2 = 8
  3. 22 = 4
  4. 16 + 8 + 4 = 28
  5.  ̅3 x 6 = 2
  6. 2 x 28 = 56

Here the first three numerical values are the given bases and height from the problem. The unfamiliar ” ̅3″ is the standard way of writing a fraction of 3, namely 1/3, in ancient Egyptian math.

Symbolic Algorithmic Translation:

  1. D22
  2. D2 x D3
  3. D32
  4. (1) + (2) + (3)
  5.  ̅3 x D1
  6. (5) x (4)

Drawing out the scaffolding of the problem by defining such algorithms allows scholars to easily compare math problems. The abstraction into symbols, the removal of extraneous information, and the sequential rendering allow us to more easily notice variation or similarity between problems (“Algorithmic Structure” 153). Imhausen suggests that identifying the substructure encoded beneath the language of presentation allows us to compare individual math problems not only with each other, to generate groups of mechanisms for solving and systems of similar problems, but also to look cross-culturally. Breaking down problems from Mesopotamia, China, and India may reveal similarities in their underlying algorithmic structures (158). 

The generation of algorithmic sequences from Egyptian word-based math problems does not solve all of our translation problems, however. Any act of translation, no matter how close it remains to the original language, is a choice that necessitates forgoing certain options. It also allows for the insertion of biases on the part of the translator themselves—or rather, such insertion is unavoidable.

In the example from the Moscow Papyrus, for example, the initial given values of the frustum are not specifically identified. The images from the original problem are missing, as are the verbs for the mathematical operations. Imhausen herself points out that this algorithmic form reduces some interesting features. The verb “double” in the original problem, for example, is replaced with “x 2” in the algorithmic translation (75). Making these changes requires us to confront the choice between algorithmic structure and staying true to the source material. “Fixing” these differences allows us to more easily compare math problems, but also presumes that we know what was intended.

The translation of Egyptian math problems into schematic algorithmic sequences is, therefore, not without its own set of problems. While Imhausen claims that they avoid some of the pitfalls of translation into algebraic equations that have so divided the community (158), algorithm interpretations are still likely to present the material in a way that differs from how ancient mathematicians thought about their own material. However, when applied carefully, such mapping may provide valid interpretations of these texts and a focal point for comparison.

Thinking about the genre of translation, the use of algebraic or geometric or algorithmic tools to interpret ancient math, is important for a number of reasons. We have already seen that the choice of genre impacts ease of understanding. Modern scholars used to thinking about math problems in an algebraic format will, unsurprisingly, read algebraic translations more easily. But these choices also impact what aspects of the original we preserve — algebraic translations lose information about the order of operations and remove the language used to present the problem.

However, paying attention to generic classification can also prevent us from reading ancient math problems with the “Western” lens. While algebraic interpretations are an artifact of modern scholarship, they are also an artifact of European scholarship. Too often the idea of geometry is put forward as an entirely Greek invention, while algebra is thought of as belonging to Renaissance Europe. By privileging these ways of thinking about ancient math problems we may be inherently white-washing native Egyptian thinking. Prioritizing algebraic interpretations, even if they aid in understanding, work to translate Egyptian math into the more familiar “Western” vernacular. Instead, scholars should work with the unfamiliar and think about these math problems without filtering them through these modern concepts.

Regardless of who one sides with in the debate between algebra and arithmetic, prose and algorithm, we must be cognizant of the fact that categorizing ancient Egyptian math is a conscious choice that influences how these problems are understood. Much like the act of translation itself, categorization is a process that is inherently influenced by the biases—intentional or otherwise—of the scholar. There may be nothing wrong with thinking about Moscow 14 in terms of an algebraic equation as long as we understand that this is an act of translation from the original and, therefore, reflects a reduced understanding of the native problem itself and incorporates aspects of the translator’s biases.

Which is all to say: tread carefully, because even numbers are not immune to the bias of translation.

E.L. Meszaros is a PhD student in the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity at Brown University. Her research focuses on the language used to talk about science, particularly as this language is transmitted between cultures and across time.

Intellectual history

Divi filius: The Comet of 44 BCE and the Politics of Late Republican Rome

By guest contributor Dora Gao

Celestial objects and events have appeared in the historical record for a myriad of reasons, serving as portents of either fortune or doom or asserting the divine authority of a ruler. The comet of 44 BCE is one example of the way in which astronomy played a role in political narratives, given its use to legitimate the young Octavian (later known as Augustus) as a significant and serious figure in the politics of the late Roman Republic. We can look at the fact of this comet’s occurrence and its interpretation as a case study to examine the use of celestial phenomena as a sociopolitical tool.

The comet of 44 allegedly appeared in the sky over the funeral games that Octavian had put on for his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in July of that year. As Octavian himself would later write in his Memoirs, “On the very days of my games, a comet (sidus crinitum) was visible over the course of seven days, in the northern region of the heavens (= near Ursa Major). It rose at about the eleventh hour of the day (= ~5 – 6:15 PM) and was bright and plainly seen from all lands” (Memoirs, fr. 6 [Malcovtai], translation and interpretation by Ramsey and Licht). According to Octavian’s testimony, “the common people believed the comet to signify that the soul of Caesar had been received among the spirits of the immortal gods” (Memoirsfr. 6 (Malcovtai)).

The comet and its interpretation had significant ramifications given the political climate of the late Roman Republic. With a growing schism between the conservative senatorial faction and popular politicians that culminated in the assassination of Caesar and threatened open civil war, the Roman Senate was facing a leadership vacuum. Though Caesar had named Octavian as his son in his will, Octavian was only eighteen years old with no political or military experience at the time, and had been adopted by Caesar only months before. There was no reason for the Roman Senate to view him as a legitimate contender for leadership. The fortuitous appearance of the comet in July, then, presented an opportunity for Octavian to distinguish himself. 

In order to examine the role that the comet of 44 played in Roman politics, it is first necessary to evaluate whether there was any comet at all. Though some may argue that the existence of the comet is secondary to its impact on Roman history, it is important, for our purposes, to question whether the comet’s existence in Augustan imagery may have been prompted by an actual celestial event. Such an inquiry is necessary to distinguish whether political messages were created in response to astronomical phenomena, or whether existing methods of discourse regarding heavenly bodies alone shaped the form of propaganda. The case for the comet certainly appears suspect, given that the first attestation of its existence is from Octavian’s own Memoirs. Astronomers, furthermore, would ideally verify any comet with six unique parameters and then use the information to cross reference with a catalogued comet, but the paucity of rigorous astronomical data on this comet from our ancient sources makes it impossible to verify its existence under these standards.

Despite these problems, we cannot  say conclusively that the comet did not exist. First, the Romans were not particularly disciplined about their stargazing at this time; thus, the lack of any astronomical records is not indicative of the lack of astronomical events. Second, the fact that the comet cannot be identified in our existing catalogue does not necessarily mean that it did not appear over Rome. The best orbital reconstruction scholars have managed given available data indicates that the comet likely would have had an unstable orbit that takes several hundred years to complete. As such, it likely would have been thrown off course before it returned to Earth to be catalogued during a second viewing (Ramsey and Licht, The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games, 124-5). 

So scholars cannot rule out the existence of the comet from incomplete evidence. Furthermore, historical context and Roman attitudes towards celestial phenomena provide a compelling case  for its occurrence . The Romans, up to Octavian’s time, had viewed comets as bearers of misfortune and did not often receive them with optimism (e.g. Cicero, De Divinatione If there had in fact been a comet, one can imagine that Octavian might have felt the need for an interpretation advantageous to himself—or, at the very least, as something less ominous than usual readings of a comet, especially in light of the political situation at Rome. If there had been no comet, however, Octavian would have picked a surprisingly inconvenient object to construct in his favor. In addition to the traditional stigma attached to comets, a bright object that allegedly could have been seen from all lands and that remained in the sky for seven days would have by no means been an easy event to fake. More likely than not, then, the appearance of a comet in Octavian’s earliest messaging was due to a real, unexpected celestial phenomenon.

If the evidence suggests that the comet of 44 did indeed exist, the next question we must ask is how did Octavian deal with this phenomenon? Interestingly, the appearance of the comet in Octavian’s early political imagery was not the result of existing Roman discourse regarding the positive significance of comets. Instead, it was a response to a natural event of ominous nature which was then reinterpreted and redefined within a new and specific political context. By claiming the comet to be a sign of Julius Caesar’s deification, Octavian was also asserting himself as a divi filius, the son of a god. Such a statement had two immediately advantageous effects for the eighteen year-old: first, it established a clear legitimizing link between himself and his adoptive father; and second, it allowed him to showcase his commitment to filial and religious piety. 

Denarius minted by Augustus depicting himself on the obverse, the comet of 44 and divus Iulius (the divine Julius) on the reverse, c. 19-18 BCE (

Octavian’s bond with his adoptive father was tenuous compared to Caesar’s long-time relationships with his trusted generals and advisors. The teenage Octavian’s only legitimizing quality lay in his adoption by Caesar, and he thus would have benefited greatly from creating additional connections. Octavian had already begun to strengthen the relationship through the funeral games, themselves a public display of Octavian’s filial piety towards his late father. His declaration of Caesar’s apotheosis during those games would have further validated the association, since Caesar’s soul was rising to heaven during the time at which his son chose to honor him. 

Given the love for Caesar that the people of Rome held at this time, this ostentatious display of the link between Octavian and his adoptive father led both the general public and Caesar’s troops to view the former in favorable light and as a worthy successor to their beloved Caesar. This one claim would have been key in helping Octavian win the support he needed from the people and the legions, both vital constituencies for gaining political footing in Rome (Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, 34).

The comet, as a symbol of Julius Caesar’s divinity, furthermore, granted Octavian the occasion to display both filial and religious piety and portray himself as a responsible youth dedicated to the moral traditions of the Republic. This in turn helped Octavian win the trust of the Senate and his first military command, aiding Decimus Brutus, upon whom Antony was laying siege at Mutina in 43. Indeed, the orator Cicero, who had been unwaveringly suspicious of Octavian only months before, wrote a letter to one of his confidants announcing his support of the protective force (praesidium) that the outstanding youth (puer egregious) had raised for the res publica (Cicero, Fam. XII 25.4). In a political landscape where Octavian needed to build his moral credibility over more seasoned politicians and generals, the comet provided him a way to capitalize upon an astronomical event and demonstrate his commitment to the Republic.

While we certainly cannot go so far as to say that the comet alone catalyzed Octavian’s rise within Roman politics, we can draw a clear narrative line between the fortuitous appearance of a celestial event and its appearance within the early self-fashioning of Rome’s first emperor. Though Roman political discourse had previously incorporated other celestial events, the use of comets as a symbol of divinity was a precedent set by Octavian through the comet of 44. For example, Suetonius writes that Vespasian famously joked, upon seeing a comet on his deathbed, “Woe’s me. Methinks I’m turning into a god” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 23.4). His interpretation of this phenomenon and the ways in which he used its appearance for his own political gain demonstrate both the role that astronomy played in the political life of Rome as well as its potential to shape the way in which Romans conceived of imperial legitimacy.

Dora Gao is an MA student in the Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies department at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in the mythology and cult worship of Diana/Artemis and the ways in which they inform the construction of identity for various groups under the Roman Empire.

Think Piece

Reptiles, Amphibians, Herptiles, and other Creeping Things: Variations on a Taxonomic Theme

by Contributing Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

King Philip Came Over For Good Soup. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. Few mnemonics can be as ubiquitous as the monarch whose dining habits have helped generations of biology students remember the levels of the taxonomic system. Though the progress of the field has introduced domains (above kingdoms), tribes (between family and genus) and a whole array of lesser taxons (subspecies, subgenus, and so on), the system remains central to identifying and thinking about organic life.

Green anaconda (Eunectes murinus): a reptile, not an amphibian (photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Zoo)

Consider “reptiles.” Many a precocious young naturalist learns—and impresses upon their parents with zealous (sometimes exasperated) insistence—that snakes are not slimy. The snake is a reptile, not an amphibian, covered with scales rather than a porous skin. Reaching high school biology, this distinction takes on taxonomic authority: in the Linnaean system, reptiles and amphibians belong to separate classes (Reptilia and Amphibia, respectively). The division has much to recommend it, given the two groups’ considerable divergences in physiology, life-cycle, behavior, and genetics. But, like all scientific categories, the distinction between reptiles and amphibians is a historical creation, and of surprisingly recent vintage at that.

When Carl Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturæ in 1735, what we know as reptiles and amphibians were lumped together in a class named Amphibia. The class—“naked or scaly body; molar teeth, none, others, always; no feathers” (“Corpus nudum, vel squamosum. Dentes molares nulli: reliqui semper. Pinnæ nullæ”)—was divided among turtles, frogs, lizards, and snakes. Linnaeus concludes his outline with these words:

the benignity of the Creator chose not to extend the class of amphibians any further; indeed, if it should enjoy as many genera as the other classes of animals include, or if that which the teratologists fantasize about dragons, basilisks, and such monsters were true, the human race could hardly inhabit the earth” (“Amphibiorum Classem ulterius continuare noluit benignitas Creatoris; Ea enim si tot Generibus, quot reliquæ Animalium Classes comprehendunt, gauderet; vel si vera essent quæ de Draconibus, Basiliscis, ac ejusmodi monstris si οι τετραλόγοι [sic] fabulantur, certè humanum genus terram inhabitare vix posset”) (n.p.).

Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), an amphibian according to Linnaeus (photo credit: Friedrich Böhringer)

In the 1758 canonical tenth edition of the Systema, Linnaeus provided a more elaborate set of characteristics for Amphibia: “a heart with a single ventricle and a single atrium, with cold, red blood. Lungs that breathe at will. Incumbent jaws. Double penises. Frequetly membranaceous eggs. Senses: tongue, nose, eyes, and, in many cases, ears. Covered in naked skin. Limbs: some multiple, others none” (“Cor uniloculare, uniauritum; Sanguine frigido, rubro. Pulmones spirantes arbitrarie. Maxillæ incumbentes. Penes bini. Ova plerisque membranacea. Sensus: Lingua, Nares, Oculi, multis Aures. Tegimenta coriacea nuda. Fulcra varia variis, quibusdam nulla”) (I.12). Interestingly, Linnaeus now divides Amphibia into three, based on their mode of

  1. Reptiles (“those that creep”), including turtles, lizards, frogs, and toads;
  2. Serpentes (“those that slither”), including snakes, worm lizards, and caecilians;
  3. Nantes (“those that swim”), including lampreys, rays, sharks, sturgeons, and several other types of cartilaginous fish (I.196).

Smokey jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus), a reptile according to Laurenti and Brongniart (photo credit: Trisha M. Shears)

Linnaeus’s younger Austrian contemporary, Josephus Nicolaus Laurenti, also groups modern amphibians and reptiles together, even as he excludes the fish Linnaeus had categorized as swimming AmphibiaLaurenti was the first to call this group Reptilia (19), and though its denizens have changed considerably in the intervening centuries, he is still credited as the “auctor” of class Reptilia. The French mineralogist and zoologist Alexandre Brongniart also subordinated “batrachians” (frogs and toads) within the broader class of reptiles. All the while, exotic specimens continued to test taxonomic boundaries: “late-eighteenth-century naturalists tentatively described the newly discovered platypus as an amalgam of bird, reptile, and mammal” (Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid, 132).

It was not until 1825 that Brongniart’s compatriot and contemporary Pierre André Latreille’s Familles naturelles du règne animal separated Reptilia and Amphibia as adjacent classes. The older, joint classification survives in the field of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) and the sadly underused word “herptile” (“reptile or amphibian”).

“Herptile” is a twentieth-century coinage. “Reptile,” by contrast, appears in medieval English; derived from the Latin reptile, reptilis—itself from rēpō (“to creep”)—“reptile” originally meant simply “a creeping or crawling animal” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). The first instance cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c.1393): “And every neddre and every snake / And every reptil which mai moeve, / His myht assaieth for to proeve, / To crepen out agein the sonne” (VII.1010–13). The Vulgate Latin Bible uses reptile, reptilis to translate the “creeping thing” (רֶמֶשׂ) described in Genesis 1, a usage carried over into medieval English, as in the “Adam and Eve” of the Wheatley Manuscript (BL Add. MS 39574), where Adam is made lord “to ech creature & to ech reptile which is moued on þe erþe” (fol. 60r). Eventually, these “creeping things” became a distinct group of animals: an early sixteenth-century author enumerates “beestes, byrdes, fysshes, reptyll” (“reptile, n.1” in OED). I suspect the identification of the “reptile” (creeping thing) with herptiles owes something to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden being condemned by God to move “upon thy belly” (Gen. 3:14). The adjective “amphibian” is attested in English as early as 1637, but in the sense of “having two modes of existence.” Not until 1835—after the efforts of Latreille and his English popularizer, T. H. Huxley—does the word come to refer to a particular class of animals (“amphibian, adj. and n.” in OED).

The crucial point here is that the distinction between the two groups, grounded though it may be in biology and phylogenetics, is an artifact of taxonomy, not a self-evident fact of the natural world. For early modern, medieval, and ancient observers, snakes and salamanders, turtles and toads all existed within an ill-defined territory of creeping, crawling things.

Fourteenth-century icon of Saint George and a very snakelike dragon (photo credit: Museum of Russian Icons, Moscow)

The farther back we go, the more fantastic the category becomes, encompassing dragons, sea serpents, basilisks, and the like. Religion, too, played its part, as we have seen with Eve’s serpentine interlocutor: Egypt’s plague of frogs, the dragon of Revelation, the Leviathan, the scaly foes of saints like George and Margaret, were within the same “reptilian”—creeping, crawling—family. To be sure, the premodern observer was perfectly aware of the differences between frogs and lizards, and between different species (what could be eaten and what could not, what was dangerous and what was not). But they would not—and had no reason to—erect firm ontological boundaries between the two sorts of creatures.

When we go back to the key works of medieval and ancient natural philosophy, the same nebulosity prevails. Isidore of Seville’s magisterial Etymologies of the early seventh century includes an entry “On Serpents” (“De Serpentibus”), which notes,

the serpent, however, takes that name because it crawls [serpit] by hidden movements; it creeps not with visible steps, but with the minute pressure of its scales. But those which go upon four feet, such as lizards and geckoes [stiliones could also refer to newts], are not called serpents but reptiles. Serpents are also reptiles, since they creep on their bellies and breasts” (“Serpens autem nomen accepit quia occultis accessibus serpit, non apertis passibus, sed squamarum minutissimis nisibus repit. Illa autem quae quattuor pedibus nituntur, sicut lacerti et stiliones, non serpentes, sed reptilia nominantur. Serpentes autem reptilia sunt, quia ventre et pectore reptant.”) (XII.iv.3).

The forefather of premodern zoology, Aristotle, opines in Generation of Animals “there is a good deal of overlapping between the various classes;” he groups snakes with fish because they have no feet as easily he links them with lizards because they are oviparous (II.732b, trans. A. L. Peck).

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica), a reptile according to modern phylogenetics (photo credit: NOAA Photo Library—anim1991)

As it turns out, our modern category of “reptile” (class Reptilia) has proved similarly elastic. In evolutionary terms, this is because “reptiles” are not a clade—a group of organisms defined by a single ancestor species and all its descendants. Though visually closer to lizards, for example, genetically speaking the crocodile is a nearer relative to birds (class Aves). Scientists and science writers have thus claimed—sometimes facetiously—that the very category of reptile is a fiction (see Welbourne, “There’s no such thing as reptiles”). The clade Sauropsida, including reptiles and birds (as a subset thereof), was first mooted by Huxley and subsequently resurrected in the twentieth century to address the problem. Birds are now reptiles, though they seldom creep. If I may be permitted a piece of Isidorean etymological fantasy, perhaps this is the true import of the “reptile” as “creeping thing,” as they creep across and beyond taxonomic boundaries, eternally frustrating and fascinating those who seek to understand them.




Think Piece

The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year

by guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12: 1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.”As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). This ritual takes place annually on the first of Nisan. The name denotes a celebration of the unity of God and the miracles that he wrought during this month surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. The way the congregation celebrates it and how this custom survived illuminates important dynamics of how Jewish ritual has been standardized over time.

Ahba Veahva’s members celebrate Rosh Hashanah in September like other rabbinic Jews. The Seder al-Tahwid, however, is a remnant of an ancient custom of the Jews of the near East (variably referred to as Mustaribun or Shamim) to commemorate the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan as  a minor Rosh Hashanah as per Exodus 12:1. On their website, Congregation Ahaba Veahva explains the celebration as follows:

The Great Exodus of Egypt:
On Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month of Nisan), beni Yisrael (the children of Israel) heard the nes (miracle) that they were going to be redeemed on the night of the 15th, later in that very month. We hold this evening to remember the miracles and the hesed (kindness) that Hashem (God) does for His nation.
“In Nisan we were redeemed in the past, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (a midrashic quote (Exodus Rabbah 15:2) asserting that just as the Exodus from Egypt took place in Nisan so too will the ultimate messianic redemption)
We hold this evening to put everyone in the correct spiritual mindset- to realize with all their might that this could be the month of the Geulah (messianic redemption).

The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

The only printed version of the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy is found in an anonymous 10 page pamphlet printed in Alexandria. The prayers focus on many themes found in the Rosh Hashana prayers such as blessing, sustenance and messianic redemption in the year to come. The liturgy is found in a somewhat longer form in a tenth century manuscript fragment from the Cairo Geniza, the  repository of documents found in the late nineteenth century in the synagogue in old Fustat.

The celebration of al-Tahwid begins with special liturgy on the Sabbath closest to the day and on the day itself the community refrains from unnecessary labor similar to intermediate days of Jewish holidays. They also recite a Kiddush (a prayer that sanctifies a day, recited over a cup of wine) followed by a festive meal and the recitation of liturgical poetry. One such poem presents a debate among the twelve months to determine which one will have primacy. In one stanza, for example, Nisan argues that the following month of Iyyar cannot be chosen since its zodiacal sign is Taurus, the same species as the golden calf that Israel made in the wilderness. The concluding stanza is a triumphal declaration from Nisan: שליט אנא וריש על כול”ן”
literally, I am the ruler and the head of all of you.
תקיפה עבדי פרוק לעמיה ובי הוא עתיד למפרוק יתהון
or, “A deliverance of slavery did I [Nisan] impart upon the nation and in me [Nisan] is he [God] destined to deliver them [again]” (as per BT Rosh Hashanah 10B). Other prayers more explicitly cast the day as the beginning of the new year. One liturgical poem begins:  יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו…שתהיה השנה הזאת הבאה עלינו לשלום, translated as, “May it be your will lord our god and the god of our fathers…that this coming year should come upon us in peace.”

The celebration of the first of Nisan as the beginning of the new year is rooted both in Biblical and Talmudic sources. Exodus 12:1-2 states that Nisan is the first month in the intercalation of the new year and the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1 describes the First of Nisan as one of the four beginnings of the Jewish New Year:

There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. … On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables…. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees…

In an article on the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy, liturgical scholar Ezra Fleischer postulates that the Kiddush ceremony on the holiday was based on an earlier Mishanic-era institution. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 2:7 describes how the Sanhedrin, the high religious court of Talmudic-era Israel,  consecrated the new month by declaring “it is sanctified”, at which point the entire assemblage would respond in kind, “it is sanctified, it is sanctified”. This declaration was performed with pomp and publicity in order to make it clear that the final word in the intercalation of the Jewish calendar belonged to the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael and no one else. In the context of the Seder al-Tahwid this ritual serves to highlight Nisan’s role as the first month of the Jewish lunar year, the beginning of this process of sanctifying the new moon.


If the first of Nisan is such an important date to both the Bible and Talmud then, why is the day celebrated today only by this small Jewish community? To answer this question we must look to the Geonic period of jewish history, corresponding roughly to the second half of the first millennium. Over  the past decade, historians increasingly see this period  as one in which a number of variations of Judaism were vying for supremacy. These included several schools of Jewish jurisprudence based in different geographic constituencies across the Mediterranean Diaspora. Two of the most prominent were the Babylonian (Minhag Babhel, based in Baghdad) and Palestinian (Minhag Eretz Yisrael) rites, as well as Karaite Jews who did not follow the Rabbis at all but formed their own, non rabbinic madhab or creed.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was abolished in the 5th century by Byzantine decree. Its various successors could not recapture its prestige and the Rabbis of Eretz Yisrael gradually lost their power to sanction the new moon. The Karaites developed their own system of intercalation but within the rabbinic tradition, in the absence of the Sanhedrin, the Babylonians and Palestinians often found themselves at odds.

The most notorious controversy between the two schools involved the often-confrontational Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Faumi, the head of the Babylonian Academy better known as Saadiah Gaon, and Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Palestinian Academy. In 921-923, the two engaged in an extended and very public argument regarding the sanctification of the Hebrew year 4682 (921/22). While the core of this debate surrounded the complicated methods of calculating the Jewish calendar, it became a referendum on which academy and by extension rite would become authoritative in the diaspora. Saadiah emerged victorious (historians Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern argue that his authority on these matters may have resulted from his mastery of Abbasid advances in astronomy).

In Palestine, however, the Jewish community, based in Jerusalem, continued to follow the Minhag Eretz Yisrael, which also exerted influence on other Near Eastern Jewish communities such as Egypt. The heads of the Jerusalem academy still often insisted that the right to intercalate the year rested solely with them. As late as the 11th century, Rabbi Evyatar Ha-Kohen, the head of the Palestinian Academy (partially in exile in Cairo) would declare:

The land of Israel is not part of the exile such that it would be subject to an Exilarch (a title often applied to the head of the babylonian academy) and furthermore one may not contradict the authority of the Prince (a title at times applied to the head of the palestinian academy), on the word of whom [alone] may leap years be declared and the holiday dates set according to the order imposed by God before the creation of the world. For this is what we are taught in the secrets of intercalation.

ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב”ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור

In a continuation of this post, I will elaborate as to how the Seder al-Tahwid was likely maintained as well as suppressed during the geonic period, similar practices that are preserved among non rabbinic communities and the ritual’s reception today.

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at

Think Piece

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

Howard Ignatius, “8:41 Notting Hill Gate”

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).