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Tablets Reveal Ancient Assyrian Medicine
By Joe Pinkstone
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Clay tablets found in Modern-day Iraq have revealed key secrets about medicine thousands of years ago.

The tablets were discovered decades ago but new research has unearthed the writings of a trainee doctor from the 'cradle of civilisation'.

Several tablets, written in the ancient cuneiform script form a timeline of events showing the different aspects of a medical education 2,700 years ago.

Researchers believe this could provide an entirely new outlook on how illness was treated in ancient civilisations.

A Danish PhD student analysed clay tablets written by a man called Kisir-Aššur in the seventh century BC.

The tablets were found in what was once known as the 'cradle of civilisation' in the ancient remains of the city of Assur in Northern Iraq.

Written in an ancient language invented by Sumerians called cuneiform script the tablets tell the story of a doctor in training.

He records his work and his methods in the ancient scripture.

The tablets speak about a combination of medical practices (potentially handed down to the Greeks) and magical rituals.

It is thought to be one of the most detailed accounts of ancient medical education and practice ever recorded.

Kisir-Aššur recorded what he learnt in chronological order, which allowed researchers to unpick the timeline of his training.

Dr Troels Pank Arbøll from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark studied the text as part of his PhD and told ScienceNordic: 'The sources give a unique insight into how an Assyrian doctor was trained in the art of diagnosing and treating illnesses, and their causes.

'It's an insight into some of the earliest examples of what we can describe as science,' he says.

Scientists believe that although magical cures were commonplace at this time, the tablets use a more traditional approach to medicine as well.

'He does not work simply with religious rituals, but also with plant-based medical treatments.

'It is possible that he studied the effects of venom from scorpions and snakes on the human body and that he perhaps tried to draw conclusions based on his observations,' says Dr Arbøll.

After translating the ancient prose, the Scandinavian researcher discovered that Kisir-Aššur observed patients with bites or stings.

The physician probably did this to find out what affect toxins had on the body and to determine how the venom functioned, he said.

Although Kisir-Aššur lived hundreds of years before Hippocrates - who is widely regarded as the father of modern medicine - they developed similar ideas.

The script carved into the clay tablets speak of the dangers of bile and the risk it poses to humans.

Dr Arbøll said: 'It can regulate certain bodily processes and could be the cause or contribution to the cause of an illness.

'This idea is reminiscent of the important Greek physician, Hypocrites' theory of humours, where the imbalance of four fluids in the body [blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile] can be the cause of illness,' he says.

'However, the Mesopotamian conception of bile seems to differ from the Greek.

'It is far from certain that the idea spread from Mesopotamia to the Greeks. But it would be interesting to investigate,' says Dr Arbøll.

The researcher believes that the aspiring Mesopotamian doctor would have worked on animals before progressing to human babies as he neared the end of his training.

It is unlikely that he would have treated an adult human alone before he was fully qualified.

The clay tablets were housed in Kiṣir-Aššur's family library in the ancient city of Ashur.

Located in modern-day Iraq, the city was destroyed in 614 BCE when it was burnt to the ground as the Neo-Assyrian Empire was dismantled.

It remained untouched until the early-twentieth century when archaeologists excavated the site.

The library is one of the most complete and important sources of information from the era.

'It's a snapshot of history that is difficult to generalise and it is possible that Kiṣir-Aššur worked with the material in a slightly different way than other practising healers.

'Kiṣir-Aššur copied and recorded mostly pre-existing treatments and you can see that he catalogues knowledge and collects it with a specific goal,' says Dr Arbøll.

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