The two leading sciences in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world were medicine and divination, above all astrology. Ancient medical texts reveal early conceptions of human physiology and pathology and provide information about methods of diagnosis and prognosis of patients, critical commentaries on transmitted medicaments and treatment methods, as well as early attempts at systematized botanical classification. From ancient astrology developed the early calendrical and time-keeping systems that influenced those still in use today. Astrology was importantly used in the science of divination, which included the art of predicting the future through interpretation of the position of the heavenly bodies, interpretation of dreams, and interpretation of various other phenomena. Today, such practices are considered pseudo-science, but they were taken extremely seriously by the ancients.
The University of Copenhagen has established an international research collaboration, Scientific Papyri from Ancient Egypt: New Medical and Astrological Texts (SPAE), in close collaboration with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, Johns Hopkins University, Freie Universität Berlin, and the Louvre Museum. Each of the four universities provides funding for a PhD project for a young scholar specializing in Egyptian scientific texts. Alongside the PhD group, leading experts in ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine, astrology, and divination at these institutions and at Universität Heidelberg, Ludwig Maximilians Universität München, and Universität Leipzig feature as active participants in the research group. All four PhD projects involve important scientific papyri in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection (University of Copenhagen) while two of the projects also include material from other collections.
The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection preserves a substantial assemblage of ancient Egyptian scientific literature, including material on medicine and astrology as well as other types of divination. It is the largest collection of medical and astrological texts in the demotic script worldwide, the bulk of which date to the two first centuries of the Common Era. It also contains earlier texts in the hieratic script and later texts written in Coptic and Greek. The latest addition to the collection is a substantial medical papyrus from the early New Kingdom, written in hieratic, of which larger parts are preserved in the Louvre Museum.
Owing to the general scarcity of Egyptian scientific papyri, there has long been a desire to publish this substantial corpus of material, not least that from the Greco-Roman period, because of the contribution this material can make to our understanding of the cross-cultural encounter between Greek and Roman scholars who took inspiration from Egyptian science. Scholarship has been hindered in the past on account of the scant publication record for scientific texts. The publication of the papyri from the Carlsberg Collection will therefore play a significant role in future research in the history of science and medicine in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world.
The aim of the research group is to publish the Carlsberg material through this collaboration of leading experts in the field of medicine, astronomy, and astrology in Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, and Late Antique Egypt. Collaboration will take place through the course of various workshops and conferences to further the study of these important texts. The first conference and workshop, “Ancient Egyptian Scientific Literature in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection,” will take place May 31st – June 1st, 2018, at the University of Copenhagen.