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 This means it was made when the use of astrolabes had largely been superseded by other instruments.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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Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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