Now it gives our way of looking at things,
and our researches, their form.
Perhaps it was once disputed.
But perhaps, for unthinkable ages,
it has belonged to the
scaffolding of our thoughts.l. wittgenstein, On Certainty⸪
How did historical cultures engage with what we call science? What makes an explanation valid within a given culture? How do texts reflect the world (or worlds)? These questions would seem more appropriate for anthropology or philosophy than Assyriology. Yet they frame and characterize the work of Francesca Rochberg. Francesca Rochberg—Chessie to her friends, students, and colleagues—is an anthropologist of dead civilizations. Her research has focused on celestial divination in cuneiform cultures and what effect those cultures can have on challenging our own conceptions of scientific knowledge. In the 1980s and 1990s, this work took a comparative form and examined how Babylonian astral sciences could be juxtaposed alongside the Greek astronomical sources. Underlying these textual analyses were perennial questions of demarcation. What makes knowledge “science”? And what does science look like in pre-modern cultures wherein the “natural world” was not the object of inquiry? Especially in her latest monograph, Before Nature, one can find the anthropological inclination to understand different ways of thinking about the world, to engage with the unfamiliar through cuneiform texts.
We found it fitting, therefore, to title this Festschrift dedicated to Chessie Rochberg “The Scaffolding of our Thoughts”—a Wittgenstein quote that she is most fond of citing—for there are few about whom we can say have done more to examine, question, and uphold the scaffolding of Assyriological and ancient scientific inquiry. She improves us all by example, as scholars and individuals. And anyone who has had the good fortune to interact with Chessie would agree that she is in every way approachable. Until, of course, things get technical. In those instances, one should prepare to wrestle with an incisive mind, capable of challenging all pre-conceptions, even within itself.
Her achievements, intellectual goals, and her effect on diverse scholarly communities are in themselves a lesson on the limits of disciplinary thinking in the modern humanities. Her disciplinary breadth is reflected in in her scholarship, particularly in her engagement with the history and philosophy of science, which we honor in the contributions to this volume. The contributions span the diachronic and geographic sphere of the ancient Mediterranean world, from Italy to Egypt to, of course, Babylonia and Assyria. But perhaps more significantly, the contributions reflect Chessie’s interests in matters of ancient knowledge. Following an initial appraisal of ancient “science” by Sir Geoffrey Lloyd, the contributions in the first half explore practices of knowledge in Assyriological sources. The second half of the volume focuses specifically on astronomical and astrological spheres of knowledge in the ancient Mediterranean.
Finally, to and for her students, Chessie is an exemplary mentor—she guides by example. She inspires her students to increase their intellectual horizons and to read widely. How else is one to broaden one’s wisdom? Or “enlarge his ears” (urappīšu uzunšu), as scribes used to say. In all of this thinking and imitation, one ends up becoming a historiographer, writing, as she does, genealogies of ideas, and in the process, ever testing one’s inherited categories and assumptions. She tends to do all of this, of course, with a light smile and the occasional “if I can do it you can do it.” We remain uncertain as to whether that phrase is a devastating fib or a comically tragic challenge. But of this we are certain: she guides with a “strong hand” (and occasionally, a broken foot).
Chessie is a tireless a scholar, an ummânu mudû, and the most generous of mentors. Nevertheless, an attentive warning label should accompany her work—one that needn’t be as mean-spirited as the Assyrian curses which caution that Šamaš will carry off the eyes of a negligent scribe (Šamaš igīšu litbal).
Ann Arbor, Michigan