Registration number K.8538.
Part of a circular clay tablet with depictions of constellations (planisphere); the reverse is uninscribed; restored from fragments and incomplete; partly accidentally vitrified in antiquity during the destruction of the place where it was found.
Inscription Type: inscription
Inscription Script: cuneiform
Inscription Language: Babylonian
Diameter: 14.1 centimetres (maximum)
Thickness: 3.2 centimetres
Heavily restored with plaster.
For comment on the interpretation of the text and identification of the constellations see Koch 1989. Celestial planisphere; in this stylised map the sky has been divided into eight sections. It represents the night sky of 3-4 January 650 BC over Nineveh. The rectangular shape at the top has been identified as the constellation known today as Gemini and the stars contained with an oval shape are the Pleiades. The two triangles in the lower right mark the bright stars of Pegasus.
As you can see, this is a circle divided by radial lines into 8 equal sectors. A “planisphere” is the reproduction of a spherical surface as a flat map
The eight lines radiating from the center create eight sectors of 45 degrees each. Unfortunately, the piece is badly damaged and 40% of the planisphere is missing. Two large areas were lost, and they account for most of the damage. The breaking of the tablet dates to the sack of Nineveh, which was destroyed by a joint force of Babylonian and Medean armies in 612 BCE. But the same destruction that broke the tablet also accounts for its preservation; the clay disk was partly fired when the library that held it was burned.
It is now heavily restored, using plaster. The reverse has no inscription.
Questions: what is this object? What data does it record? Who made it, and for what purpose?
The planisphere has been studied in the past. Various Assyriologists have stepped forward over the course of many decades to put forward their personal theories. It is almost universally agreed to be a star map of some sort, recording the positions of important stars and constellations.
Archibald Sayce and Robert Bosanquet in the 1880’s posited that the planisphere had some calendrical purpose. The tablet was catalogued and briefly described by the assyriologist Carl Bezold in his Catalogue of the Cuneiform Tablets in the Kouyunjik Collection of the British Museum (5 Volumes, 1889-1899; See: Volume 3, 1893, Page 937).
The drawing above was published in 1912, when the obverse of K 8538 was drawn by the British Assyriologist Leonard King (See CT 33, (1912), Plate 10). In 1915, Ernst Weidner concluded that it had both astronomical and astrological significance and was probably a magical tablet used in exorcisms.
The most detailed study of the tablet was the 1989 study by Johannes Koch in his book Neue Untersuchungen zur Topographie des babylonischen Fixsternhimmels (Chapters 7-16). Koch concluded that the tablet represents the night sky over Nineveh in 650 BCE. Koch argued strongly that the planisphere was an instrument, intended to be rotated to predict or record the position of the stars on the horizon line above the city of Nineveh in a certain calendar year.
Imad Ahmad in 2003 simply describes the object as a clay astrolabe, handy to help the astronomer record information and keep time.
These are not the only voices in the discussion about what this object is and what it means, however.
Enter the Weird Zone
In 2008, Alan Bond, the managing director of a space propulsion company, Reaction Engines, and Mark Hempsell, a senior lecturer in astronautics at Bristol University, published a book on this object and their attempt to decode and explain its cuneiform inscriptions.
To summarize the many articles which summarize the many arguments within their book is perhaps unfair. By the time scientific (or pseudo-scientific) arguments are this far removed from their source, it is difficult to say whether they really represent the real views of the original author.
Briefly, however, the authors argue that the planisphere is a “page from the notebook” of a Sumerian astronomer, who was recording events in the sky on June 29, 3123 BCE. The authors claim that the tablets record the trajectory of a large object traveling across the constellation of Pisces. They further argue that this object may have been a meteorite, and that the trajectory of the object recorded might be consistent with an old theory to explain a famous feature of the Austrian Alps—a huge rock-slide in Köfels.