Astronomical Chronology

Since the earliest days of Assyriology, the ancient observations of lunar and solar eclipses, planetary configurations and other celestial phenomena reported on cuneiform tablets have been studied and employed for chronological purposes. In many cases these observations can be dated to the exact day and hour and are thus of the utmost importance for calibrating the various king and ruler lists of Mesopotamia.

Ancient Near Eastern Chronologies (all years are BC)

Historical events High (Long) Middle Low (Short) Ultra-Low
First Dynasty of Akkad ????-???? 2334-2154 ????-???? 2200-2018
Third Dynasty of Ur 2161-2053 2112-2004 2048-1940 2018-1911
First Dynasty of Isin ????-???? 2017-1793 ????-???? 1922-1698
First Dynasty of Babylon 1950-1651 1894-1595 1830-1531 1798-1499
Reign of Hammurabi 1848-1806 1792-1750 1728-1686 1696-1654
Reign of Ammisaduqa 1702-1682 1646-1626 1582-1562 1550-1530
Fall of Babylon 1651 1595 1531 1499

However, the interpretation of these early reports is not always straightforward. Not every obscuration or darkening of the Sun necessarily implies a solar eclipse. In some cases, a darkening of the Sun that was first interpreted as a solar eclipse is now believed to have been caused by a meteorological phenomenon. 

The ancient Mesopotamian observations also provide useful information on the secular variations in the Moon’s orbital motion and the slowing of the Earth’s rate of rotation.

Of these reports, the chronologically most important are the following:

The Nineveh Eclipse

Mentioned in an Assyrian limmu (eponym) list, a list of yearly-appointed high officials, as: “Bur-Sagale of Guzana, revolt in the city of Aššur. In the month Simanu an eclipse of the Sun took place.”

The report is assumed to refer to a (total?) solar eclipse seen from Nineveh during the 9th or 10th year of Ašurdan III. The identification of this eclipse with that of 15 June 763 BC makes it possible to anchor the list in time, thus providing a very precise chronological baseline of Assyrian history reaching back as far as 910 BC.

Cowell (1906) claimed that this eclipse had also been seen by the prophet Amos (Amos 8:9).

Solar Eclipse in the “Religious Chronicle”

A total solar eclipse supposedly seen from Babylon and mentioned in the so-called “Religious Chronicle” [= BM 35968 = Sp III, 504]. First identified by L.W. King, who proposed the following translation “On the 26th day of the month Sivan, in the 7th year, the day was turned into night, and fire [was seen] in the midst of heaven”.

Calculations by Cowell (1905) showed that the solar eclipse of 20 June 1070 BC was only partial for Babylon; the solar eclipse of 31 July 1063 BC could have been total for Babylon. Later calculations by Simon Newcomb suggested that other possible candidates were the solar eclipses of 18 May 1124 BC or 28 June 1117 BC.

The text is assumed to refer to the Babylonian king Simbar-Shihu, who is believed to have reigned from 1024 to 1007 BC. Brinkman (1968) & Grayson (1975) doubt whether the text refers to a solar eclipse and suggest that the darkening was caused by a meteorological phenomenon.

Eclipse of Esar-Haddon and the Eclipse of Susa

The Venus Tablets of Ammizaduga

First published in 1870 by Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and George Smith as tablet 63 [“Tablet of Movements of the Planet Venus and their Influences”] in the third volume of The Cuneiform Inscriptions of Western Asia. Its significance for chronology was first recognised by Franz Xaver Kugler in 1912, when he could identify the “Year of the Golden Throne” with the 8th regal year of Ammizaduga, the grandson of the Babylonian king Hammurabi.

The UR III Eclipses

A set of lunar eclipses mentioned in the astrological omen series Enûma Anu Enlil (tablets 20 & 21) that appear to be linked to historical events during the Third Dynasty of Ur. The possible chronological importance of these eclipses was first noted by Morris Jastrow Jr. in Die Religion Babyloniens und Assyriens (Giessen, 1921).

Some scholars, however, doubt that they refer to actual historical events.

The Eclipse of Muršili II

Problematic interpretation of a solar omen, reported in the 10th year of the Hittite king Muršili II during his campaign against the Azzi in North Anatolia (KUB 14.4 [= VAT 6165 = KBo 111.4 = BoTU 48]). Initially dated by Carl Schoch and Emil Forrer to 13 March 1335 BC; later scholars have suggested 24 June 1312 or 13 April 1308 BC. Others have suggested that the omen may refer to a halo or another meteorological phenomenon.

The Ugarit Eclipse

A problematic report of a solar eclipse(?) mentioned on a cuneiform tablet (KTU 1.78 = PRU 2.162 = RS 12.061) found in 1948 among the ruins of Ugarit (Ras Shamra, Syria). A possible translation of this enigmatic report is “The day of the Moon of Hiyaru was put to shame: the Sun went in, (with) her gate(keeper), Rashap [Mars?]”.

First linked by Sawyer & Stephenson (1970) to the solar eclipse of 3 May 1375 BC on the assumption that it had been total as viewed from Ugarit. A later analysis by de Jong & van Soldt (1987/89) re-dated the report to 5 March 1223 BC. More recently, the text has been linked to the solar eclipses of 21 January 1192 BC and 9 May 1012 BC. Other scholars question whether the solar eclipse was total or whether the tablet actually refers to an eclipse at all.

The Mari Eponym Chronicle Eclipse

A recently identified darkening of the Sun in the Mari Eponym Chronicle has been linked to the total solar eclipse of 24 June 1833 BCE.

Lunar Eclipse mentioned during Campaign of Sargon II

Jupiter Omen at the Begin of Esarhaddon’s Kingship

On Jupiter’s conjunction with the Sun in the summer of 679 BCE, coinciding with the begin of Esarhaddon’s reign.

Eclipses in Biblical (Old Testament) Sources

Other Reports and General Discussions

Secular Acceleration of the Lunar Motion and the Lengthening of the Day deduced from Ancient Reports of Lunar and Solar Eclipses

“And if any curious Traveller, or Merchant residing there, would please to observe, with due care, the Phases of the Moons Eclipses at Bagdat, Aleppo and Alexandria, thereby to determine their Longitudes, they could not do the Science of Astronomy a greater Service: For in and near these Places were made all the Observations whereby the Middle Motions of the Sun and Moon are limited: And I could then pronounce in what Proportion the Moon’s Motion does Accelerate; which that it does, I think I can demonstrate, and shall (God willing) one day, make it appear to the Publick.” (Halley, 1695)

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