Cuneiform Texts

What are Assyro-Babylonian Chemical Texts?
Cuneiform texts with technical procedures for making colored glass, perfumes, dyeing wool, tanning leather, and metal patination, constitute among the earliest known textual records in the history of chemistry. Within the context of AlchemEast, cuneiform procedures occupy a compelling corpus of texts that engender both technological and important historiographical considerations that consider the presumed origins of ancient alchemy. What follows offers a selection of original texts from ancient Mesopotamia that have been characterized as “alchemical” by early scholars in the field of Assyriology and Ancient Studies. This brief survey should not be read as a collection of proto-Alchemical texts, but rather, as procedures written in the Akkadian language using the cuneiform script which span a period of almost a full millennium between the late second millennium and the late first millennium BCE. As such, despite the standardized nature of the procedural employed by the texts, it is pivotal to keep in mind the major changes—social, political, technological, and epistemic—within which these procedures were first codified. Read as original documents, the procedures below offer a glimpse at the way these various cultures, both Assyrian and Babylonian, codified and transmitted texts that dealt with making alterations to the material world: texts we can properly call “technological.” Moreover, an always compelling element in the intellectual inheritance of these texts, is that later cultures considered the Babylonians, later known as Chaldeans, or magii, as the originators of a hermetic alchemical tradition in the ancient Middle East. As historians of science we must, therefore, contend with two sets of historical sources. On the one hand, there are the original cuneiform technical procedures, and the content and social context preserved therein. On the other hand, there is the later textual record of what was said about the chemical arts in ancient Mesopotamia.
To get a sense of the types of chemical recipes preserved from the ancient Middle East, we will examine a few of the key texts that come from the territory of ancient Assyrian, in the north of modern-day Iraq, between the years 1300–650 BCE, as well as a single unprovenanced wool dye recipe from the 5th century BCE attributed to the city of Sippar in Babylonia (southern Iraq).


The first set of recipes is a small corpus of perfume recipes, which describe a process of producing aromatic oil infusions over a period of several months. KAR 140 is a perfume recipe from the Middle Assyrian period (13th century BCE); a well-preserved section of the tablet (rev. i 7–25) describes the use of various cooking vessels and an aromatic we understand to be a type of sweet myrrh resin called perṣaduḫḫu:

In pouring for the 13th time, you gather the oil. You wipe clean the diqāru-vessel. You heat up the liquid mixture. You then wash a ḫarû-vessel, and pour (the mixture) into the ḫarû-vessel. You pour 2 cupfuls of “knots of perṣaduḫḫu-aromatic” into the interior (of the harû-vessel). (The mixture) is to sit all day. During the evening, you pour it into into an agannu-vat. You place ≈30 litres (3 seahs) of perṣaduḫḫu-aromatics into the interior (of the agannu-vat). It is to macerate overnight. At sunrise, you wipe clean the diqāru-vessel. You pour into the diqāru-vessel the aromatics that have softened within the agannu-vessel and have macerated overnight. You ignite a fire beneath the diqāru-vessel, and the aromatics, which have become hot, you pour (their) oil into the diqāru-vessel. You stir it, and wipe it clean. You remove the bulû-wood, but do not remove the coal. You raise its flame high. The oil-mixture will expel froth. You wipe down the interior of the diqāru-vessel with a šuḫattu-cloth. You stir (the mixture) and cover it up. (After the mixture) sits in its diqāru-vessel for 4 days, you re-ignite its flame in the morning and you stir it. You should not make the fire strong.

There are six known perfume recipes from Assur, and each describes a similar process of heat extraction (collecting and cooking the aromatics in large basins); maceration (allowing plant matter and aromatics to rest in water for extended periods of time); and refinement by means of filtration. Perfume makers employed a range of instruments and vessels to process aromatic oils. A large container called a diqāru-vessel served as the primary container for heating large quantities of aromatics. During this initial phase of heat infusion, up to 20 litres of plants and aromatics were processed before being transferred into a secondary filtering container called a harû. Thereafter, the oil mixture was allowed to macerate overnight before a third stage of refinement took place by filtering the oil through a fine cloth called sūnu. Variations of these phases are repeated multiple times to achieve a fine quality perfume. The highest quality Assyrian perfumes are named according to their level of refinement. After 20 filtrations one produces a grade of perfume suitable for trade (literally: ‘for the road’); the finest quality scented oil, however, is achieved after weeks of refinement and 40 filtrations, and was described as “fit for a king.” This is the product attributed to the expertise of Tappūtī-Bēlat-Ekalle more than three millennia ago, as found in text KAR 220 :

Perfume-making recipe for ≈20 litres (2 seahs) of processed cane oil, fit for a king, according to the mouth of Tappūtī-Bēlat-Ekalle, the perfume-maker: month Muhur-ilani on the 20th day; the eponymate of Šunu-qardu, the chief cupbearer.

Historical context is key to considering the function of the recipes. The recipes hail from the city of Assur, during a formative period of political expansion ca. 1300 BCE and attest to ingredients that were carefully curated and guarded by elite administrators—and women known by the title muraqqītu, “expert in aromatics.” To read more about this period of history and the perfume recipe attributed to Tapputti, see this open source publication [ PDF].
The city of Nineveh during the 7th century BCE was home to one of the great centers of learning in the ancient Middle East, the so-called Library of Ashurbanipal. Here, we find a corpus of glassmaking recipes — catalogued by scribes under the series title “The Doors of the Kiln” — which describe the production of colored glass. The procedures describe the making of a 4-chambered kiln, the use of silicates, halophytic plant ashes, and copper oxides, in order to achieve a range of colored glass. The uses of glass in the ancient Middle East ranged from luxury uses to medical and ritual healing; the recipes themselves, which have been known for a century, do not describe the function of the vitreous products, but go into depth about how to achieve the desired colors.

Moreover, the texts, translated here , are filled with both ritual and chemical knowledge, as well as displays of scribal hermeneutics that demonstrate the extent to which cuneiform scribes could encode multiple layers of meaning within what may at first appear to be a straightforward set of practical instructions. Straightforward, however, they are not. Because the cuneiform script is polyvalent — one sign can mean many things — for example, in the following passage with ritual instructions which describe the type of wood used to fire the glassmaking kiln, as well as the time of year during which to do it:

qurū-wood that have no knots on the surface, bound up with an apu-leather strap that you cut in the month of Abu, these logs should go into the bottom of the kūru-kiln.

Above, is a standard translation of the text. Below, a translation of the same passage, taking into account the multivalence of the cuneiform script, demonstrating that there is more than a single way to read the text:

“kiln”-wood (qurū) logs with no knots on the surface, bound up with the “father”-strap (abu), the logs that you cut in the “month of fire”—also called the month of the father (Abu) — these are the logs that should go into the bottom of the kiln.

In the alchemical tradition, Decknamen — “hidden names” — are employed in recipes in order to occult ingredients, or add layers of meaning and secrecy to a chemical procedure. In alphabetic scripts like Greek, Syriac, or Arabic, secrecy is achieved through metaphor, codenames, and literary allusion. Using the cuneiform script, in contrast, Assyrian scholars could write a presumably straightforward recipe with a secret layer of meaning. Relatedly, an important contextual element of these 7th century glassmaking recipes is that they were written by highly literate scribes and were dedicated to the god of scribal knowledge: Nabu. Thus, chemical and technological expertise was from this early period, closely linked to a linguistic scholarly tradition of secrecy, allusion, metaphor, and divine knowledge.

Here and here there are some recent publications on the glassmaking recipes.
A single tablet with a small collection of recipes for dyeing wool — BM 62788 — comes from the region of Babylonia (southern Iraq) during the 5th century BCE. The recipes describe a process whereby plant and mineral-based dyes are used to produce various luxury colors, including a purple called argamannu. The dyeing process begins with the preparation of the wool, which is heated in water with a corresponding quantity of alum, which functioned as the mordant. The color, as in the case below, is produced from the combination of a pulverized vegetable dye and mineral rich waters which are then heated again over a fire. Thus, in BM rev. 11’-13’:

you take natural wool and alum and weigh them in equal parts, you heat it (the mixture) in water over a fire until the liquid mixture has been exhausted; the pulverized ḫathuru, and the natural wool, you weigh them in equal parts, you heat the mixture in regular water and “water of clay” and heat it over a fire. You pull it out: purple-argamannu

An important dimension of the wool recipes is their cultural context. Despite the lack of provenance for the text, there is a great deal of contemporaneous administrative evidence documenting the material preparations for a religious festival called Lubuštu, during which the images (statues) of the Babylonian gods would be clothed with fresh or re-dyed colored garments. Unidentified vegetable dyes, like ḫathuru above, are mentioned in administrative texts with corresponding quantities of alum. These ingredients were closely monitored by the Neo Babylonian temples. This is especially true of the purple-argamannu color, which stood as a symbol of divine royalty.

A compelling question regarding the recipes is their proximity to Mediterranean traditions of using Murex — the Tyrian purple extracted from snails — which was known to be among the rarest of colors. While there is no clear evidence of using murex in these texts, the fragmentary sections do describe the use of open-air processes for producing variations in color, not unlike similar dye processes known from the Levant that employed murex. What is clear is that the recipes that are preserved provide an element of choice, such that if a particular ingredient was unavailable, there were multiple ways to achieve a desired color. In this regard, this single tablet may be situated as an early exemplar of documenting alternative ingredients, a well-attested practice in the history of chemical recipes. For a recent open access discussion of this recipe, see this open source publication [ PDF].


Text and images Eduardo A. Escobar