Archaeoastronomy

Ever since man took a good look at the night sky, he has wondered why things move and look as they do. Astronomy is the oldest of all sciences and its history is really very interesting. While the ancients did not make a lot of early attempts to solve the riddles of celestial motion, they certainly worked to decipher those motions for basic survival needs. Some of the earliest drawings found in the prehistoric caves of France depict lunar cycles, as do ivory sculptures from Africa ... both over 20,000 years ago. The ancients had nothing to do in their evenings for entertainment. They lacked a big screen tv, ice cream desserts, night club dancing, or even something as simple as a soft light and engrossing book. With so little to do, as well as no city light pollution, stargazing for wonderment was replaced with stargazing for understanding. Basic questions had to be answered. Our story of the most ancient historical Astronomy begins with the Babylonians.

An early chapter of the Biblical book "Genesis" describes a man named "Nimrod." While his name may carry negative meaning today, Nimrod was described as a mighty hunter and credited with the founding of the cities of Babylon and Ninevah. As the potential founder of one of the greatest kingdoms ever, it becomes exciting to think about how such a mighty man may have built such great cities. Certainly his skills as a hunter may have been unparalleled, but was there more to this man than mere brute strength like Conan the Barbarian? Could Nimrod have also been blessed with a high level of intellectual and intuitive ability?

What sort of observational understanding must Nimrod have possessed which would bring about a change for a nomadic people toward a more settled civilian form? Did Nimrod and his assistants figure out something from watching the stars which might give them such a competitive advantage over the other surrounding tribes and lead to the development of a mighty kingdom? Below is my thinking on this subject.

The ancient Babylonians mapped the path of the sun against the stars of the night sky. As the sun moved through the sky, it moved through a path called the ECLIPTIC. Although the light of the sun makes impossible the seeing of the sun and stars simultaneously, the ancients knew that the stars were still there, but just blinded out of sight. Through careful recording of the changing positions of specific star constellations throughout the year, early astronomers were able to trace the sun's path through such star groupings. The 12 constellations through which the sun traveled in the ecliptic became known as the ZODIAC.

Below are some key terms:

ECLIPTIC = the apparent circular path of the sun across the sky.

ZODIAC = twelve constellations which fall in the ecliptic (ZONE OF ANIMALS)

The image at the left shows the star groupings which occupy the ecliptic.

The Zodiac = CAPRICORN, AQUARIUS, PISCES, AIRES, TAURUS, GEMINI, CANCER, LEO, VIRGO, LIBRA, SCORPIO, and SAGITTARIUS, starting in June and finishing in May. A thirteenth constellation occupies the ecliptic, Ophiuchus, between Libra and Sagittarius, but is not included in the Zodiac calendar.


The ancients also noticed that certain aquatic constellations were occupied by the sun during the worst storm periods ( Capricorn = sea goat, Aquarius = water bearer, Pisces = fish), and this helped develop a predictable calendar with best dates for planting spring crops. The development of the calendar was the critical piece of information which enabled a civilized society to develop for the people could build a walled city for protection, farm food on soil in surrounding areas without a need for wandering and gathering, and predict the times for successful planting times. A person, like Nimrod, who could predict the best time for planting would give his followers a strong advantage.

As you can see in the diagram to the left, the earth is following its path around the sun, moving counterclockwise. While we know this today, the Babylonians thought the sky rotated. To their perspective, the constellations of the Zodiac changed on a monthly basis. In the image to the left, earth star watchers would see Leo straight to the south at midnight, while at noon the sun would be occupying a spot in the constellation Aquarius. Since Aquarius and Pisces are considered two of the three water constellations, the sun's position in them would indicate the impending rainy season and be a good time for crop planting. It was not so much a matter of which constellation was visible at night as it was which constellation was occupied by the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Babylonians went further following the development of their calendar, for they noticed that several starlike objects did not remain in close association with the stars of specific constellations. These 7 objects wandered in and out of the 12 zodiac constellations. The seven objects are Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn ... the day and night lights as well as the 5 naked-eye visible planets. In fact, the word "planet" is derived from a Greek word for "wanderer." There was a belief that the location of these 7 objects among the various zodiac constellations held great meaning. Armies might be encouraged to wage war if Mars, the red planet, was in Sagittarius. An entire study developed called "Astrology" that offered to explain the meaning behind the location of such celestial objects. People believed that their life histories would be influenced by the birthday orientation of the 7 objects, and others would make decisions based on the same. Even today, a large percentage of the population regularly consults the newspaper for their daily horoscope and hopes to find money or romance by the end of the day. Nancy Reagan, wife of the late former American president Ronald, was a big believer in meaning attached to the zodiac and planet motions. Ronald's advisors had to consult with Nancy first about scheduling meetings lest his meeting occur on an ominously bad date. Calendars were given to the advisors from Nancy and her astrologer/advisor with dates blacked out for any activity for her husband. It seems strange now to look back at the 1980's when Ronald was president and think that our national policies may have been influenced by his wife's astrologer! The image below is a modern look at the Astrologer's chart with dates for each zodiac sign and thoughts about the meaning of planets and sun and moon. While I do not hold any belief in the motions of the solar system influencing my life, plenty of others do. The Astronomy Society of the Pacific holds annual meetings for astronomy educators, one of their stated missions being to debunk myths in Astronomy ... Astrology being one of them. However, if you still are interested in learning more about Astrology, click on the chart image, or go to a more detailed study at Astrology.

 

 

But the Babylonians were not the only group to develop the science of Astronomy, and tracking the motion of the Sun or Moon were not the only items of interest to the earliest civilizations. Early peoples also were interested in the timing of the rising and setting or particular stars or constellations. These motions are called "heliacal risings and settings."

Imagine there is a particular star you like a great deal, say Sirius. Remember that the Earth makes a complete rotation in roughly 23 hours and 56 minutes. Yet we measure the length of the day to be 24 hours between high noons. The extra 4 minutes of time required for the Sun to be at the highest point in the sky is due to the necessary 4 minutes of time for Earth to revolve in its orbit and realign with the Sun. Meanwhile, the stars were properly aligned relative to the Earth 4 minutes previously. This disparity in time means that any given star will rise 4 minutes earlier each night. You look for Sirius, but one one sunrise, it is exactly in line with the Sun and therefore hidden in its glare. The following morning, Sirius will rise 4 minutes ahead of the Sun, but it will still be hidden in the Sun's glare. Eventually, a morning will come when you can see Sirius ahead of the rising Sun. This morning you would mark as a special event for you ... the heliacal rising of Sirius. Well, many civilizations followed heliacal risings and settings of various stars or constellations. The rising of the Pleiades, Sirius, Capella, and others were all used by different ancient civilizations to mark seasonal or festival-worthy events. While the Papagao Indians used the Pleiades heliacal rising at sunrise to mark seasonal events, the ancient Hawaiians used the heliacal rising of the Pleiades at sunset to mark important events.

Across the world in America were the native Americans in the north, Mayan and Aztecs in the middle, and Incas to the south, all of whom also devised wonderful astronomical methods and structures to organize their lives. Of great interest to archaeologists is the discovery that odd-shaped buildings typically are or astronomical importance. Cities typically have straight walls and streets, neatly organized and shaped residences and palaces and others. But often is found a single structure that looks unlike any other building. That building is often aligned with stars and solstices and constructed in such odd shapes to necessarily be properly oriented.

The Anasazi and Pueblo of southwestern USA also developed a calendar, but used a different method than the passage of the constellations. Depending on the culture, a chief or priest would look to the horizon at the rising or setting sun and watch for its appearance or disappearance relative to a distant geological feature or to a manmade structure of building. Careful notation was made for the summer and winter solstices when the sun would rise from the farthest northeast or southeast point respectively. Notation was made for the equinoxes, when the sun rose straight from the east and the daylength and nightlength were the same. In such a manner, these Native Americans were able to construct a meaningful calendar and plant their crops at the appropriate time. This was crucial to any people, but especially to those living in mountains or in more high latitudes. Planting crops too soon would result in the potential for the seedlings to freeze. Planting crops too late would result in the return of winter before harvest. By clicking on either southwestern American Indian name above, you will find some very interesting information if you want to learn more details. The Anasazi site is a bit more upper division in its technical writing, while the Pueblo site is easier to follow. Check out the great picture of sunrise over Norwich High School in New York over the course of 6 months, and you will get an idea of what the Anasazi and Pueblo looked for.

Besides the creation of the calendar, organization of ritual feasts and celebrations, the ancients learned how to navigate according to the stars. Early astronomers quickly noted that one star in the night sky never moves from its position, and throughout the course of the night, the rest of the stars make a sweeping circle around that one star. While the Earth spins on its axis and wobbles in such a manner as to cause that north star to change, it will be simpler for our present discussion to assume that these ancients oriented themselves by the same North Star which we see there today. Indeed, islanders from the south seas were masters at navigating by the stars, and Samoans and Fijians went on very long journeys to colonize the Hawaiian Islands. Some think the ancient Egyptians may have navigated across the Atlantic and given rise to Inca, Aztec, and Mayan cultures, but there is less evidence for this conjecture. You might find it interesting to learn that several species of migratory birds orient themselves according to star patterns, and when they were placed in large warehouses with different constellation patterns overhead, the birds became confused and flew in the wrong direction!

The ancients further discerned that the tides coincided with the passage of the moon, that high tides were higher and low tides lower at new and full moon, and that the length of the female menstrual cycle was as long as the "moonth" (associating fertility with the goddess of the moon).
Today, on any clear night, you can see about 2,000 stars with the naked eye, but only if you venture away from the light pollution of city lights. Most of you will look up from your backyards and barely be able to make out even the most prominent of the constellations. I will never forget a trip high into the mountains of Wyoming and seeing so many stars that I could not discern constellations. I thought how incredible it must have looked to people before large cities were built with their resultant night-polluted skies.

One of the more interesting sites of ancient astronomy is the Stonehenge site in England. Scholars continue to debate on a date of construction, but the use of the site and some of astronomical predictions are better understood. To learn more about Stonehenge, click on the image and read the short article. By the way, there is a relatively new ordinance by the site prohibiting visitors from coming near the megaliths, in hopes of preserving the location for future generations.

The Stonehenge site was constructed over a long period and in three major phases of increasing complexity. Initially built to follow solstice and equinox times, the site now has been purported to predict eclipses, phases of the Moon, and a host of important heliacal risings and settings. In truth, there are enough potential alignments that one could find almost anything one desires simply due to the great number of marker stones. One must exercise caution when trying to read into Stonehenge more than is really there.

One event is certain, and that is the rising of the Sun at summer solstice. An examination of the photograph of this moment shows the Sun to be just slightly to the side of a prominent heel stone. Were the builders inaccurate in their alignment? Afterall, there is not much of an error. Recent archaeological work has uncovered a hole which would have held a second heel stone. When this hole was properly filled, the solstice rising Sun fit neatly between two heel stones. The early builders were remarkably precise!

 

Finally, the Mayan culture organized an elaborate city that was centered on their worship of Venus. I would like you to peruse the Mayan site for some extra information about the motion of Venus and their worship of this star. Please click on Maya Astronomy for your study. Archaeologists have discovered very few bits of information since much of it was burned as Satanic material by the conquering Spaniards. Our present understanding of the Mayan astronomy is owed to what the conquering Spaniards wrote down. Since they abhorred the practices of the Mayan and Aztec peoples, they only wrote what was of interest to them, and much material of clarification was lost. Apparently the Dresden Codex, a sort of textbook on Mayan civilization, survived, and study of this book has revealed much about the Mayan astronomers. They tracked a regular time when Venus could be found in a particular place in the morning sky (its heliacal rising), and following this 585 day cycle when Venus, Earth, and Sun would realign. Of greater importance would be when Venus, Sun, Earth, and the same stars would all realign, repeatedly every 8 years and 10 months. Great wars were staged to coincide with this 8 year occurrence, but there was little actually battlefield killing. Many prisoners were taken and ritually slaughtered atop their pyramid temples. The priest would cut into a victim and rip out the heart while their blood flowed down the temple steps to a great pit at the pyramid base. The pit would literally fill with blood, that was believed to fertilize the earth and ensure successful harvests. Venus was their "death star" as opposed to the view of the Greeks. Strange soccer games were played celebrating the appearance of Venus. The winning team members were beheaded, or perhaps just the team captain. Apparently, it was the highest honor to win this tournament and hurry to a glorious afterlife. (Go Hopkins! ... and you may wonder what the expression, "Play to Win" may have meant to the Mayan players.) Some of these events were part of the movie "Apocalypto."

South of the Mesoamerican cultures lay the vast empire of the Inca. These people did not leave any writings, and constructing their astronomy has been more difficult. Once again, the Incas had a single building in their central city that was built unlike any other. Examination of the building with its narrow light slits have discerned the division of the empire along the heliacal risings of different stars. The empire was not laid out according to simple north, south, east, west boundaries. Here the Incas divided their kingdom in unequal segments based on the rising of different stars.

If you want more detail, check out this nice page on the Histroy of Astronomy that covers what seems like almost everything.

Now, please move to the Ancient Astronomy site for more on the History of Astronomy or return to the History Introductory Page, or the Syllabus or Home page. If you absolutely think that this material was interesting beyond your wildest beliefs, then here are a few selections for you to browse ... either to your heart's content and serving to increase your vast knowledge base, or to impress your friends with a great display of knowledge of ancient history. Check out the science of calendars, or the Center for Archeoastronomy, or follow the Crystalink website to surf to any ancient civilization imaginable.


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