Category Archives: Transcription

How to cure a ‘headache’ in a Mesopotamian way?

Strahil V. Panayotov
(The BabMed, ERC-Project, Free University of Berlin)

In 7th century BC Nineveh, in an area located within today’s much-troubled Iraqi city of Mosul, an astonishing episode of human history occurred. Thousands of texts from all corners of the Assyrian empire were brought into the royal capital of Nineveh in order to create the first universal library in human history. The majority of the excavated tablets are now being kept in the British Museum, London.  (On these tablets, see this article and this post).

Among the texts transported to the Ashurbanipal library, there were works of literature such as the tale of Gilgamesh, written descriptions of rituals and prayers, litanies, explanatory works, and large collections of omens, or royal letters. Numerous collections of healing texts, magical and medical prescriptions, rituals and incantations also found their way into the archives of Nineveh (SAA 7, chapter 7). Among the thousands of manuscripts dealing with healing, one collection stood out. It was written down in cuneiform by highly educated scribes who carefully edited a handbook with medical prescriptions, incantations and rituals on behalf of king Assurbanipal. This handbook was arranged into distinctive series, addressing body parts in a sequential order from head to toe. Each series had its own name and chapter called simply ‘tablets’ in Akkadian. The majority of tablets in this handbook carried the same colophon (i.e. inscription at the end of a tablet with facts about its production):

Palace of Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of the land Assyria, to whom (the gods) Nabû and Tašmētu granted understanding, (who) acquired insight (and) a high level of scribal proficiency, that skill which among the kings, my predecessor(s) no one has acquired. I (i.e. Ashurbanipal) wrote, checked, and collated tablets with medical prescriptions from head to the (toe-) nail, non-canonical material, elaborate teaching(s) (and) the advanced healing art(s) of (the gods) Ninurta and Gula, as much as exists, (and) I placed (them) within my palace for my reading/reciting. (BAK, no. 329)

The colophon illustrates that this collection aimed to include all the existing healing knowledge and to thus create an encyclopaedic handbook that would serve as a reference source for the royal palace. We might imagine that such a precious collection could have been accessed and consulted only by royal or high-profile physicians.

The first series from the handbook was called ‘If a man’s cranium contains heat (fever).’ We will look at the first prescription and incantation of the third tablet (CDLI no. P365746):

Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.
Fig. 1, K 2566 +, photo courtesy of the author with the permission of the Trustees of the British Museum.

The third tablet begins accordingly:

If a ‘headache’ due to ghost affliction (lit. ‘Hand of a ghost’) continuously persists in a man’s body and cannot be loosened, (nor) does it cease despite bandage(s) and incantation.

The beginning of this diagnostic part gave the name of the third tablet, since in Mesopotamia the first line of a certain text was used to designate the whole text.

‘Headache’ in its broadest sense is an interpretive translation of the Sumerian term SAG.KI.DAB.BA ‘seized forehead/temple/brow’. The suffering was caused by a ghost, which originated in a diseased person (Geller 2010: 154-55 and passim). The title of this tablet suggests that if a normal treatment with bandage(s) and an incantation were not helping in such a case, one needed special therapies, preserved on the tablet. It contains extraordinary prescriptions and incantations which were specifically designed to counteract a ‘headache’ from a tough ghosts’ afflictions. In the first prescription, directly following the diagnostic part, the healer had to sacrifice a bird, and mix some of its body parts in a resin of a plant. This mixture was then magically enriched with an incantation:

You slaughter a captured goose. You take its blood, its throat, its gullet, its fat, the rind of its gizzard. You char (them) over charcoal. You mix (them) within cedar ‘blood’, and then three times recite the incantation ‘Evil Finger of Mankind’. You repeatedly anoint his head, his hands and everything that affects him and he shall get better. The ‘headache’ will be eradicated. (modified after Scurlock 2006: no. 113)

The animal substances were charred, and subsequently mixed within cedar ‘blood’. The designation cedar ‘blood’ is a metaphor of the sometimes reddish appearance of cedar resin, which flows out of the tree like blood from a body.

Everything was thoroughly mixed and an ointment was created, over which the healer had to recite this incantation:

The pointing of the evil finger of mankind, the evil rumor of the people, the bitter curse of god and goddess, the transgression of the limits of the gods – in order to continually go around safely in the presence of the(se things), to loosen their curse . . . he is the god . . . the regions, [Enki, son] of the Abzu and his son Asalluhi, [gods … : Ea] and his son Marduk, [gods … ] I … have changed …‘hand’ of ghost . . .” (Scurlock 2006: 39, no. 114a; see also p. 113, fn. 389).

Thus, the magical power of the incantation was transferred into the ointment, creating a potent cure. The healer anointed first the head, then the hands and all affected body parts until the ‘headache’ was gone.

Beside the goose’s blood and the fat, body parts and organs connected to food intake and digestion were selected. This suggests a certain symbolic significance: the suffering had to disappear, like the goose digested its food. But, the cure was not only magical. The use of cedar resin implies natural oils with a pleasant smell. It might well be that the fatty ointment had a pleasant smell, which made the patient feel better especially by massaging it into the skin. Thus, magic, massage, and aromatherapy were all part of this prescription.

Similar texts, and possibly fragments belonging to the same tablet (fig. 1), are lying still in the soil of Iraq. We can only hope that the ancient Assyrian capital Nineveh, which now lies within occupied Mosul, will not be vandalized again, and blown into the air like Nimrud.


BAK = Hunger, H. 1968. Babylonische und assyrische Kolophone. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 2. Neukirchen-Vluyn.

SAA 7 = Fales, M. and Postgate, J. N. 1992. Imperial Administrative Records, Part I. State Archives of Assyria VII. Helsinki.

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination III. Leiden–Boston.

Geller, M. J. 2010. Ancient Babylonian Medicine. Theory and Practice. Chichester (GB)–Malden, Mass.

Further Readings:

Finkel, I. L. 2014. The Ark Before Noah. London, pp. 44-45; 60-65.

Le Journal des Médecines Cunéiformes (Link

Scurlock, J. 2014. Sourcebook for Ancient Mesopotamian Medicine. Writings from the Ancient World 36. Atlanta, Georgia.

An invitation to EMROC’s Thankful Thanskgiving

For this Thanksgiving, why not try cooking from a seventeenth-century recipe?

EMROC is hosting a transcribe, cook, and post of FB party as its “Thankful Thanksgiving,” and is inviting you to join them.

EMROC would like you to transcribe a recipe from the mid-17th-century cookbook, “Mrs Fanshawes Booke of Physickes, Salues, Waters, Cordialls, Preserues and Cookery”(MS7113), which is housed at the Wellcome Library and available digitally.

If you are interested in participating, visit the EMROC blog!

How to Tend an EMPS Garden

By Nadia Clifton and Breanne Weber

In October 2015, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we started the Early Modern Paleography Society. Our faculty mentor, Dr. Jen Munroe, recently wrote a post for the Recipes Project about our founding, which inspired us to reflect on our achievements this past year and to update everyone on just how quickly EMPS has grown.

EMPS has achieved many of our initial goals. We settled into a rhythm for group meetings, which doubled in size during the spring semester, and joined forces with Berlin transcriber Julia Jaegle to finish a double-keyed transcription of the “Cookbook of Timothy and Mary Cruso” (Folger ms X.d.24). Our founding officers traveled to the first annual EMROC transcribathon in October and contributed to the completion of the Winche manuscript transcription; two of them were subsequently offered internships with the Folger’s Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) database project, transcribing and vetting hundreds more pages of their manuscript collection in June. Perhaps our greatest achievement was our first EMPS transcribathon in April 2016, which hosted over 70 attendees locally and across the U.S. and resulted in a completed transcription of an anonymous 17th century cookbook (Folger ms W.b.653). For the first year of a student organization, these are amazing achievements and we are very proud.

We began our second year with many new goals and EMPS continues to grow at a rapid pace. We planned from the outset to send our officers to the second annual EMROC transcribathon in November and are excited to see another project through to completion. Another of the first things we did was enlist the help of a graduated member to develop a logo, which we love and feel represents the spirit of EMPS perfectly:


As we write this post, social media banners and t-shirt designs are also in the works. We have also created Facebook and Twitter pages, which we update regularly, to share more immediately what we’re up to and what we find among the pages of the texts we transcribe. And, while many of our members continue to contribute blog posts to EMROC and the Recipes Project, we also launched our own EMPS blog. In providing this platform, we encourage our members to actively contribute not just to our projects but also to the academic and social community that surrounds them.

In terms of our meetings, most of our members have become confident in their paleography skills and have asked to be responsible for transcription of their own pages. Instead of spending all of our group time transcribing one page together, then, we assign pages and work collaboratively when needed. This has resulted in much more efficient transcription time, and we’re seeing the effects of this change: since our first meeting this year, we’ve triple-keyed 8 pages, double-keyed 16, and single-keyed 2 pages from the Carlyon manuscript (Folger ms V.a.388). This almost meets our single-keyed page total from meetings last year!

We’ve also expanded our meetings to include other activities. During our last meeting, we used Dr. Munroe’s alembic still to distill rosewater, a process we had read about but never seen in-person. We also held a workshop on Secretary Hand for our members: we taught the alphabet and worked through the ingredients list of a recipe for a “wounde drincke” (Folger ms V.a.140). At our next meeting, we’re hosting a local herbalist, who is going to teach us about modern herbal medicine and the process of making tinctures.

Spring semester will bring even more exciting EMPS activities. Experimenting with cooking is our favorite way way of bringing recipes to life, but this year, we endeavor to recreate a recipe for ink in order to try writing our own recipes the way early moderns did: from memory, and with quills. In addition, we will start transcription on a new recipe book dedicated solely to EMPS; there is nothing like the thrill of finishing a full keying of a book cover to cover. Of course, a year in EMPS wouldn’t be complete without the culmination of our transcription efforts: the Second Annual EMPS Transcribathon.

Even though EMPS seems unstoppable, there is one difficulty that we are facing: recruiting members. Who could resist the enthusiasm of members, the challenge of a difficult hand, and the plain ol’ fun of transcribing during EMPS meetings? Usually no one, but our current recruits have only been English majors because that is where the organization originated. In order to reach out to students all over campus, we will be contacting faculty in departments such as history, gender studies, and nursing, to offering a short transcription workshop for their classes.

Like one of the herbs used in the recipes we transcribe, EMPS is growing strong and healthy at UNC Charlotte with its amazingly dedicated officers and enthusiastic members to tend it. Many of our members will be graduating in May, however, and moving on to complete additional degrees at other universities. Although they will be missed, we know they will be carrying an EMPS seed with them, a seed that may sprout EMP Societies across the country, and perhaps even the globe.

Cooking for a Crowd: Recipes and the Transcribathon

[This post is part of The Recipes Project’s annual Teaching Series.  In this entry, authors Clifton, Sindelar, and Weber share their experiences  in teaching participants in a transcribathon about angelica, an herb found in many early modern recipe books.]

Nadia Clifton, Kailan Sindelar, and Breanne Weber

In April 2016, the Early Modern Paleography Society (EMPS) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte hosted its first transcribathon (for more on what a transcribathon is and how to participate, see this Recipes Project post from Feb. 2015). There was no question as to whether or not we would prepare a recipe for the event, as consuming the final products of these recipes brings the manuscripts to life in a tangible way. EMPS was, at the time, transcribing the 1689 cookbook of Timothy and Mary Cruso (Folger ms X.d.24): a book written by an early modern husband and wife containing a variety of recipes, from hashing calves’ heads to preserving quinces.

The 1st Annual EMPS Transcribathon, April 2016. Image courtesy of the author.
The 1st Annual EMPS Transcribathon, April 2016. Image courtesy of the authors.

Early in the fall semester, the Assistant Director of the Botanical Gardens at UNC Charlotte, Paula Gross, offered to partner with EMPS by growing herbs for us to use in our transcribathon food experiment. This influenced which recipe we would choose. We settled on “To Candy Angelica,” a recipe written in Timothy Cruso’s hand and listed in the Cruso book among other recipes for preserves and jams. With only a few steps and even fewer ingredients (sugar, water, and angelica), it seemed to be the obvious choice.

"To Candy Angelica," detail from Mary Cruso and Timothy Cruso, Cookbook of Mary Cruso and Timonthy Cruso, September 5, 1689, X.d.24, Folger Shakespeare Library. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
“To Candy Angelica,” detail from Mary Cruso and Timothy Cruso, Cookbook of Mary Cruso and Timonthy Cruso, September 5, 1689, X.d.24, Folger Shakespeare Library. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Angelica prefers the cooler and cloudier climates that would have been familiar to our early modern British recipe’s authors, not the hot Southern US temperatures common to modern North Carolina, so Paula ordered three plants from a botanical nursery and grew them in UNC Charlotte’s greenhouse. They grew fairly well there, but because the plants were grown outside of their traditional environment, they were almost certainly different than the version of angelica which the Crusos would have known. This raised many questions: How does the temperature, water, insects, and surrounding plants affect the growth (and maybe the taste?) of these plant? Did our plants grow too fast? They were quite tall. And could that somehow affect the recipe? Recipes like this rely on the integrity of a plant (which relies on its ecosystem), just as much as they do on the knowledge of the recipe user. Trying to recreate these recipes reveals not just what we do and do not know about them, but where early modern authors relied on outside knowledge and predictability.

Kailan with our angelica. Image courtesy of the author.
Kailan Sindelar with our angelica. Image courtesy of the authors.

Because of the gaps in our knowledge of these plants, candying the angelica required some modification and guesswork. Unsure of the Crusos’ usage of the term “nail length,” we assumed our authors meant “fingernail length” (but later learned of the term’s usage in sewing) and chopped the stalks accordingly. We allowed ourselves the room to use modern conveniences, but how do you replicate a “soft fire” when you’re using a gas stove? How do you tell when “it” (whatever “it” is) has turned green? With nonspecific instructions, we added what we deemed to be “a little sugar” and boiled the angelica until it seemed to be as tender as it was going to get.

Candying the angelica. Image courtesy of the author.
Candying the angelica. Image courtesy of the authors.


Ready to soak in sugar water for a week! Image courtesy of the author.
Ready to soak in sugar water for a week! Image courtesy of the authors.

In the end, though, making the recipe did make us feel closer to our early modern recipe creators. We tried our angelica after a week, and it unexpectedly tasted like a crunchy, weirdly sweet cross between licorice and celery. Presenting it to our transcribers in an appealing way was another challenge. The EMPS members were excited about the Candied angelica because we had experienced the cooking process and we all share an investment in these recipes, but what about those new to transcription who did not have a connection to early modern recipes or an adventurous appetite? We thus had to answer two questions for our transcribers: What is angelica? and Do I really want to eat it?

To address the former question, we provided an informative handout about angelica and its medicinal uses, then discussed the plant/recipe on a panel. For the latter question, we bought a lemon cake and garnished it with angelica. The result looked quite appetizing. The remaining candied angelica and some “angelica tea” (the result of steeping angelica leaves) were also set out on the table so our participants naturally took a serving as they moved down the line. Our EMPS transcribers were much more open to tasting the angelica than we had expected, and one brave connoisseur even confidently drank the tea. We were all very impressed when she downed it without making a face.

The presentation! Image courtesy of the author.
The presentation! Image courtesy of the authors.


Participants who encounter early modern recipes during a transcribathon may wonder what is done with them after they are transcribed. Cooking is both a logical and tangible next step, even (and perhaps especially) for those who are not working with the recipes professionally and/or academically. Many things about early modern recipes seem completely alien; we wonder and marvel at how and why people cooked like this. Transcribing an early modern recipe via a computer screen rather than by reading and studying the physical manuscript has the potential to create more distance between the source and the transcriber, making it easy for a transcriber to feel detached from their work.  But by providing a dish prepared from a transcribed recipe, it’s possible to add a physical dimension to the transcribathon. In our case, cultivating, growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking, and then eating the angelica brought us out of the mental space our minds happily occupy and into the physical realm of our tongues and stomachs, an experience to which everyone, everywhere can relate.

You can follow the Early Modern Paleography Society on Twitter @empsociety !

Nadia Clifton is currently pursuing her MA in English with an emphasis in Literature from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she also works as a graduate teaching assistant for the Prospect for Success program. After graduation in May 2017, she intends to pursue an MA in Library Science. Scholarly interests include renaissance literature, magical realist theory, ecocritical theory, and the history of the book. Outside of the classroom, when she’s not reading for fun, she enjoys watching her thumb become greener every year as she experiments with growing orchids, succulents, and carnivorous plants.

Kailan Sindelar holds her MA in English with a Concentration in Technical and Professional Writing from UNC Charlotte. She works as a Technical Writer in Charlotte, NC. Her scholarly interests include ecocritical theory, feminist theory, and digital information design and usability. After work, Kailan enjoys volunteering at state parks and playing with her Miniature Schnauzers.

Breanne Weber holds her MA in English with an emphasis in Literature from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is an adjunct instructor for the Department of English and the University Writing Program at UNC Charlotte and intends to begin pursuit of a PhD in 2017. Aside from early modern recipes, her scholarly interests include Renaissance publication practices, early modern English dramatic literature and poetry, and ecocritical theory.