The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy

Taught By Bradley E. Schaefer, Ph.D. Louisiana State University

In a world without artificial lights, the night sky was ablaze with over a thousand stars, whose patterns illustrated stories people had heard since childhood. Thus, ancient people viewed the sky differently than we do.

Skywatching was crucial to daily life, since the motions of the heavens served as timekeeper, calendar, compass, and almanac for planning when to plant and harvest. The perfect regularity of celestial cycles was the only guaranteed aspect of life and inspired a wide range of religious and philosophical views, as different cultures struggled to grasp the unseen forces that govern the cosmos.

Throughout ancient history, this was humanity’s experience of the Sun, Moon, planets, stars, and transient phenomena such as meteors, comets, and eclipses. And although the expert observers of that era didn’t realize it, their meticulous records and conjectures were laying the foundation for modern science.

Richly interdisciplinary, the subject of ancient astronomy encompasses archaeoastronomy, which is the study of how ancient monuments are oriented to the sky, but it also includes cosmology, mythology, mathematics, celestial mapping, astrology, divination, timekeeping, calendars, navigation, and ancient technology, among other fields. It is part science, part history, part archaeology, part cultural anthropology, and part detective story, since progress in the discipline depends on an astute reading of clues to unravel the complex relationship of ancient people with the sky.

If you’ve ever wondered how the ancient world saw the stars, The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy investigates each of these disciplines to give you unprecedented insight into the understanding of our first astronomers. In these dazzling and provocative 24 half-hour lectures presented by Professor Bradley E. Schaefer, a professional astronomer and multi-award-winning educator at Louisiana State University, you will see the sky like never before.

Designed for learners of all ages and backgrounds, these lectures are a visual delight, filled with clear and insightful graphics. For example, familiar Western constellations are contrasted with the very different systems of other cultures, and the star patterns of the Babylonians and Chinese are shown in detail not available elsewhere. Plus, animations demonstrate the celestial alignments of ancient monuments as well as the workings of ingenious devices such as the armillary sphere, astrolabe, and incomparable Antikythera mechanism.

Among the astronomical marvels of the ancient world are some celebrated puzzles that have generated many theories:

  • Stonehenge: This impressive prehistoric monument in southern England has an obvious alignment with sunrise on the summer solstice, but dozens of other celestial alignments have been suggested. Are they chance or intentional? And was the summer solstice the real focus of rituals at the site?
  • Great Pyramid of Giza: Ancient Egyptians built their largest pyramid oriented to the cardinal points—north, south, east, and west—with an accuracy of one-twentieth of a degree. This is astounding precision that would be challenging even with today’s GPS equipment. How did they do it?
  • Star of Bethlehem: In the Gospel of Matthew, the magi searching for the birthplace of Jesus came from the east, following a star “at its rising”; that is, in the east. This seeming contradiction is one of several astronomical problems with the passage, which may have found a recent surprising solution.
  • Antikythera mechanism: Discovered in 1901 aboard an ancient Roman shipwreck, this badly corroded bronze tool eventually proved to be an astonishingly versatile astronomical computer, arguably the most remarkable artifact in all of ancient science. Intriguing clues point to the identity of its designer.

Solve Age-Old Mysteries of the Sky

Professor Schaefer is a noted astrophysicist involved in cutting-edge research on the fate of the universe. His other passion is understanding how his long-ago predecessors observed and perceived the cosmos. In The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy, he takes you inside a worldview that knew nothing of telescopes, stars, or galaxies, yet was able to chart and predict the movements of the heavens. He puts modern theories about ancient astronomy to the test, separating the reasonable from the improbable; and he paves exciting new ground with his own detailed analyses addressing age-old mysteries. He particularly relishes working from scattered evidence to pinpoint when ancient observations and maps were made, including:

  • Chinese constellations: The phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes is like a carbon-dating tool for ancient astronomy. Professor Schaefer applies this 26,000-year wobble in the Earth’s axis of rotation to Chinese star groups, called lunar lodges, establishing that the system is about 5,000 years old.
  • Birthplace of Greek astronomy: Focusing on star lore surviving from a lost work by the Greek astronomer Eudoxus, Dr. Schaefer establishes a range of latitudes and dates corresponding to Eudoxus’s source. It turns out that he was almost surely using 800-year-old data from Mesopotamia.
  • Farnese Atlas: Atlas shoulders the celestial globe in this famous Roman copy of a vanished Hellenistic sculpture. Noting the implied positions of stars in the constellations, Professor Schaefer argues that the original must have utilized the long-lost star catalog of the great Greek astronomer Hipparchus.
  • Crucifixion of Jesus: The first sighting of the crescent Moon after new Moon marks the start of the month in the Jewish calendar. Professor Schaefer’s model for predicting lunar crescent visibility narrows down the possible dates for the crucifixion of Jesus, based on this data and clues in the New Testament.

See the Heavens the Way the Ancients Did

One of the rewards of studying the ancient world is witnessing how it has a direct bearing on our own time, for example in our inheritance of Greek philosophical ideas, Middle Eastern religions, and Roman political institutions. This is no less true in astronomy.

As you will learn in The Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy, observations made centuries ago, even without the aid of our advanced instruments, can be exceptionally valuable. Detailed eclipse data compiled by Babylonian, Greek, Chinese, Arab, and medieval European astronomers gives today’s scientists important insights into the changing dynamics of the Earth-Moon system. The English astronomer Edmund Halley used old data on comet sightings to discover that one particular comet, later named in his honor, returns to the inner Solar System at roughly 75-year intervals. And the complex physics of catastrophically exploding stars, called supernovae, is clarified by knowing exactly when the remnant cloud observed today originally detonated—information best supplied in centuries-old astronomical records.

Moreover, the experiences of the ancient skywatchers are open to everybody. You can travel to some of the many archaeoastronomy sites worldwide and see for yourself how their alignments work. You can watch an eclipse, or see a meteor shower, or track a planet moving against the stars, or invent your own set of constellations, or sight the thin crescent Moon low in the west. After learning all that a pair of eyes and patience can do (no equipment required!), you will appreciate the sky as our ancient ancestors did, as a spectacle that is endlessly entertaining, instructive, and awe-inspiring.

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