Mathieu Ossendrijver on the Project ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation

[Thanks to the Vorderasiatisches Museum der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz for the above image. Photo-credit: Olaf M. Teßmer.].

We are delighted to have to opportunity to speak with Mathieu Ossendrijver, the director of a project we have been watching with great interest for some time now: ZODIAC, Ancient Astral Science in Transformation. This is amazing scholarship, changing our picture of the earliest origins and the startling transformations of zodiacal astronomy/astrology in antiquity.

In the interview we cover, among other topics:

  • A description of the ZODIAC project, its aims, temporal scope, and so forth,
  • A rundown of what we do know about the origins of horoscopic astronomy/astrology in Babylonia of the fifth century BCE, along with a summary of the most important holes in our knowledge. The most important of these lacunæ is twofold: Why did horoscopic astrology arise in fifth-century Babylonia, and why did it then spread with remarkable swiftness to the neighbouring cultures of Egypt and the Hellenic world?
  • An up-to-date and very useful rundown of different relevant sorts of text – notably omen-texts, astronomical diary texts, goal-year texts, and horoscopes – with regard to what they are like to read, what they contain, and when they were produced (why they were produced often presents more problems for interpreters),
  • A run-down of what we can say about how astronomical and zodiacal knowledge-transfer occurred between Babylonia and Greece, with particular emphasis on the difficult problem of Eudoxus of Knidos’ evidence for a rather early knowledge of the zodiac (and of course your host manages to bring Plato into the discussion),
  • Some discussion of the evolution of the field of study of ancient astronomy/astrology, viewed through the lens of the career of Otto Neugebauer, from the beginning of the twentieth century down till now, with
  • Discussion of what the Zodiac project is working on right now, and what kind of larger questions they hope to answer in the long run, and
  • A short tour of a day in the life of a researcher working on ancient sciences.

Download Mathieu Ossendrijver on the ZODIAC Project

Interview Bio:

Mathieu Ossendrijver is an Assyriologist, an astrophysicist, and a historian of ancient near-eastern mathematics and astronomy working at the Freie Universität, Berlin. He is the Principal Investigator of the project ZODIAC – Ancient Astral Science in Transformation, the ambitious science-meets-history project which is the central topic of this interview. Their website is well worth a poke around, and documents, among other things, a lively round of public events and academic outreach activities.

Works Cited in this Interview:


For the band Goatsnake see their page on the Southern Lord label website.


The Munich “electronic Babylonian Library” (eBL) project digitising cuneiform texts:; of particular interest is the subproject Fragmentarium.

Alexander Jones. Astronomical Papyri from Oxyrhynchus. Number 233 in Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1999.

Otto Neugebauer. The Study of Wretched Subjects. Isis, 42(2):111, 1951.

Idem. A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy. Springer-Verlag, Berlin/Heidelberg/New York, NY, 1975. 3 vols.

Idem. A Babylonian Lunar Ephemeris from Roman Egypt. In Erle Leichty, Maria de Jong Ellis, and Pamela Gerardi, editors, A Scientific Humanist, number 9 in Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, pages 301–304. University Museum, 1988.

Idem. From Assyriology to Renaissance Art. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133:391–403, 1989.

Keywords: Academic Projects, Ancient Mathematics, Astrology, Astronomy, Divination, Egypt, Interview, Zodiac