Medicine in the third and second millennium BCE

The earliest known medical records were composed in the second half of the third millennium BCE. Written in Sumerian, the first known language committed into writing between the Tigris and the Euphrates, these records contain therapeutic procedures in connection with eye diseases. The procedures preserved by these early texts have much in common with the Akkadian medical treatises of the following Old Babylonian period – healing drugs were mixed in liquids and applied externally on the sick eye in the form of balms.

In Mesopotamia, medicine mostly involved plant-based remedies. Plants individually or in combination were applied externally as bandages or salves and taken internally in the form of healing potions or enemas. The first Akkadian medical records representing this mainstream therapeutic tradition come from the Old Babylonian period. This is the first half of the second millennium BCE, which witnessed the crystallisation of the types of medical practices that have remained in place until the very end of cuneiform culture. These texts from the great cities of South Mesopotamia, such as Ur (Tell el-Muqayyar) and Nippur (Nuffar), are mostly written in straightforward syllabic orthography and consist of so-called simplicium recipes, with a single drug used for a single disease. Moreover, the Old Babylonian period gave rise to the first therapeutic compendia that sometimes assemble more than a dozen individual recipes and arrange them according to the diseases they were designed to treat. The ailments presented in such compilations range from skin conditions and toothache through internal problems of the body to sorcery.

These early therapeutic recipes were reused, extended, and elaborated on by later generation. Unfortunately, the process of transmission remains rather elusive to us due to the decrease in the number of written sources produced after the Old Babylonian period. What happens in around the middle of the second millennium BCE is, however, that medicine acquired a larger audience in a much larger geographical scale, reaching places beyond the Mesopotamian heartland – cuneiform medical records were transmitted, for instance, in the Hittite capital of Hattusha (Bogazkale) in Anatolia or in the city of Ugarit (Ra's Shamra) in Northern Syria. The production of medical records in the heartland of Mesopotamia did not come to a halt either after the Old Babylonian period. Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonian therapeutic texts are rare, but the tablets that were found in cities like Ashur (Qual'at Sherqat), the capital of the Middle Assyrian Empire in North Mesopotamia, clearly show the continuation of the same medical practices long after the Old Babylonian period.

Krisztian Simko

Krisztian Simko, 'Medicine in the third and second millennium BCE', The Nineveh Medical Project, The Nineveh Medical Project, Department of the Middle East, The British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, 2022 []

Back to top ^^
Released under a Creative Commons BY-SA license, 2013.