Ancient History & Civilisation

1. Finding Our Place in the Cosmos: The Role of Astronomy In Ancient Cultures

Juan Antonio Belmonte, Ph.D.

Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Vía Láctea S.N., 38200 La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain.


Mircea Eliade (1992) argued that a single view of the starry celestial vault would be sufficient to awake a religious experience. This idea is as true today as in the remote past. Hence, the starry sky has often served as a source of inspiration not just for science, but metaphysics, art, and the creation of symbols of power and identity. Ancient astronomer priests found that uncovering their mysteries allowed, through the mapping of heavens, made possible the development of calendars and navigation. Consequently, astronomy developed as the best tool for determining an accurate and predictable orientation in time and space. Today, as yesterday, starry nights are able to awake our imagination and continue to inspire a desire to discover our place in the cosmos.

1. Finding Our place in the Cosmos: the Role of Cultural Astronomy

Today as in ancient times, astronomers seeking to observe the heavens have journeyed to the summits of the highest mountains, because these are the places where conditions are best suited for astronomical observation. Be it lonely mountain top, or desert, these sites are places which inspire feelings of awe and majesty; a fitting back drop to admire the wonders of the universe. Few specialists have not rested at these ancient observational outposts, under the seemingly endless tapestry of stars, and have not been amazed by their beauty and splendour, because a single view of the starry celestial vault would be sufficient to awake a religious −I would rather say spiritual− experience.

Our ancestors also selected high mountains to study the stars, ideal places from where communication between Earth and Sky was believed possible: the Axes Mundi where feelings of cosmic reality could be experienced. These stars in their endless cycle, returning again and again as they circled the heavens, provided a sense of security, inferring by similarity, rebirth and the transcendence of death. For these and other reasons ancient peoples mapped the firmament in an attempt to find the order where, only in appearance, chaos reigned.

From the mists of time emerged the fully “modern” Cro-Magnon people, Homo sapiens sapiens, with a brain larger on some occasions than modern humans, and the males standing 6 foot tall compared to the shorter Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis with their apparent inability to produce any semblance of art (Joseph 2002). Cro-Magnon were burying their dead, and creating “Venus” figurines, some representing Earth goddess pregnant with swollen belly, one of them holding a symbol of what might be the moon in her hand (see Fig. 1). Joseph (2002) has argued that the 13 lines cut in this presumable lunar symbol may represent an understanding of the link between women and moon; a woman having nearly 13 menstrual periods and the 13 new-moon cycles in a solar year.


Figure 1. The Venus of Laussel is a 1.5 foot high figurine cut in limestone, between 25,000 to 30,000 years in age. Image courtesy of Joseph (2002).

Thus, we should not be surprised that the rock art in Lascaux (French Dordogne) depict what may be the oldest drawings of the constellations (Antequera, 1994; Rappenglueck, 1999), created more than 16,000 years ago, with the ubiquitous Pleiades −the most international asterism of the firmament (see Fig. 2)− already riding on the back of the great celestial bull (see Fig. 3).


Figure 2. The asterism of the Pleiades. Easily observable at naked-eye, this object has been recognized possibly since the Palaeolithic by every human culture on Earth from Greenland to New Zealand. Image from IAC Archive.


Figure 3. The main freeze of the bulls in the Lascaux Cave in Dordogne. There is a group of dots on the back of the great bull that has seldom and tentatively been identified with the Pleiades. The bull itself would be the earliest representation of Taurus constellation. Photograph by courtesy of M. Rappenglueck.


Figure 4. General view of the remains of Göbekli Tepe, in Turkish Mesopotamia, the oldest stone temple ever erected by human hands. Several of the big excavated circles are visible together with the huge, decorated T-pillars which are most representative of the site. Photograph by courtesy of M. Sanz de Lara.

Until very recent times, the megalithic monuments in Europe, and in particular Stonehenge, were believed to be the earliest evidence that ancient peoples of the Neolithic sought to link the heavens with Earth and to understand the cosmos. However, in the steppes of Southeast Turkey, on a barren isolated hill called Göbekli Tepe −Hill of the Navel−, a team of German and Turkish archaeologists (Schmidt, 2006) have discovered and are excavating a cluster of stone monuments erected with large pillars in the form of a T and dry-stone walls which suggest that a completely unknown hunter-gatherer society more than 11,000 years ago also sought to create monumental structures linked to the heavens. These series of sanctuaries, built presumably one after the other and even upon one another, may have been used for centuries, perhaps millennia to chart the heavens. However, for reasons which are unknown, the constructors deliberately buried the structures, creating conditions which contributed to their excellent state of preservation in spite of their great antiquity.

These monuments are mostly ellipsoidal in form. Although a favourite orientation may be established for the monument gates, there is no apparent selected pattern (see Fig. 4). However, between the group of monuments, there is one with nearly rectangular walls which were almost perfectly aligned according to the four cardinal points. These discoveries suggest that over 11,000 years ago, an ancient society had gazed into the heavens and used the sky to guide them in the appropriate ways of orientation in space and in time.

Although admittedly speculative, the profuse decoration of the T-pillars may represent yet other astronomical observations, such as the crescent and the star, so common in later cultures of the Middle East and beyond, and an earlier version of which might appear in the Venus figurine which may have been carved over 15,000 years earlier. Then there are what could be interpreted as totemic representations of animals which, if we may continue to speculate, could symbolize constellations, as Leo, Taurus or Scorpios. Certainly these constellations were recognized in the skies of other evolved cultures in the region such as the Sumerians, and their Assyrians and Babylonians heirs, thousands of years later (see Fig. 5).

However, when analyzing the date of Göbekli Tepe, we are facing a problem: their singularity. There is no other preserved monument of the same type where data can be contrasted. From my point of view, scientific research −as jurisprudence, from where the expression is original− should be guided by the premise testis unus, testis nullus. This rule confirms that a single proof of something is like a proof of nothing and we must be very cautious of risking in too adventurous conclusions. Stonehenge was a typical example of this reality. Its singularity made of it, at the beginning in the 1960s, a Neolithic calculator, a predictor of eclipses, or, in short, the oldest “observatory” known (see Ruggles, 1999, for a critical discussion on the topic). However, more recent archaeological studies carried out on site, and in other similar planimetry monuments, have forced contemporary researchers to be much more cautious about their conclusions. Now Stonehenge is interpreted as a funerary monument which includes astronomical alignments among its design, linked to possible ritual purposes associated with the cosmovision of its builders (Parker Pearson, 2008).


Figure 5. A well-preserved kudurru of King Melishipak of Babylon showing several celestial bodies and some of the earliest unmistakable representations of constellations such as the goat-fish, ancestor of Capricornus. Photograph by Juan A. Belmonte by courtesy of the Louvre Museum.


Figure 6. A beautiful snapshot of the Cueva de Menga, the largest megalithic tomb of Europe. Topographically aligned to a distant conspicuous peak −perhaps also according to the moon−, it belongs, however, to a group of monuments with undoubted astronomical orientations. Photograph by courtesy of M.A. Checa Torres, Parque Arqueológico de los Dólmenes de Antequera.

Actually, when we look at illiterate, extinct cultures, the only way to get a certain degree of confidence in our conclusions is when we analyze multiple but similar items −either monuments or portable objects− within a same archaeological or cultural context, especially when we are able to find a pattern. In this sense, the earliest unmistakable evidence of an interest in the local landscape, including the sky, can be found throughout the megalithic monuments of the Iberian Peninsula (see Fig. 6), notably in the south-western area. In these regions, Neolithic settlers built a series of monuments with a very similar architectural structure −they almost are clones of each other. These are known as Alentejan antas, for the name of the Portuguese region where they are a majority. They have been dated in the fourth millennium B.C. Most important, they show a pattern of orientation that clearly speaks to us of a unmistakable astronomical interest, because all the studied exemplars, without exception (more than 170, Hoskin 2001), are pointing at sunrise −or moonrise in a naïve alternative interpretation (González García and Belmonte, 2010)− at a certain moment in the annual cycle. It is difficult to uniquely establish if the pattern is solar or lunar, as the only movable elements found in the antas, the “plaque idols” −small schist plates with elaborated geometrical decoration−, show patterns illustrating the interest of their builders in both the sidereal month and the seasonal cycle. Summarizing, Alentejan antas certainly show a clear, statistically significant, intention for an orientation in space −for whatever purposes possibly related to an astral eschatology. They also show an orientation to time −perhaps associated with the existence of a lunisolar calendar (Belmonte and Hoskin, 2002).


Figure 7. The large deer of Laxe dos Carballos in Campo Lameiro. The number of tips in their antlers, and the way in which they are distributed, could be a sort of astronomical count. For example, we might postulate a three-year lunisolar cycle (37 lunar months in 3 solar years) if we take into account the three isolated stripes, close to the top of the right horn. Photograph by Juan A. Belmonte.

The existence of a lunisolar calendar related to prehistoric populations of the west façade of the Iberian Peninsula has been recently confirmed by the work carried out in the rock engravings of Galicia, the north-western, Celtic origin, region of Spain. There, among beautiful representations of abstract figurative elements and animals such as deers of different sizes and typologies, our team has conducted an extensive investigative analysis. For example, a collection of large deers, with horns of exceptional proportions with too many tips, suggests that this could be a symbolic representation of astronomical counts −a sort of lunisolar calendar−, showing a fairly accurate knowledge of the movements of the Sun and the Moon (see Fig. 7). The existence of multiple representations with a similar symbology further supports this hypothesis (González García, García Quintela and Belmonte, 2008; Belmonte, García Quintela and González García, 2010). However, the lack of written texts, or any other sort of ethnographic or ethnohistoric information, prevents us from going much further in our conclusions.

Fortunately, there are cultures where we are lucky enough to have such important information. In this respect, the partnership between archaeoastronomical fieldwork along with decades of ethnographic information, collected by anthropologist Edmundo Edwards in Easter Island, has allowed us to establish, without doubt, the importance of certain asterisms in the culture of Rapa Nui −singularly Matariki (the Pleiades) or Tautoru (Orion’s Belt, see Fig. 8). This circumstance would be reflected in the related orientation of some of Rapa Nui’s major ceremonial platforms, the ahus, with their huge statues called moais. The celestial symbolism of the local art and the creation of a calendar that, both in its sacred and profane character, came determined by the visibility or invisibility of these celestial bodies at certain epochs of the year (Edwards and Belmonte, 2004). Part of these conclusions may be nuanced by the chronological difference between the last ahu constructors, in the 17th century, and their current descendants. Unfortunately, the original texts in rongorongo tablets, remain undeciphered so that we can not “speak” to the own sculptors of the moais.


Figure 8. The seven moai of Ahu A Kivi facing the sea at the helical setting of Tautoru (Orion´s Belt) as seen c. 1300 A.D. This astronomical event was one of the markers of the New Year starting in the following new moon of the rapanui calendar. Image by J.A. Belmonte & SMM/IAC. (From Edwards and Belmonte, 2004).


Figure 9. The evocative “descent of Kukulkan” produced each equinox on one of the steps of American’s most famous pyramid, El Castillo, at Chichen Itza. The monument had to be orientated accordingly. Photograph by courtesy of Jesús Galindo Trejo.


Figure 10. Three Mayan glyphs representing Star Wars. These were normally related to certain attacks upon an enemy city when Venus was at a significant position in the sky. Diagram by courtesy of I. Šprajc.

However, there are a certain number of ancient civilizations, with close ties to sky-watching practices, which fortunately left written texts that thanks to the expertise of linguists we are now able to read and understand. Two unique and illustrative cases would be the Mayan culture and the civilization of ancient Egypt. Based on recently deciphered glyphs, we now know that the Mayan civilization was obsessed by the concept of and the desire to control time. Moreover, most of this civilizations sacred buildings follow orientation patterns which are governed by their most sophisticated calendar system (see Fig. 9); and these celestial calendars promoted actions, as the so-called Star Wars (see Fig. 10), in conjunction with unique events associated with the movement of planets and stars in the heavens (Šprajc, 2001 and 2005).


Figure 11. Schematic diagram where we show the astronomical and topographical relationships between the different monuments erected in the Giza Plateau, notably the Sphinx and the pyramids, and certain elements of the sky or nearby geography. The topographic relation with Letopolis and Heliopolis is quite suggestive. However, in this diagram, we additionally relate the original northern orientation of the pyramids, based on the observation of Meskhetyu’s meridian transit, to the similar name of the province which had Letopolis as capital, the Bull’s Foreleg. Astronomical connections of the Sphinx with equinox sunrise and summer solstice sunset (behind Akhet Khufu, the Horizon of Khufu) are also stressed. Finally, the alignment of Khufu’s causeway to Wepet Renpet −New Year’s Eve− during his reign is emphasized. Photographs by Juan A. Belmonte. (From Belmonte and Shaltout, 2009).

The culture that the author has devoted much of his time seeking to understand and to research, as reflected in his writing, and which includes several archaeoastronomical missions in the country, is the Pharaonic civilization of ancient Egypt. Thanks to the texts of the pyramids −collection of religious literature of the Old Kingdom− it is known that the ancient Egyptians had already mapped the sky, recognized constellations, asterisms and unique stars, early in the historic period. Furthermore, they saw these objects as celestial destinations of the late king in a real paradigm of stellar eschatology. One of these groups of stars was Meskhetyu, equivalent to the Plough −or Big Dipper− asterism in the constellation Ursa Major. This group of stars was circumpolar during the Old Kingdom and the ancient Egyptians recognized this nature by including it among the “imperishable” stars (the ikhemu sek of the texts) par excellence. They associated this fact to the transcendence of the afterlife, and to such an extent that the two interchangeably recognized elements in the asterism (a bull’s foreleg or an adze) were intimately related to certain funerary cult ceremonies such as the “opening of the mouth”, which was believed to provide immortality for the deceased. Our fieldwork in the country (Belmonte and Shaltout, 2009), particularly in the fields of pyramids, seem to confirm this fact, especially as Meskhetyu may be the principal celestial object used to align these imposing monuments. Consequently, the architectural arrangement of the pyramids could be a realization in the land of the cosmic order prevailing in the sky (see Fig. 11).


Figure 12. One of our current dreams is to find an exoplanet, or a related moon, with a huge ocean of liquid water where life could survive and evolve. This would probably be the major change in our metaphysical view of nature for generations. Image by courtesy of J. Whatmough.

We could continue ad infinitum our tour of the various forms that have been used to link astronomy and various aspects of culture in the thousands of years of human development. However, we believe that, already at this point, two basic ideas have clearly been expressed in the short essay that I would like to stress as arguable conclusions, indeed open to debate. On the one hand, that the observation of the sky has been, and remains (see Fig. 12), one of the main generators of metaphysics in human thought and, on the other hand, that astronomy has traditionally been the most powerful tool of human beings to reach a proper orientation in time and space. Therefore, our discipline is certainly one of the best guides that humanity had, since the dawn of the species, to find our correct place in the cosmos.


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