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Document number: 8454
Date: 28 Mar 1872
Recipient: AIRY George Biddell
Author: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Collection: Univ Cambridge University Library / Syndics / Cambridge
Collection number: RGO 6/482 ff35-38
Last updated: 24th March 2012

Lacock Abbey,
Chippenham.
March 28. 1872

My Dear Sir

I thank you very much for your letter concerning the eclipse. The question arose in this way. Some time ago I found on the Assyrian tablets in the British Museum mention of two solar eclipses – As I noticed that they were both in the midsummer month and in the same king [Assurbanipal’s] reign, I conjectured that they might be two accounts of the same eclipse, and I therefore called the attention of the Biblico-Archćological Society to the importance of establishing if possible the date of the event.

Dr Julius Oppert <1> having read my paper, wrote me a letter stating that the eclipse of 27 June 661 was certainly the one in question. Not knowing how far I could trust Dr Opperts calculations I requested Mr G. Smith <2> to ask your opinion on the subject which is much more favorable to the hypothesis of Dr Oppert than I could have anticipated – I think this will appear if I briefly describe the two accounts in the British Museum –

The first says that in the year in which Tiumman king of Elam was occupied in making preparations to invade Babylonia and dethrone Assurbanipal a terrible eclipse of the sun occurred, which so alarmed him that he fell sick (as I understand the account) and lay for three days at the point of death. Recovering however, he continued his warlike preparations, in spite of this token of the wrath of heaven. – But this eclipse (the tablet continues) which was so sinister an omen to the Elamite monarch, was on the contrary of most favorable augury for Assurbanipal – And so the event proved. For, Tiumman perished in the first battle – &c – &c –

Now this account shows (1st) that the eclipse was conspicuous at Susa the capital of Elam –

(2ndly) that it was visible at Niniveh [sic]; for I think Assurbanipal could not say “it was an excellent omen for him” unless he had seen it in his own Capital.

The second account of the eclipse is contained in a despatch to Assurbanipal from Kukuru the general in command of his army in Egypt. The exact locality is not given, and I am not sure that the army had arrived in Egypt when the eclipse occurred – But as they always entered Egypt by the way of the Sea coast they may have been at Jaffa or at some point N or S of that city –

Unfortunately the general’s despatch is not lucid, or he uses unusual words upon the meaning of which there is room for much difference of opinion – I understand him to say that “the soldiers scattered to the right and left, observed the phenomenon” – But he fails to mention the hour of the day – In my questions which Mr Smith forwarded I did not include this one, whether the eclipse would be conspicuous on the frontier between Palestine and Egypt? because I imagined that the central line could not pass that way and also near to Niniveh and Susa; I was therefore surprised to find from your letter that it must have passed near Jaffa. This circumstance appears to me to add much probability to the conjecture of the eclipse being that of 27 June 661, which therefore was the year of the “7th expedition” of Assurbanipal. This is perhaps sufficient to establish the Chronology of his reign.

If you think that the above indications are sufficiently promising to render an exact calculation desirable, I should have great pleasure in laying the result before the Biblico-Archl Society, <3> who I am sure would receive it with great interest

I remain Yours faithfully
H. Fox Talbot

The Astronomer Royal


Notes:

1. For the letter byProf Julius Oppert (1825–1905), German Assyriologist, active in Paris, see Doc. No: 05992.

2. George Smith (1840–1876), Assyriologist.

3. This paper was read before the Society 4 April 1871. WHFT, ‘On an Ancient Eclipse’, Transactions of the Society for Biblical Archaeology, v. 1 part 1, January 1872, pp. 13–19.