Department of Classics’ Maddalena Rumor receives fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies

Receiving a prestigious fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Maddalena Rumor will work on a manuscript for a book currently titled Dreckapotheke in Ancient Mesopotamia and the Graeco-Roman World

Rumor is the only scholar associated with Case Western Reserve University to receive an ACLS award within the last 5 years.

Awarded to individual scholars for excellence in research in any discipline of the humanities and related social sciences, ACLS fellowships are few in number: In 2019-20, only 81 awardees were selected from nearly 1200 applicants nationwide.

With the fellowship, Rumor will devote 12 consecutive months to full-time research and writing, beginning this summer. 

The project sets out to identify likely mistranslations of strange pharmaceutical ingredients—the dreckapotheke of the book’s title; the manuscript aims to expand understanding about Babylonian pharmacology and its relationship with Greco-Roman medicine. Rumor’s research challenges a commonly held belief: that there are no textual parallels between these two medical literatures.

Clarifying clay tablets of cuneiform

The seeds of the project were planted while Rumor studied as an undergraduate in Venice, where she examined the history of the Ancient Near East and became intrigued with Babylonian medicine. 

“There I learned about the incredible amount of medical texts, found by archaeologists in the mid-1800s,” said Rumor. “At the same time, I found out about the incredible challenges in understanding those texts, which were mostly written on cuneiform clay tablets, about 3000 years ago.”

As Rumor dove into the topic more, “it became obvious to me that those clay tablets reflected a very structured and rich medical tradition—the extent of whose complexity we still do not fully grasp,” she said. 

As Rumor’s research continues, she has uncovered textual evidence of the sharing of medical knowledge between Babylonian and Greco-Roman cultures. Not only does this finding provide explanations for previously obscure issues in the medico-scientific literatures of both cultures, it opens up this field of study to many significant questions, implications and considerations regarding intellectual interrelations.

“This work is highly original,” said Mark Geller, the Jewish Chronicle Professor of Jewish Studies at University College London, “in that it embodies cross-disciplinary perspectives not usually accommodated in studies of ancient science.”