British Museum blog

Dotting the ’i’s…


Silke Ackermann, former British Museum curator

It’s been a while since the last post about this project, as much has happened since Josefina wrote about her research trip to Israel. Not least is the fact that I have left the British Museum for a professorship at the University of Applied Sciences at Schwerin (Germany). I will stay involved in the project in various ways, but the British Museum will not.

However, I wanted to write a final post to report on our study of two instruments. One was the famous medieval astrolabe with Hebrew markings in the British Museum, that has already played a role in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects as object no. 62. The other is a later astrolabe in a private collection that had been deposited at the Museum by an owner keen to learn more about his object. This is a service that curatorial departments of the Museum regularly perform.

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

We were keen to get a better feel for the instruments; to examine the lettering, and explore the language used to see what it might tell us about the cultural circumstances in which they were made, and to take a close look at a much younger astrolabe, constructed at a time when the instrument had largely gone out of use.

An examination of the markings on both instruments made it quite clear that the language used is Judeo-Arabic in both cases, that is Arabic written in Hebrew letters. This is a phenomenon that can often be observed where Jewish people are living in an Arabic-speaking-community. They may well be speaking Arabic themselves, but will often use Hebrew letters for writing as this is the script they will have learnt. To indicate letters otherwise not used in Hebrew, certain letters will have special signs, normally dots.

Scientific analysis has shown the later piece to be made of rolled metal, a technique that was virtually unknown before the nineteenth century. This means it was made when the use of astrolabes had largely been superseded by other instruments.

When examining this instrument in detail we were struck by the fact that some of the numerals used to indicate values for – amongst other things – latitudes appeared to be full of mistakes. This, together with the late date of the instrument, might on first glance raise suspicion about its authenticity. However, the explanation appears to be a completely different one. One should note that these numerals are not written in ciphers, but in the so-called ‘alphanumerical system’, that is a system used in all Semitic languages (and also in Greek) where each letter of the alphabet also stands for a numerical value. Thus aleph stands for 1, bet for 2 etc. The numbers we had been looking at should have read ‘15’ – jod he in Hebrew. However, this letter combination looks identical to an abbreviation for the name of God – and would thus have been avoided by observant Jews. Other features of this particular instrument seem to indicate that it was carefully copied from an earlier source, probably by a scholar who was reading the medieval texts trying to understand or to teach how such an instrument might have worked.

I know I’m biased, but isn’t it truly amazing what we can learn just by looking at instruments?! Working in a museum one soon begins to realize that it is often objects that give us the cultural and social contexts that we cannot glean from written sources alone – and it is the combination of instruments and texts as the historical basis for our research that makes this project so exciting for me.

For more information about this project, visit the Warburg Institute website

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