Anatomi og fysiologi i civilisationens vugge: Tværfaglig forskning i nerve- og muskellidelser samt deres helbredelse i kileskrifttekster fra oldtidens Mesopotamien

Name of applicant

Troels Pank Arbøll


DKK 956,250



Type of grant

Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford


The project seeks to examine how physicians in ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Syria from ca. 3200 BCE–75 CE) described and treated a central part of human anatomy called sher’anu in the ancient sources. This term conceptualized the string-like structures of the body, and it was used to collectively describe muscles, nerves, tendons and blood vessels. Specifically, the project will publish a group of unedited medical cuneiform texts designed for treating illnesses predominantly affecting the nerves and muscles. Furthermore, I will conduct an interdisciplinary genetic study with Professor Cino Pertoldi (Aalborg University) aimed at extracting DNA from a number of ancient containers to identify a previously unclassified plant applied in cures for nerve and muscle disorders.


Anatomy and physiology in Mesopotamia have previously received limited attention, and few studies have edited coherent groups of medical texts in order to describe specific parts or functions of the body. This project represents the initial step towards establishing the study of Mesopotamian anatomy and physiology as a field of research. Moreover, the results are important for the history of medicine as the sources are centuries older than medical works by Hippocrates and Galen, the Greek and Roman fathers of Western medicine. Additionally, many ancient prescriptions make use of plants, which cannot be identified today. The genetic study therefore represents an innovative interdisciplinary approach by attempting to identify ancient medical ingredients with modern-day DNA techniques.


A large corpus of medical manuscripts primarily from the first millennium BCE have been handed down to us from ancient Mesopotamia. The texts were written on clay tablets in cuneiform writing recording a dialect of the Semitic language Akkadian. The manuscripts relevant for this project, as well as the containers used for the interdisciplinary study, are housed at the British Museum in London and the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin. Following Assyriological standards, the text editions will be presented with hand drawings of the relevant manuscripts examined at the museums and a philological commentary. For the pilot study, we will extract non-invasive samples from a number of vessels with writing specifying the ancient content. The samples will hopefully yield DNA for further study.

Back to listing page