• J. W. Barlament

Archeoastronomy: 12 Facts About the Night Sky in History

It’s no secret that various systems of astronomy and astrology have been practiced by cultures across the globe for thousands of years. The Greeks did it, of course, and the Babylonians before them. Ancient India did it, ancient China did it, and the Maya and the Aztecs did it just the same.

But this view of ancient astronomy is incomplete and outdated. The stars were not afterthoughts to our ancestors. Contrary to the relative ignorance of the night sky common in our own polluted day, for most of history — and much of prehistory — humans made astronomical calculations and astrological mythologies. Furthermore, they did so not as afterthoughts or side-hobbies, but as one of their foremost activities.

1. A Magdalenian Mystery

In the dark halls of Lascaux Cave in France lay hundreds of paintings up to 17,000 years old. They display hand stencils, as one would expect, and animals — mammoths, lions, deer, bears, bison, aurochs and more — and symbols. Lots of symbols. Some, archaeologists are speculating, may contain traces of proto-languages. Others, it’s long been determined, contain maps of the stars from all the way in the Magdalenian Era, when mammoths and cave lions roamed and glaciers dominated the European continent.

Since the turn of the millennium, models of both the lunar cycle and of constellations such as Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades have been identified on the walls of Lascaux by multiple archaeological teams, suggesting that even thousands of years before the dawn of civilization anywhere on earth, people were already making advanced stellar measurements and connecting said measurements to stories. Bulls are not an uncommon sight at Lascaux. But to have a bull overlayed on a series of dots exactly corresponding to the stars of Taurus, which is known even today as the bull constellation? Or to have correspondingly aligning dots over the places of Orion and the Pleiades?

And of the speculation that many Magdalenian cave locations were chosen only for the availability of light to shine into the cave on the solstices or equinoxes? Or that the “Shaft Scene” of Lascaux could depict the Summer Triangle or even an Ice Age comet strike? The jury is still out, but the evidence is already in.

2. The Balkan Bronze Age

So it should be no surprise that people by the Bronze Age were well-accustomed to using the stars for time-keeping. The oldest definite calendar ever discovered in Europe — from the Vučedol culture in modern-day Croatia around 2600 BC — is a pot, divided into four bands, each of which has twelve drawings on it. Each drawing is thought to have represented a week, while the four bands (starting with spring) represent a season. The drawings start with Orion’s belt, as it sat then on the horizon around the spring equinox, and then seem to represent constellations like Gemini, Pegasus, the Pleiades, Cassiopeia, Cygnus and others. By the time the Great Pyramid was being built in Giza, then, all the way in the supposedly undeveloped Balkans, astronomy was both key to culture and highly developed.

3. Monumental Astronomy

We may talk about the Nazca Lines as possible representations of Nazca constellations, but while that idea is very much only open speculation, the idea that buildings can be modeled after constellations very much isn’t. In Zoroastrian Persia, the “chartaqi” model of temples, with four arches and a dome on top, have been examined in a recent study and assessed to be, in their positions and constructions, based on the alignment of stars around the North Pole (in Draco, as it used to be). This, in turn, was a region associated with the Zoroastrian god Mithra and his chariot, making these temples astrological representations on earth.

4. The Modern Clock

Returning to Egypt, of course the ancient Egyptians practiced astronomy like so many of the cultures around them; maybe not to the extent that the Pyramids of Giza are positioned after the stars of Orion’s Belt, as some have claimed, but significantly nonetheless. They’re well-known to have identified their gods with different stars or constellations, as was exceedingly common for polytheistic cultures. What stands out most from Egypt, though, is their practical use of astronomy to create our own 24-hour days. The Egyptians used a system of “decans”, 36 different stars, each marking a new hour of the night. Eventually, these would be slimmed to 12 a night and then applied to the 12 hours of the day as well, forming the basis for our own 24-hour cycle.

5. Dog Days

There’s no shortage of modern media about Greek astronomy, I know, but there’s just too much of an abundance of material for me not to cover any of it.

We hear the term “dog days” thrown around a lot now for those most uncomfortably sweaty days of summer. What we don’t often consider is that this might actually be among the oldest phrase still in use today. In fact, it dates back (at the least) to Ancient Greece, when it was used to describe the days of mid-July to mid-August, when the “dog star” Sirius, most visible in winter, first rose above the horizon before dawn. The star was thought to bring the peak of the summer heat, which itself caused madness in men and animals alike, showing ancient people used the stars so ever-present in their cultures for even the most colloquial matters.

6. The Zodiacal Hercules

Maybe Greece’s most famous hero, the towering cultural icon Hercules, is most probably astronomical — and not even by way of the constellation of the same name.

There’s a very interesting, though yet unpopular, theory that posits that the 12 labors of Hercules are representative of an extremely ancient (maybe even the most ancient) version of the 12 figures of the zodiac and the sun’s path through them, where Hercules is sometimes represented by either his own constellation or by Orion and a few of the zodiacal constellations actually seem to have shifted, as the definition of what constellations are actually a part of the zodiac is very much up to interpretation. It’s an extraordinarily long story, and I encourage you to read through the whole thing, but it serves as an introduction to a pretty simple idea; the story of Hercules is old, accepted by most to long predate ancient Greece itself, and as with many of our oldest stories, it may find a surprisingly suitable explanation in the stars.

Sah/Osiris, center, depicted as the constellation Orion (Dendera, Egypt)

7. Resurrection of the Thunder God

Now, anyone who knows anything about ancient astronomy will most likely have heard of the film “Zeitgeist”, in which it’s argued that the entire story of Jesus was an astronomical metaphor ripped out of the Egyptian resurrection myth of Horus (and that Bush did 9/11). This isn’t true. It’s very well-accepted that Jesus was indeed an actual historical figure, and the Jews of his day may have been the only people in the region not practicing astrological religions.

And yet, the dying-and-rising god is an extraordinarily common motif, from Inanna to Osiris to Dumuzid to Dionysus to Persephone. Most of these examples are, reasonably enough, explained by the yearly dying-and-rising of different crops, but there may be another element to it. Osiris, for one, is very explicitly in ancient Egypt equated with Orion.

As Orion (and all other seasonal constellations) disappear for half the year before rising again the next, and as he and other stars are associated across cultures with crop cycles, much has been said in recent years about whether the basis of the motif may also be partially astronomical.

8. Golden and Silver Gates

In Neolithic Malta, too, an artifact called the “Tal-Qadi Sky Tablet”, which very clearly seems to depict the stars in some form, has been decoded to relate to this resurrection myth.

Oftentimes, as discussed in-depth here, the dying-and-rising god is represented by two celestial men, Orion and Ophiuchus, with Orion holding the club and/or sword of death and Ophiuchus holding the serpent of healing. Orion, therefore, is the dying god, and Ophiuchus, the rising. The “golden gate of the ecliptic” is a region between Taurus and the Pleiades, through which the sun, moon and all the planets pass at some point, and at which the equinox occurred from around 4500–1500 BC. This is, according to myth, the point where souls enter into the underworld, with Orion guarding, while the “silver gate of the ecliptic”, at the opposite end of the sky right under Boötes, is where they reincarnate into another earthly life.

The Tal-Qadi Sky Tablet has been decoded as a star map of the golden gate, even containing a drawn line corresponding to the line of the ecliptic. Now, these Neolithic Maltese temples number in the dozens on the small island. They clearly held great significance at some point. And the fact that this star map was etched and left inside one of them seems to point yet again at a great, though lost, astro-mythological tradition.

9. The Temple at Motya

But this doesn’t have to be a matter of guesswork. Just north of Malta on the coast of Sicily near the town of Motya, yet another temple has been found, this one of Phoenician origin and dedicated to the chief god Ba’al. And it was, without a doubt, an observatory. The details are striking — the temple complex itself is oriented toward Orion’s rise on the winter solstice. A smaller temple dedicated to Astarte (Ba’al’s consort, equated with Aphrodite by the Greeks and Venus by the Romans) was set up at the planet Venus’ position at the winter solstice at that time. Astronomical measuring tools were dug up. An entire temple, therefore, in the middle of the ancient Mediterranean world, was actually in equal measure a religious astronomical observatory.

10. Worldwide Monumental Alignments

Now we come to a much more well-known and widely discussed point; that hundreds of monuments from all across the globe are built to align in one way or another with the solstices, equinoxes, or various planetary alignments. We see it in Motya. You may have heard of the ancient solstice alignments of Stonehenge or the still-visible solstice alignment of Newgrange in Ireland. But what about Machu Picchu? The Goseck Circle of Germany? The Bighorn Medicine Wheel of Wyoming?

And this is my whole thesis here. Astronomy was not just a sideshow attraction for world cultures or an obsession of just a few. It was among the most integral parts of the daily lives of our ancestors for thousands of years throughout the whole world.

11. The Art of Astronomical Navigation

Why, though? Why were the stars so important? For their ability to capture myths in ever-present images? For their usability in timekeeping? Yes, surely, both are true, but they were also instrumental in ancient navigation. All manners of cultures, all the way through modern seafarers, use the stars to navigate their way through the vast open ocean waters.

Maybe the most refined of these traditions comes from Polynesia, where the same group of people managed to discover and populate thousands of remote islands thousands of miles apart. Scholars used to dismiss this as the luck of accidental drifters. In 1975, the traditional Polynesian canoe “Hokule’a” sailed successively from Hawaii to Tahiti using only traditional astronomical navigation methods. The stars are important for a multitude of reasons, but their use in navigation — a life-saver even today for people lost in the wilderness — may be most important of all.

12. Light Pollution and Its Consequences

So why don’t we care today? Simply put, because we can’t see the stars that once defined our ancestors’ lives.

In NYC, only a handful of the very brightest stars are visible on a clear night, and only barely. True “dark sky areas”, where negligible to no light pollution is present, are only available in the most remote and inhospitable parts of the world now. The vast majority of the human population only sees a small fraction of the stars visible only a couple hundred years ago.

Light pollution and its disorienting effects may kill up to a billion birds every year in the US alone. But even beyond that, it suffocates what may be the most universal part of our common human heritage. The erasure of the night sky is not a minor matter. Astronomy is useful to us, yes, but it unites us, too, in the cosmic wonder that gripped us tens of thousands of years ago and still does today. It’s a crime for the few to erase this crucial part of our heritage without the consent of the many. And until we do something, it’s only getting worse.

the Tal-Qadi Sky Tablet, overlaid on the region it supposedly maps (CC)