#WhitworthAdvent: Out of This World: Ancient Astronomy

Portion of machine printed Star Trek vinyl wallcovering on a black ground. C.1977. From the Crown rainbow collection. © Paramount Pictures corporation. Accession number: W.2011.509 Source: the Whitworth

All being well, today would have seen the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) from Kourou, French Guiana. Unsurprisingly for such a huge undertaking, it has once again been delayed until 22nd December at the earliest. Nervousness about the launch is understandable; once in place at about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth in a fixed orbit with Earth around the sun, there is no chance of repairing it in space if anything goes wrong, unlike the Hubble Space telescope which famously had to be fixed after errors in its construction.    

Webb is the latest in a long line of astronomical observatories stretching back to the earliest days of human history. It will allow us to see further into space, and so further back in time, gathering more information about how our universe formed. It complements the Hubble Space Telescope by making observations unavailable to the instruments on Hubble. Hubble observes the universe in visible and ultraviolet light, returning images of distant galaxies and star-forming nebulae in remarkable detail.  It has assisted in the discovery of extra-solar planets and uncovered evidence for dark matter. Added to this are discoveries about planets within our solar system, such as the appearance of auroras on Jupiter and the possibility of liquid water on two of its moons, Ganymede and Europa.   

Image: Snow Angel Nebula Courtesy of NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Source: NASA

Webb will use instruments sensitive to infrared radiation to gather faint light, revealing in higher resolution the first galaxies that formed, and allowing us to delve further into the mysteries of black holes and other cosmic phenomena. The creation of stars and planetary systems will now be visible through obstructing clouds of cosmic gas and dust, and we will be able to gather detailed information on the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, perhaps allowing us to find evidence for life elsewhere in the universe. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most recent in an extensive history of astronomical instruments, many of them extraordinarily beautiful and awe-inspiring objects in their own right, testament to the millennia we have spent admiring, venerating and exploring the heavens.   

297 – 291 years ago (1724-1730 C.E.) Jantar Mantar, India 

Image: AKS.9955 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maharajah Sawaii Jai Singh II constructed this collection at five locations in northern India, after noticing discrepancies in astronomical tables relating to locally viewed phenomena. Known collectively as Jantar Mantar, they are buildings of unique sculptural forms, each one having a particular function. Only four of the original five survive, in Jaipur, Varanasi, New Delhi and Ujjain. The purpose of the instruments was to measure the paths of the Sun, stars and planets throughout the year, and to predict eclipses. They are designed for naked eye observations and stand at the crossroads of ancient and modern astronomy; at the time these observatories were built, geocentric astronomy was still accepted in many places, and although optical telescopes were being made in Europe their results were often no more precise than what was available using earlier instruments. 

About 600 years ago (1424 C.E) Uzbekistan  

Image: Michel Benoist – Own work, CC BY 2.5, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ulugh Beg (Grandson of Timur Leng) was ruler of the Timurid Empire, and a noted mathematician and astronomer. He founded the Ulugh Beg observatory at Samarkand in 1424, and with it the largest and most accurate astronomical instrument in the world – a meridian arc of 40.2 metres radius, a sextant used for solar, lunar and planetary observations. The observatory and associated Madrasa attracted many scholars interested in high-level astronomical and mathematical research. They compiled the Sulani zij, astronomical tables with an embedded star catalogue that was in use across the world until the 17th century. Two years into his reign, his son assassinated Ulugh Beg; the observatory was abandoned, eventually destroyed and the bricks used for other buildings. It was lost until a Soviet scientist, V.L. Vyatkin excavated the ruins in 1908-8, uncovering what was left of the Fakhri sextant, and some of the foundations. 

826 years ago (1276 C.E.) Gaocheng, China 

Photo takwing.kwong – https://www.flickr.com/photos/takwing/5067023546/, CC BY-SA 2.0, Source: WikimediaCommons

Gaocheng observatory, founded under the orders of Kublai Khan by the eminent astronomer Guo Shoujing in 1276 C.E., was originally intended for the calculation of time and for solar and astral studies. Using this observatory, astronomers accurately computed the length of the year about 300 years before the Gregorian calendar was developed. Gaocheng was a site for astronomy since about 770 B.C.E. and was considered to be the centre of heaven and earth. 

About 2,200 years ago Antikythera mechanism, Greece 

Fragment A. Source: WikimediaCommons

The Antikythera Mechanismwas discovered in 1901 by sponge divers off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, in the wreckage of a ship that had foundered on its way between Crete and the Peloponnese sometime in the first century B.C.E. It appeared to be several lumps of corroded metal, but in 1902 a gear mechanism was identified, and with it a mechanical mystery continued to baffle for over 100 years.  

Fragment A (rear) Source: WikimediaCommons

In 2005, the fragments were scanned using modern X-ray techniques to build up a 3D image, used for creation of several different models to discover how the device worked.  Intensive research has revealed that it is one of the finest pieces of engineering discovered from the ancient world, and its probable function was to predict astronomical phenomena such as planetary movements and the occurrence of solar and lunar eclipses. Further information of on-going research and details of a fascinating documentary about the attempts to reconstruct the mechanism are available at the website http://www.antikythera-mechanism.gr/ 

Antikythera Machine mechanical model. Photo by Mogi Vicentini. Source: WikimediaCommons CC BY 2.5, Guardian article / British Museum exhibition

About 2,300 years ago Chankillo, Peru 

Photo by David Edgar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source: WikimediaCommons

“In July 2021, the Chankillo Archaeoastronomical Complex was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as a masterpiece of human creative genius and an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”World Monument Fund 

Chankillo is the oldest observatory so far found in the Americas, situated in an area of about 4 square kilometres in the coastal desert of Ancash Department, Peru. The Thirteen Towers observatory is in the vicinity of a hilltop fort, housing and meeting areas. It comprises thirteen stone towers on the brow of a hill, running north to south, and is unique in having two observation points at eastern and western positions, meaning that solar positions could be followed over a lunar year. The sun sets and rises at points behind the towers over its course across the horizon, enabling accurate observations for defining important annual events.  

4,500 – 4,000 years ago Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. 

Photo by Chmee2, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source: WikimediaCommons

The Ring of Brodgaronce consisted of 60 stones, in a ditch carved from the sandstone bedrock and precisely arranged at 6-degree intervals in a near-perfect circle in the Ness of Brodgar. They are in an area rich in Neolithic sites, close to the Stones of Stennes and the Maeshowe chambered cairn, some of the oldest monumental locations in the British Isles. From observations of their alignment, they stand in relation to significant calendar dates, such as the solstices, equinoxes and Beltane. Midway between the ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stennes is another huge site first excavated in 2003, adding to the significance of this area as the cultural and ritual heart of the British Isles in the late Neolithic era. 

6,800 – 5,600 years ago Nabta Playa, Egypt/Sudan border 

Image by Raymbetz, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source: WikimediaCommons

Nabta Playa, in the Nubian Desert 100km west of Abu Simbel, was at one time a fruitful seasonal flood plain, home to an advanced urban culture. It was occupied for several thousand years and many homes, megalithic monuments and underground tombs were constructed there. The stone circle is aligned to indicate the coming of seasonal rains at the midsummer solstice and to mark star arrangements used for travel guidance across the desert. It is one of the oldest solar observatories in existence, predating Stonehenge by millennia. 

About 7,000 and 3,600 years ago Goseck Circle and Nebra Sky Disk, Germany. 

Image by Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Goseck Circle in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, was discovered in 1991 and at around 7,000 years old is the oldest solar observatory in Europe. It consists of concentric rings of earthworks and wooden palisades with alignments to sunrise and sunset at the summer and winter Solstices. The full moon moves directly overhead at its zenith. 

The Nebra Sky Disk was found approximately 25km away from the Goseck Circle and is considered to be one of the first depictions of the cosmos. It is thought to be about 3,600 years old, although there is a certain amount of controversy surrounding its discovery by unauthorised metal detectorists who sold it on the black market. It is made from bronze, decorated with gold depictions of the constellation of Pleiades, plus discs and crescents representing the sun and moon. Some of the gold used was mined in Cornwall, and it will be available to view in the U.K. next year, in the World of Stonehenge at the British Museum. 

About 8,000 years ago Steppe Geoglyphs, Kazakhstan 

In 2007 Dimitry Dey, an amateur archaeologist using Google Earth discovered what have become known as the Steppe Geoglyphs in Kazakhstan. They comprise of more than 260 earthworks, some of which may have been used to track solar alignments, others having spiral and three-armed swastika designs. The swastika was a near-universal design associated with the sun before Nazism appropriated it. Estimates of the earliest date of construction for the earthworks are about 8,000 years before the present day. The construction of these earthworks change our conception of the culture of this area and time; from one of small bands of nomadic people to a society able to undertake building work requiring a huge communal investment of time and effort, requiring the organisation of people and resources from a large area. The Steppe Geoglyphs confirm the importance of celestial observation to human culture throughout time. 


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