Archaeoastronomy, Cultures

Adriano Gaspani: Astronomy of the Ancient Civilizations

Welcome to the Archaeoastronomy pages on Historia Vivens Web! Adriano Gaspani accompanies us, through his easy-to-read though always scientifically accurate articles, on a fascinating journey into the astronomical observations practiced by the people in the past. The analysis and interpretation of the archaeological findings and sites, combined with the study of myths and accounts passed down through the ages, reveal the great importance played by astronomy and astrology among different ancient cultures all around the world.

Image: Adriano Gaspani with a 1:1 scale replica of the Nebra sky disk. 

The observation of the sky with its phenomena has invariably played a key role in the social and cultural development of the various ancient civilizations worldwide, since the Palaeolithic Age. The observation of the sky was a common activity among the people of the ancient world, and almost all cultures held in high regard the observation of the sky and its phenomena, as it is also witnessed by the large amount of historic testimonies and archaeological finds linked in some way to the astronomical observations, with the first astronomical objects being painted on the walls of caves already 30.000 years ago. The types of observations and the celestial objects specifically observed depended greatly on the cultural and religious characteristics of the various civilizations, as well as by their geographical location. It is well known in fact that the visible sky is different as seen from one location or another, according to the geographical latitude.

Thanks to a wide selection of well detailed and easily explained case studies concerning archaeological finds and sites that have proved to be particularly interesting and significant from an astronomical point of view, Adriano Gaspani takes us on an interesting journey to the six continents of our world and to different historical eras...

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The Ancient Cultures and the sky

One of the means used to establish the cultural level reached by an ancient civilization is represented by the investigation of how the knowledge in the mathematics and astronomy fields has been achieved and transferred. This is because stylistic motives, religious or philosophical doctrines may be developed independently by a culture and travel then great distances through a wide number of dissemination processes, while the more complicate astronomical methods usually require the use of scientific treatises in order to be spread from one culture to another. The observation of the sky has invariably played a key role in the social and cultural development of the ancient civilizations, already starting from the Palaeolithic Age, and many later cultures worldwide had at least some rudimentary knowledge of the celestial vault and astronomical alignments. Surely such an observation activity is easy to imagine, and after all it is not surprising that the sky with its phenomena has caught the curious and fearful interest of the mankind since the mists of time.

Image: the Kudurru (a type of stone document) of King Melishipak I (1186–1172 BC) presenting his daughter to the goddess Nannaya seated on a throne. The crescent moon represents the god Sin, the sun the Shamash and the star the goddess Ishtar. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The equipment with which the sky observations were performed was an extremely rudimentary one, and mostly limited to sights and pointers made of wood or stone, sometimes quite large, like the many megalithic monuments still existing in Northern and Atlantic Europe. The usage that normally the ancient people made of their astronomical observations broadly varied depending on the cultural characteristics of the different civilizations to which they belonged. The sky objects observed were mainly the Sun, the Moon, as well as the brightest planets and stars visible to the naked eye in certain seasonal periods. And it was just the cycle of the seasons that was soon put in relation with the celestial events, which regularly occurred according to a precise frequency, thus working as a safe and reliable predictive tool to effectively deal with the agricultural and pastoral deadlines.

SethiIsoffastron

The celestial phenomena that were kept strictly under control were mainly the periodical ones, such as for example, the recurring sequence of the moon phases, or the annual return of the Sun at the winter and summers solstices. In addition to these phenomena, that were especially useful for the purposes of the time measurement and calendar, the agricultural planning, and the religion, other sky phenomena spactaculatly characterized were observed by the ancient cultures and mainly considered from a ritual point of view, such as the solar eclipses, especially the total ones, which, even in relatively recent times, were often interpreted as omens of doom. A very important astronomical phenomenon often observed by the ancient astronomers was the so-called heliacal rising of the stars, that can be roughly defined as the first day of visibility of a star in the light of dawn above the eastern horizon.

Image: detail of the frescos on the "astronomical" ceiling of the tomb of Senenmut, a 15th century BC Egyptian chief architect and government official under pharaoh Hatshepsut. The tomb ceiling represents the earliest known star map in ancient Egypt (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons).

The Seven Skies, or The World Above...

For the ancient cultures it was the Sky to mark the cycles of nature and the rhythm of work, thus being made soon also the home of their gods. Since the earliest times, all cultures, with no distinction, have questioned about the origin and nature of the Universe, with the astral phenomena playing a key role in their social and ritual daily life, much more than for us today. Not only the mankind then lived in a more intimate contact with Nature, as part of it, but it also happened the observation of certain astronomical phenomena, thanks to their periodical recurrence, provided the basis for time measurement and calendar construction, both indispensable with the gradual development of agriculture...

Image: artistic portrayal of human curiosity and Biblical cosmology, known as the Flammarion wood engraving, and published in the book “L'Atmosphère: Météorologie Populaire” (1888) by French astronomer and author Camille Flammarion (1842-1925). The engraving was recoloured in 1998 by Hugo Heikenwaelder (source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic).

You can download here the full article (in Italian) in PDF format:

Archaeoastronomy in Europe

A selection of articles by Adriano Gaspani about his Archaeoastronomy researches and studies in the European continent: archaeological and megalithic sites, alignments, architectures, artefacts, petroglyphs, pictographs, beliefs, written records, ethnographies and other source materials providing information about the astronomical practices of the ancient cultures from Europe...

Image: “Stonehenge", photochrom by Photoglob Zürich AG, ca. 1895 (public domain, source: The US Library of Congress photochrom prints collection via Multichill/Wikimedia Commons).

Please click on the image to access the relevant webpage.

Archaeoastronomy in the Americas

A selection of articles by Adriano Gaspani about his Archaeoastronomy researches and studies in North and South American continents: archaeological and megalithic sites, alignments, architectures, artefacts, petroglyphs, pictographs, beliefs, written records, ethnographies and other source materials providing information about the astronomical practices of the ancient cultures from the Americas...

Image: “Cliff Palace”, Mesa Verde (Colorado, USA), photochrom print, ca. 1936 (public domain, source: The US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons).

Please click on the image to access the relevant webpage.

Archaeoastronomy in Asia

A selection of articles by Adriano Gaspani about his Archaeoastronomy researches and studies in the Asian continent: archaeological and megalithic sites, alignments, architectures, artefacts, petroglyphs, pictographs, beliefs, written records, ethnographies and other source materials providing information about the astronomical practices of the ancient cultures from Asia...

Image: facade view of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia (copyright: Sandro Prato Previde; source: Il Milione Encyclopaedia, 1962, Istituto Geografico de Agostini, Novara).

Please click on the image to access the relevant webpage.

Archaeoastronomy in Oceania

A selection of articles by Adriano Gaspani about his Archaeoastronomy researches and studies in the Oceania continent: archaeological and megalithic sites, alignments, architectures, artefacts, petroglyphs, pictographs, beliefs, written records, ethnographies and other source materials providing information about the astronomical practices of the ancient cultures from the wide Pacific area...

Image: view of the Pao Pao village and bay on the island of Mo'orea (French Polynesia Archipelago), 1950s postcard (public domain, source: Jane Resture Oceania web portal).

Please click on the image to access the relevant webpage.

Archaeoastronomy in Africa

A selection of articles by Adriano Gaspani about his Archaeoastronomy researches and studies in the African continent: archaeological and megalithic sites, alignments, architectures, artefacts, petroglyphs, pictographs, beliefs, written records, ethnographies and other source materials providing information about the astronomical practices of the ancient cultures from Africa...

Image: “Cairo, the Pyramids”, undated photochrom print (public domain, source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints & Photographs, The New York Public Library).

Please click on the image to access the relevant webpage.

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Images: All images on this page are public domain or provided by the Author himself unless otherwise stated.

 

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