Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Ancient European Astronomy

From the BBC's Horizon programme :
NARRATOR: Mapping the stars has been one of the great achievements of humankind. It is a task that has obsessed scholars and scientists for thousands of years. But no one knows when or where he first started to understand their movement, or write this knowledge down. What is for sure is that in the civilisations of the eat Egyptians and Babylonians depicted their important constellations as animals. But realistic star images did not appear until 1400 BC in Egypt. These had always been considered to be the oldest known to man. But all that seemed to have just changed. Everything now hung on the exact age of the disc. Was it really older than anything found before? Could it really date from before 1400 BC? Because the disc was made of metal they were unable to use the most accurate technique, carbon dating. So they turned to another method called associative dating. The disc had been found in the same hole and had the same soil level as two swords. Swords of a very particular design. The idea was that the age of these swords and the disc could be fixed. By comparing them with similar objects that had been successfully carbon dated. So Meller examined the swords in minute detail, and then he compared those details with every known type of Bronze Age sword. Eventually he came across pictures of swords that looked exactly like those from the hoard, and the date was stunning.

Nebra Star DiskDR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): Using the swords we could securely date the disc to 1600 BC.

NARRATOR: 1600 BC, it made the Nebra Sky disc the oldest accurate picture of the night sky in all history. Two hundred years older than the oldest images found in Egypt.

DR HARALD MELLER (ENGLISH TRANSLATION): The disc is the earliest concrete astronomical representation of the stars in the sky. It's the first representation of the universe in human history.
Prof MIRANDA ALDHOUSE GREEN: We can see that what is represented is something which marks the summer and the little solstices at sunrise and sunset. So an immensely complex picture is beginning to build up.
I've been of the view that the Late Neolithic and early Bronze-Age people of Northern Europe were considerably more advanced in the asronomical sciences that they're usually given credit for. Many of the megalithic monuments still standing from Brittany to the Orkneys can best be explained not as religious works, but as astronomical computers rather more advanced than a Sundial (also an astronomical computer, a simple one), but still just as elementally easy in operation.

Silbury HillI first came to this view when standing atop Silbury Hill, a few months before we left the UK for Australia. I'd been helping out my Dad with some surveying work - holding a Surveyor's Pole doesn't call for much knowledge, and a 10-year-old son is quite handy - and we'd recently visited Stonehenge.

It was obvious to a Surveying Engineer that to lay out Stonehenge accurately required at least 3 observation points on the horizon. Now Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is located, has some good sites, high ground near the horizon, except in one direction: that of Avebury.

So you need a hill, just high enough to be visible on the horizon from Stonehenge, in the close vicinity of Avebury. Finding just such a man-made hill, made as a Ziggurat from easily workeable earth, and exactly the right height, would seem to be more than just a coincidence.
Silbury Hill, part of the complex of Neolithic monuments around Avebury in Wiltshire (which includes the West Kennet long barrow), is the tallest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe and one of the world's largest. On a base covering over 2 hectares (5 acres), it rises 39.6m (130ft) high. It is a display of immense technical skill and prolonged control over labour and resources. Archaeologists calculate that Silbury Hill was built about 4600 years ago and that it took 18 million man-hours to dump and shape 248,000 cubic metres (8.75 million cu ft) of earth on top of a natural hill. Every man, woman and child in Britain today could together build such a mound if they each contributed one bucketful of earth.
The base of the monument is 167m (550ft) in diameter and it is perfectly round. Its summit is flat-topped and 30m (100ft) wide. We know that the construction took two phases: soon after work was started, a re-design was ordered, and the mound enlarged. It is constructed in steps, each step being filled in with packed chalk, and then smoothed off.
Any Engineer will recognise that phenomenon : a re-work due to a requirements change, and possible de-scoping due to cost.

It came as no surprise that the archealogical dig (just about to start when we got there) later failed to find anything of note, but did comclusively date the construction project to 1600BC. It's a surveyor's mound, made as cheaply and simply as possible (on top of an existing hill), and in the only place it could be, and at the same time as Stonehenge.

From a review of Stonehenge Decoded :
Stonehenge was constructed from about 1900BC to 1600BC. Appendix B tells how the movement of stones once each year from an initial fixed position will predict accurately every important lunar event for hundreds of years. This computer would need resetting about once every 300 years by advancing the stones by one space. Mankind generally used the cycle of the moon as a unit of timekeeping.

The most significant Stonehenge positions line up to point to some unique sun of moon position (Figure 12). Chapter 7 tell how they used an IBM 704 computer in 1961 to plot the Stonehenge positions (120 pairs of points) and calculated where the lines would hit the sky (p.105). Chapter 9 asks if the Aubrey holes can be proved to have been used as a computer? No, but it is the most reasonable solution proposed so far.
We don't need to posit Religious Devotion as the motive for building such simple computers. No need to invoke legends of "King Sil" or "King Arthur" for that matter. In an agrarian society, knowing when to plant to get statistically maximum yield was a matter of life-and-death.

The massive volcanic eruption of Santorini in 1628BC did in the great Minoan civilisation, but the climatic changes it engendered made life very difficult indeed in Northern Europe, for decades. Constructing this was a matter of Urgency.

It would only be reasonable to assume that other matters were also ruled by celestial cycles (there are few newspapers in our more enlightened age today that don't ahve an Astrology column). These "great mysterious circles" that are found throughout Northern Europe are simple calculators, as cheaply and easily made as they can be. Some may even be cheap knock-offs, made in imitation of the originals by later peoples who didn't understand the theory, and just aped the outside trappings.

Meanwhile, at about this time ( 1600 BC ), the Old Kingdom Hittites were battling the Mycenean Greeks (The Siege of Troy was nearly 400 years in the future). Paleo-Acheans whose word for those who don't speak their language and appear to say "Bar-Bar-Bur" has decended down to us. "Barbarians". I have no idea as to how advanced these "Barbarians" were in Music, Poetry, Philosophy or the Arts. But the evidence is now getting fairly conclusive that they were quite competent Astronomers and Engineers.

One of the great Raw Materials of the time - the equivalent of Oil today - was Tin. This comparitively rare metal is essential in making Bronze. And one of the easiest mined sources of Tin in Europe at the time was Cornwall. Mines have been found dating back to 2100BC, and the place was in full production around 1500BC. A sunken ship loaded with Cornish Tin ingots has been found, dated to about 1750 BC. Cornish Tin has been found all over Europe and the Middle East, so it would be unsurprising if the first great Egyptian Astronomers of around 1400BC hadn't had some contact via centuries-old, established trade routes, with these Northern Barbarians.

UPDATE : More on Stonehenge and associated topics (with lots of Link-y goodness) from Rocket Jones. Who can accurately describe himself as a Lapsed Druid.

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