2,400 yr-old star table reveals secrets of ancient Egyptian ’star-gazing’

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

LONDON - The Ancient Egyptians kept close tabs on the Big Dipper, monitoring changes in the constellation’s orientation throughout the course of an entire year, a new research on a 2,400 year old star table has shown.

The Big Dipper is composed of seven stars and is easily viewable in the northern hemisphere. Its shape looks like a ladle with a scoop attached. Ancient Egyptians represented it as an ox’s foreleg.

If a person were to observe the constellation at the exact same time every night they would see it gradually move counter-clockwise each time they saw it.

Professor Sarah Symons, of McMaster University in Hamilton Canada, carried out the new research. The star table she analyzed is located inside the lid of a 2,400 year old granite sarcophagus, constructed in the shape of a bull, which is now in the Egyptian Museum, reports The Heritage Key.

The table is, “unique, though interesting, a very provocative astronomical object,” she said.

Indeed the sarcophagus dates to the 30th dynasty, an important period in Egyptian history. It is the last point of time in antiquity where Egypt would be ruled by native born rulers.

Inside the sarcophagus there is an astronomical table, a section of which has rows that show the foreleg of an ox in a wide range of different positions. “It’s quite a jumble,” Symons said.

This section, although confusing to read, includes notation for the three Egyptian seasons, Akhet, Peret and Shemu. Each season is broken down into four months. It also has symbols representing the beginning, middle and end of the night - although it isn’t known at what exact time these points would have been set.

“(Its) location throughout the course of the night, across the course of the year, was important for them to report.”

Symons decided to focus on the orientation of the forelegs, re-drawing them as arrows. When she did this a pattern started to appear.

“In general the motion that it follows is the counter-clockwise motion that we would expect.”

But there were problems. Over the course of a year the forelegs sometimes went the wrong way - as if the stars had stopped obeying the rules of astronomy. She believes that this was a scribal error, caused by someone writing down the information in the wrong format.

When the observations were first made they were written on papyrus and the months were probably organized into columns. On the other hand they were written in as rows on the sarcophagus.

“What happens to our table if we just keep all the months together?” And work with them as columns, she wondered. She found that the table had fewer errors and the information fell into place.

“Overall the motion is counter-clockwise throughout the year in general,” she said.

The results were presented at an Egyptology symposium in Toronto. (ANI)

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