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Archaeoastronomy - Introduction

Archaeoastronomy can be defined as the study of the astronomical practices,  mythologies, religions and world-views of all ancient cultures. Archaeoastronomy, in essence, is the "anthropology of astronomy", to distinguish it from the "history of astronomy".  Vast majority of the great monuments and ceremonial constructions of early civilizations were astronomically aligned. The accurate cardinal orientation of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt or the Venus alignment of the magnificent Maya Palace of the Governor at Uxmal in Yucatan are outstanding examples.

Astronomical knowledge of the ancient builders can be divided into three areas:

  • cosmology, dealing with the physical shape of the world and the Universe,
  • cyclic phenomena, things with a repetitive nature detectable by observation alone, and
  • non-cyclic phenomena, generally rare events known to be significant to many cultures.
Cosmology Cyclic Phenomena Non-cyclic Phenomena
Celestial sphere Equinoxes and solstices Comets
Celestial equator Lunar eclipses Fireballs (bolides)
Celestial pole Solar eclipses Meteorite impacts
Pole star Motion of inferior planets Meteor storms
Ecliptic Motion of superior planets Supernovae
Pole of the ecliptic Heliacal risings and settings Auroras
Constellations Achronal risings and settings  
Cardinal directions Meteor showers  
Spherical Earth Comets  
  Precession of the pole  
  Precession of the equinoxes  
  Length of year (non-integral)  
  Lunar standstills  

It is important to realize that recognition of phenomena is different from understanding causes. Furthermore, related phenomena might be seen as unrelated: precession of the pole and precession of the equinoxes might be seen as separate phenomena; the connection between comets and meteor showers might not be made. [ ].

The precise and sometimes puzzling orientation of the ancient structures can be explained by understanding that their primary function was to serve as observation platforms for priests working with the calendar. The stone structures were perfectly constructed for predicting and sighting a wide variety of astronomical alignments including the solstices and precession of the equinoxes. 

The best examples are the Mesoamerican pyramids constructed as an astronomical matrix with purpose of calibration of the most important dates in the year. 

Conceptually, the Maya already had the model of the sun's behavior on which to predicate their observations. Its northernmost stopping point marked the summer solstice, which in turn established the beginning date for the 52-day count which fixed "the day the world began" -- i.e., August 13. If they could locate a similar position for the moon -- its northernmost setting point -- perhaps that would allow them to begin the count which would eventually reveal the secrets of the eclipse cycle.

Pinning down the movement of the sun, irregular as it was with respect to the Long Count, was like child's play for the Maya compared to their struggle to understand the movements of the moon. Once again their failure to recognize the concept of fractions obliged them to undertake lengthy counts of cycles in the hope of eventually finding two periods which coincided in nice, whole integers. A case in point is the length of a lunation, the period of time between two successive new moons. The Maya obviously realized that it was not 29 days, but it also was not 30 days. Attempting to describe a time period which was actually 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds in length was for them a philosophical impossibility. Yet, after they had counted 149 "moons" in a row they realized that exactly 12 tuns and 4 uinals had elapsed, or a total of 4400 days; they were then confident that the cycle would begin over again, with the moon occupying the same position it had had relative to the sun when the cycle began. That they could do so with reasonable assurance is demonstrated by the fact that 4400 days divided by 149 lunations yields an average of 29.5302 days per lunation -- a value less than 0.0004 at variance with that used by modern astronomers!





Many ancient ruins demonstrate that the people who constructed them had not only a special regard for celestial bodies and mathematics, but also a spot-on accuracy. From Egypt to Mexico, there is no doubt that past civilizations were involved in incredibly complex space calculations, mathematics and architectural endeavours. Although many historians and archaeologists debate exactly what these civilizations did intentionally and what they did by mere chance, here are a few examples of how ancient architecture was created with mathematics and the cosmos in mind.

In Giza there are many examples of attention to spatial coordinates. For instance, the Great Pyramid’s faces are aligned with the four cardinal directions almost perfectly. In fact, they are less than 0.2 of a degree off. The pyramid is very precise, with the corners as little as two seconds of a degree (with 60 seconds in a minute of a degree, and 60 minutes in a degree) off of a 90-degree angle. In addition to this (although contested), the pyramids at Giza seem to match the stars of Orion’s belt with a certain precision.

The Site of Teotihuacan, “The Pyramid of the Sun,” as it has been dubbed, demonstrates advanced math. The pyramid’s base has a perimeter of 2932.8 feet, while the pyramid has a height of about 233.5 feet. If we take the ratio of base to height, we get about 12.56, or rather, 4p. Although to some this is thought to be a coincidence, the pyramid’s actual ratio is less than 0.05 per cent off of the true value for 4p.

The ancient Mayan site of Chichen Itza exemplifies the culture’s celestial orientation. The huge step pyramid (the pyramid of Kukulcan) that is the focus of the site has 91 steps on each of its sides, which add up to 364 steps. Adding the platform on top, there are 365 steps in total — the number of days in a year. Also, on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (the first day of spring and fall, when day and night are the same length of time), the sunlight works to create a shadow of a giant serpent on the staircase that faces north.

A building called the Caracol, believed to have served as an observatory, is also found at the site of Chichen Itza. The windows are set up to align with certain points of interest. Although the top is damaged, remaining windows point to the northern- and southern-most positions of Venus, the position of sunset on the Equinoxes, and the corners of the building itself point to the sunrises and sets of the solstices.

The Mayans had a sophisticated calendar, losing only one day in 6000 years. Their predictions of solar and lunar eclipses were incredibly accurate. As many have heard, they predicted a date that they believed would be the end of the world. This date, translated to our calendar, is on December 23, 2012. Although unlikely, the world is predicted to suddenly end in about seven years (if we have just translated the meaning of their calendar correctly).

The Mayans did have some rationale behind this number. This date marks the time in the precessional cycle of the earth that we will move out of the constellation of Pisces and on to the age of Aquarius.

What is global precession? I’m glad you asked. Everyone knows that the earth spins on its axis while it revolves around the sun. Most remember from grade 10 science class that the earth’s axis is not perfectly vertical, but rather tilted about 23.5 degrees. However, the axis is not always this way, as it slowly varies from about 24.5 degrees to 22.1 degrees, making a complete cycle every 41,000 years.

While it is moving in this way, due to varying gravitational forces, the axis wobbles (precesses) in a clockwise circle. Just imagine the way the axis of a top spins as it begins to fall. So, the angle of the earth stays the same (or somewhere within its three degree variance), but the direction in which it points changes. For example, our current North Star is Polaris (or Ursae Minoris), as the North Pole points towards this star. However, approximately 13,000 years ago, the North Pole would have pointed towards the star Vega, as it will do again in about another 13,000 years. It takes about 25,776 years to complete one precessional cycle.

Anyone ever heard of the song “Age of Aquarius”? Well, this is in reference to the earth’s precessional cycle. Presently we are in the age of Pisces, which means that when the sun rises on the vernal equinox it rises in the direction that the constellation of Pisces is in the sky. However, due to precession, every 2160 years on the vernal equinox the sun rises in a different constellation. As mentioned above, we will be moving out of the age of Pisces and into the age of Aquarius around the end of 2012.

So, the Mayans figured there was something important to the changing of ages, hence their predicted death date. However, they are not the only ones who seem to have taken certain numbers into account. The perimeter of the Great Pyramid at Giza is approximately 3,023 feet and the height is 481 feet. In addition to exemplifying a ratio of exactly 2p, its measurements are said to possibly represent the Northern Hemisphere of the earth, on a scale of 1 : 43,200. Though controversial, some interpret this number as exactly 20 times the precessional number of 2160, representing the precession of the earth through 20 different zodiac constellations or ‘ages.’

These examples of precessional numbers, mathematics and celestial orientations found in ancient structures by no means scratch the surface of all of the occurrences (or at least, proposed occurrences) present at various historical sites, and even in cultural songs and myths. Whether or not various theories or speculations concerning these spectacular constructions are true or not (and we may never know), the meticulous precision that was put into planning, calculating and building them is hard to ignore, not to mention awe-inspiring.

And we think we’re advanced...


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Mesoamerican Archaeoastronomy
Using the summer solstice to calibrate the secular calendar

By about 1000 B.C., knowledge of the calendars and the principle of solsticial orientation had spread into the Olmec metropolitan area and priests had come up with a formula for recording when the zenithal sun was passing overhead at Izapa!

In reality, the formula was as simple as it was ingenious. The problem at San Lorenzo had been that the priests had no way of knowing when it was August 13, because in their part of the world the zenithal passage of the sun did not occur on that date. Thus, they had settled on using one of the solstices instead, because the date of the sun's turning point was the same everywhere, they had discovered. Whereas at San Lorenzo they were obliged to use the winter solstice sunset to calibrate their calendar, when La Venta was founded it appears that they could once more think in terms of the summer solstice, as had originally been done in Izapa. Indeed, the only difference was that instead of marking the sunrise as they did at Izapa, they were obliged to use the sunset at La Venta.

Once back in the mental groove of using the summer solstice to calibrate the secular calendar, it would not have been long before some priest realized that the beginning date of the sacred almanac can itself be calibrated by reference to the summer solstice. In effect, he was recognizing that, if the solstice occurred on June 22 and the "beginning of time" occurred on August 13, there was a fixed interval of time between these two dates. Using our modern calendar to demonstrate his thought process, we would count 8 days to complete the month of June, add 31 more for the month of July, and then count 13 until the sunset of August 13, yielding a total of 52 days. (For anyone used to thinking in "bundles" of 20's and 13's, what a neat package this was -- 4 rounds of 13 days = 52 days.) Thus, no matter where one wanted to build a ceremonial center, one could always find out when it was August 13. All that was required was to count 52 days from the time that the sun turns around in the north and mark the horizon at sunset!

With the discovery of the Long Count with its "grand cycle" of 5125 years, Olmecs had a means of defining every day that passed as being absolutely unique. And the position of every day within that round of 13 baktuns, or 1,872,000 days, was numbered consecutively from "the beginning."
The imprecision of the Short Count,  or defining a day within a given 52-year period, was gone. Human life spans lost their meaning when compared to the "life spans" of the sun, moon, and stars, and of the celestial rhythms which governed their movements.   (Learn more about The Long Count-  Astronomical Precision ).

Aztec Calendar, one of the most accurate calendars ever invented,
on display at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City, Mexico

Although both the 260-day sacred almanac and the 365-day secular calendar predated the Maya by well over a millennium, and the "principle" of using key calendar dates to define urban locations and the Long Count itself had likewise been developed by the Olmecs several centuries before the Maya emerged as a civilized society, it was the latter who seized upon these intellectual tools and honed them to the highest level of sophistication of any of the native peoples of Mesoamerica.

In the flat and featureless landscape of Yucatán, it had been a rather simple matter to lay out a new city oriented to the sunset on "the day the world began" because the "summer solstice + 52 days" formula had already been developed.


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Egyptian Archaeoastronomy

The astronomical ceiling from Senenmut's tomb

Below, the astronomical ceiling from Chamber A, TT353; it is the oldest astronomical presentation known - the next one was found in the tomb of Sethi I. - and naturally, it is the only one in a private tomb (from Dorman, 1991).

The astronomical ceiling from Chamber A,
Tomb TT353, the second tomb built by Senenmut.
This image leaves no doubt that ancient Egyptians
had great knowledge of astronomy.
[ Image Source ]

The ceiling is divided into two sections representing the northern and the southern skies. The southern - upper part shown in the picture above - is decorated with a list of decanal stars, as well as constellations of the southern sky belonging to it like Orion and Sothis (Sopdet). Furthermore, the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury and Venus are shown and associated deities who are traveling in small boats over the sky. Thus, the southern ceiling marks the hours of the night.

The northern - lower part - shows constellations of the northern sky with the large bear in the center. The other constellations could not be identified. On the right and left of it there are 8 or 4 circles shown and below them several deities each carrying a sun disk towards the center of the picture. The inscriptions associated with the circles mark the original monthly celebrations in the lunar calendar, whereas the deities mark the original days of the lunar month (after Meyer, 1982).

The astronomical ceiling is divided along its east-west axis by a text band composed of five registers. The central line which is wider than the other four registers bears together the titles of Hatshepsut and some titles as well as the name of Senenmut. The text reads from the right to the left :

"Live, Horus powerful of k#s, Two- Ladies flourishing of years, Horus-of-Gold divine of appearnances, king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maat-ka-Ra, beloved of Amun-Ra, living; the sealbearer of the king of Lower Egypt (sD#wtj-bitj), the steward of Amun (jmj-r# pr n Jmn) Senenmut, engendered of Ramose (Ro-ms), justified, born of Hatnefret ("#t-nfrt)."


Dendera's Zodiac

The Egyptian Temple of Dendera, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, is thought to have been constructed by the Ptolemies in the first century BC, but on the site of an earlier temple. It contains two zodiacs: a rectangular zodiac, carved in the ceiling of the hypostyle hall, and a circular zodiac, about 8 feet across, found on the ceiling of a chapel on the temple roof.

The zodiacs have been the subject of great controversy and have been interpreted in many different ways. They were probably intended to record more than one important date.

Archeologists consider the 'Circular Zodiac' to have been crafted c 30 BC, and hence it is an Egyptian representation of the Greek astrological view.

Original Dendera's Zodiac (photo above) is placed in museum in Louvre, Paris.  Copy of this zodiac is in Dendera.

A version, colored by an unknown artist
of the drawing of the 'circular zodiac' from an unknown source.

A version, colored by an unknown artist
of the drawing of the 'circular zodiac' from an unknown source.
Click to enlarge.

Read more (external link)>>


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Appendix 1: Angular Coordinates


Two angular coordinates are used to specify geographic position:

  • latitude, an angle in the plane containing poles and place; and
  • longitude, an angle in the plane parallel to the equatorial plane and containing the place (Stebbing, 1956:2-4.)


The altitude of the visible celestial pole above the horizon (measured in degrees) is equal to the absolute value of the geographical latitude.

If you observe the sky from the Earth's northern hemisphere, the North Celestial Pole is located northwards, and the stars (apparently) rotate about it counter-clockwise. If you are on the southern hemisphere, you can see the South Celestial Pole in southern direction, and the stars (apparently) rotate about it clockwise.

If you were to stand at the North or South Pole, the visible celestial pole would appear directly overhed to you. If you were at the equator, however, the two celestial poles would appear to be on the horizon.

The line on the surface of the earth through the place and both poles is called the meridian of the place: it is a half-circle since the earth is spherical. The angle subtended at the earth's centre by the arc of the meridian between the place and equator is the latitude of the place. It is measured in degrees, minutes and seconds from 0 degrees at the equator to 90 degrees north or south at the respective poles. The angle between the plane of the meridian of the place and the plane of a prime or reference meridian is the longitude. It is measured in degrees, minutes and seconds, and runs from 0 degrees at prime to 180 degrees east or west according to the direction taken from prime (Williams, 1992:11). Thus 180 degrees east and 180 degrees west coincide; this meridian is co-planar with prime (0 degrees) and is the International Date Line along most of its length. Latitude is conventionally quoted first in giving position, but north/south and east/west label them unequivocally. (Some nautical tables etc may speak of latitude as a distance, but the coordinates actually refer to angles as above. Two places a degree apart in latitude are 70 miles apart north-south wherever they are on the globe between equator and pole; but for single degree differences in longitude the distance apart varies (maximum at the equator to zero at the pole).

Thus latitude alone defines all the points where a plane parallel to the equatorial plane meets the surface of the earth. Longitude along defines all the points along a meridian. Both are needed to specify a single point (Stebbing, 1956:1-7).

The problem for all navigators is that the sun and stars can be used to calculate the latitude north or south of the equator but not the easterly or westerly position that is, the longitude (Berthon and Robinson, 1991:117).

The Ease of Determining Latitude

The means to calculate latitude were mastered during ancient times. For example, Pytheas (c.300BC) was able to calculate the latitude of his home town Marseilles to an accuracy of approximately a quarter of a degree (Williams, 1992:9).

Sailors have long been able to determine latitude fairly easily and with comparative accuracy (Williams, 1992:9). In the northern hemisphere the Pole Star is in line with the earth’s axis, that is, it is always north at every point and latitude can then be calculated by the observation of this star. Other bodies had to be observed un the southern hemisphere when European mariners crossed the equator.

The Difficulty of Determining Longitude

In contrast to latitude, the means of accurately calculating longitude at sea was long elusive. Not until 1714 was there an accurate way of determing longitude even on land, let along at sea where waves made accurate measurements difficult. The best that sailors could do was to calculate their displacement east-west by using a process of intelligent guess work called "dead-reckoning." Given that this ‘reckoning’ had to be adjusted for the effects of wind and sea in carrying a ship off-course and that these effects (called leeway and drift respectively) could not be accurately and reliably measured it was, as Quill (1966:2) observes, "a most hazardous way of navigating."

As the earth rotates, each meridian passes directly beneath the sun, which has maximum altitude at noon each day along the whole of that meridian. Noon is thus earliest at 180 degrees east and latest at 180 degrees west, these meridians being considered, for this purpose, to be not quite coincident. There is in fact 24 hours difference: the earth takes 24 hours to rotate, that is, describe 360 degrees, so it covers 1 degree in 4 minutes, 15 degrees in each hour and 360 degrees in 24 hours (Quill, 1966:4). Thus degrees of the angle, that is longitude, can be rendered as periods of time, the difference between local and prime time (the time at the reference or zero meridian).

Clocks at prime and the unknown place can be used to measure longitude. Observed noon at the place serves as one clock and the other, an actual clock carried on board, gives the simultaneous time at prime provided it has kept accurate time since being set. Time difference in hours/24 x 360 = longitude in degrees.

This simple conversion was to solve the problem of determining longitude, but it called for accurate timepieces, so it was only theoretically possible for centuries.

Measuring Lunar Positions and Distances

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was realised that if the changes in the position of the earth’s moon could be observed and then compared to the lunar tables prepared in Paris or London, then, theoretically, longitude could be calculated. However, science during this time was simply not sufficiently rigorous to be able to achieve the necessary accuracy required for the calculations. Newton himself observed that the "accuracy of the lunar tables was between two and three degrees of longitude - no better than dead reckoning." (Berthon and Robinson, 1991:120).

After 1767 sailors began seeking to calculate longitude at sea by measuring the distances of particular stars from the moon, that is, the lunar distance method. The greater accuracy that was required to achieve this led to the development of the sextant for use at sea after about 1770. The name of the sextant refers to the actual arc but not to the angle that can be measured. More accurate than the octant, sextants were produced in great numbers during the 1800s onwards. Navigators with the more wealthy companies such as the East India Company typically used a sextant (Turner, 1980: 34).

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