Archaeoastronomy in Europe

Archaeoastronomy in Europe

The existence of megalithic monuments widely spread in Europe suggested that astronomical observation was currently practised also in more ancient times, certainly before the Celtic culture flourished. Besides, the way the ancient European cultures, like the Greek one, considered and practiced astronomy was mostly oriented towards the pure philosophical speculation. It is well known the philosophical and speculative activities of the ancient Greeks concerning the description of the so-called "System of the World", and how it has affected the Western scientific and philosophical thought over centuries. Such a philosophical activity was mainly aimed to build models that explained the nature and the movement of the sky objects, but was not accompanied by a similarly efficient chronological and descriptive recording of the celestial phenomena.

Image: Halley's Comet depicted on the Bayeux tapestry (public domain, source: Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons).

Adriano Gaspani's researches concerning the Italian peninsula are currently focused on the ancient cultures from Northern and Central Italy, the astronomical criteria used for the layouts of the cities located in the Cisalpine areas, the survey and analys of the astronomical orientation and symbolism of the Christian churches and medieval castles. Further fields of researches are represented by the astronomy in the Celtic and Germanic cultures from proto-history until the Middle Ages, as well as the astronomical and cosmological knowledge spread in the ancient and medieval Ireland (please refer to the specific sections Astronomy of the Celts, Archaeoastronomy and Ireland, Archaeoastronomy and Italy to find out more).

Here below you can find Adriano Gaspani's contributions (mostly in Italian language) published on Historia Vivens Web. Texts and images, unless otherwise attributed, are provided by the Author himself, and are his copyright. Please note that, to ease the reading, all articles, in full version and accompanied by pictures and notes, are free to download in PDF format. We hope you will enjoy the contents and wish you a pleasant surfing. This section is constantly evolving, please come back often for the latest updates. Thank you!

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The Astronomy of the Vikings...

The Vikings are known as fierce warriors as well as very skilful sailors, but they were very skilful in Astronomy as well. This paper by Adriano Gaspani investigates the astronomical knowledge spread among the Scandinavian peoples between AD 800 and AD 1100 from the historical and archaeoastronomical point of view. The results show that astronomy was used for sailing, in designing the great ring-fortresses located on the Danish and Swedish lands, and also in building the funerary ritual stone-ships. The Vikings developed a number of efficient luni-solar calendars, one of which has remained in use, in Iceland, up to 1930.

Image: a Viking drakkar, screenshot from the 1958 movie "The Vikings".

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

Merlin the wizard and the Comet

In his "Historia Regum Britanniae" the Welsh cleric Gaufridus Monmemutensis (Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1100-1155 AD) tells about a comet visible in the sky at a time when, in Winchester, the king Aurelius Ambrosius was treacherously poisoned. The description of the comet, that also Merlin, the legendary wizard, observed and interpreted, raises many questions because of its great accuracy matching the astronomical reality. Merlin interpreted the comet as the sign of the death of Aurelius Ambrosius to the benefit of his son Uther Pendragon, the father of the famous King Arthur. 

Image: a drawing of the comet observed over Germany and Wales in year 1007 AD, ca 1552, unknown author (public domain, source: "Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch" via Wikimedia Commons).

Gaufridus, in Historia VIII, 14, writes: “During these transactions at Winchester, there appeared a star of wonderful magnitude and brightness, darting forth a ray, at the end of which was a globe of fire in form of a dragon, out of whose mouth issued forth two rays; one of which seemed to stretch out itself beyond the extent of Gaul, the other towards the Irish Sea, and ended in seven lesser rays.” This description is indeed very interesting and perfectly adherent to the astronomical reality, but also virtually impossible to obtain with the documents and observation tools available at that time. This raises an interesting question concerning the sources eventually consulted by Gaufridus in relation to the comet...

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The Lascaux Caves (France): the first map of the sky?

The Lascaux caves complex, located in the Dordogne region of southwestern France, contain some of the oldest and finest prehistoric rock art with its walls and ceilings amazingly decorated with about 600 painted figures and 1,500 engravings. Therefore the Lascaux caves are worldwide known as the "Cathedrals of the Palaeolithic", or also the "Sistine Chapel" of Prehistory, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

Image: view of the Great Hall of the Bulls (copyright and source: The Vezere Valley webportal).

This outstanding archaeological site, however, represents also a major enigma for scholars... what was the purpose of the cave wonderful paintings? What does the sequence of figures of animals lined on the walls symbolize?... The answer to this question involves the analysis of the main aspects and features within the religious and magical beliefs of the Upper Palaeolithic cultures, but also the archaeoastronomical research... the Lascaux Caves are supposed to contain the oldest, most likely the very first, astronomical depiction created by the mankind, an ancient map of the night sky, according to some scholars who correlate the patterns of the non-figurative images, precisely the painted dots, with various constellations…  

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The Nebra Sky Disc (Germany): measuring the astronomical phenomena...

Many archaeological objects witness the intimate relationship between the sky, the calendar and the religion within the ancient civilizations. This is also the case of the Nebra sky disk, one of the most fascinating, sophisticated and mysterious artefacts of the Bronze Age (a period between 3200 and 600 BC), which is considered to be one of the oldest concrete depiction of cosmic phenomena worldwide. The disc, today kept at the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, was ritually buried along with two precious swords, two axes, two spiral arm-rings and one bronze chisel circa 3,600 years ago on the Mittelberg near Nebra (Saxony-Anhalt state, Germany).

Image: a mock representation of the Nebra sky disc and the hoard of other artefacts found with it (copyright and source: 4tuneQkie-Flickr).

The bronze disk has a diameter of about 32 cm, weighs around 2,2 kg, and contains, in gold foil, the likely figure of the Sun, the crescent moon and a set of 32 small disks that could represent the stars. This extraordinary artefact has been included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2013, an international initiative launched to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity, and is regarded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century, but it still raises many questions about its real function...

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The Mystery of Externsteine (Germany): time measurement by the ancient Germans…

This article illustrates the astronomical significance and symbolism of the ancient Saxon sanctuary of Externsteine, a fascinating sandstone pillar-like rock formation located deep in the majestic Teutoburg Forest, one of the most attractive places in Germany, and historically considered the sacred territory of the Germanic tribes. Externsteine is also known as the "German Stonehenge", not only for being the most important megalithic site in Germany, but also for its imposingness and the special archaeoastronomical significance.

Image: a photochrom print of the Externsteine site, ca. 1890s (public domain, source: U.S. Library of Congress).

The archaeoastronomical study of the Externsteine site carried out by the Author clearly shows that the proto-Germanic tribes perfectly knew the lunistices and used them to handle the time measurement and calendar construction. Besdies, the Externsteine site has long been a sacred place of worship and astronomical observation aimed at the efficient management of the calendar not only during the Germanic Iron Age, but probably even during the Middle Ages....

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The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (Germany) and the sky

September 9, 9 AD, northern Germany: in the deep, dark Teutoburg Forest an alliance of Germanic tribes in revolt massacre, in a fierce ambush, three of the best legions of Rome and their auxiliaries led by Roman general and politician Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC-9 AD). The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, also named "clades Variana" (the Varian disaster) by ancient historians, is regarded as Rome's greatest defeat and one of the most decisive battles in history. After that Rome gave definitely up any further attempt to conquer the territories beyond the river Rhine.

Image: Roman legionaries reenactors on the march in the Teutoburg Forest (source: BBC news).

Much has been said and written about this dramatic episode in the history of Imperial Rome, but what was to be seen in the sky that year? And which effects the astronomical phenomena had on the decisions of the Germanic chiefs?... We know that there was a certain uniformity of views between the ancient Celts and Germans, during the Iron Age, in terms of astronomical knowledge: both cultures considered the moon important to measure the time and mark the important dates, but while the Celts considered more the first quarter phase, the Germans focused more on the main lunar phases, such as the full moon and the new moon, with the last one regarded as one of the most important and favorable phases of the whole lunar synodic cycle...

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The Christian Easter according to the Medieval "Computus"

Easter is the most important Christian feast, it represents and celebrates the three key moments of the Christian Faith, i.e. the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter and the related holidays are known as moveable feasts, as their date varies from year to year being correlated with the lunar cycle. In other words Easter does not fall on a fixed date in the Gregorian or Julian calendars (both following the cycle of the sun and the seasons), but the exact date for Easter is determined on a lunisolar calendar similar to the Hebrew calendar.

Image: Passion Play of Romagnano Sesia, Italy (copyright: Historia Vivens). 

The rule fixing the date of Easter was established at the First Council of Nicaea, held in 325 AD and chaired by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The Council agreed that Easter falls on the Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox, which is set at 21 March. So, the calculation should respect all together some lunar (the moon), solar (the spring equinox), and liturgical (Sunday) constraints. Later on, in 525 AD, Dionysius the Humble (c. 470–c. 544 AD, a monk and the inventor of the Anno Domini, AD, era) defined the exact period of the year within which it had to fall, that is, between March 22 and April 25. Nevertheless, it took several centuries before a common method was accepted throughout Christendom, and during the Early Middle Ages coexisted different methods used to determine when the Christian communities should celebrate the Easter...

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The Astronomical Orientation of the Christian Churches

Since the dawn of Christianity churches, temples, and any other sacred places, have been traditionally built facing the East, precisely towards the rising sun ("Versus Solem Orientem" in Latin), because for the Christians the salvation and the rebirth were linked to the general cardinal direction of East, reflecting the cosmic sign of the rising sun which symbolizes the universality of God. Jesus Christ had as His symbol the Sun (Sol Justitiae, Sol Invictus, Sol Salutis), and the East direction was symbolized by the cross itself, which symbolizes the victory.

Image: view of the Cistercian Abbey of Morimondo, Italy (copyright and source: Rotary Club Morimondo Abbazia).

Such a solar symbolism so deeply linked to Jesus Christ required a quite careful design of places of worship and an alike careful orientation of them with respect to the fundamental astronomical directions...

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

The Prophecy of Theoclymenus in the Odissey: an eclipse?

Historians, philologists, astronomers, and scholars of classical texts have long been searching for traces of astronomical events occurred in the Antiquity and possibily described, although cryptically, in ancient literary works. The observation of astronomical phenomena has been supposed to be traced also the Odyssey, one of two major ancient Greek epic poems traditionally attributed to the Greek poet Homer. and the second oldest extant work of Western literature after the Iliad. The poem mainly focuses on Odysseus (also known by the Latin name Ulysses), the Greek king of Ithaca and hero of the ten-year Trojan War, and his eventful 10-year voyage back to his home after the fall of Troy.

Image “Ulysses and the Sirens”, a 1909 oil painting by English Classicist painter Herbert James Draper (1863/4-1920). Public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons.

During his long absence Odysseus is believed to be dead, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors, the Mnesteres or Proci, who compete for Penelope's hand in marriage. Toward the end of the story, a seer named Theoclymenus prophecies the death of the suitors at Odysseus' hands, ending his speech with the statement "The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world." Odysseus kills the suitors not long thereafter...

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Ötzi, the Sumerians, the Camunni and the Köfels impact event (Austria)

This article illustrates the hypothesis proposed by the British engineers Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell in 2008, according to which an ancient Sumerian clay tablet in the British Museum cuneiform collection No K8538 and known as “the Planisphere” recorded an asteroid impact occurred in the Austrian Alps on 29 June 3123 BC near the village of Köfels. In their monograph “A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels' Impact Event” the authors provide the first comprehensive translation of the tablet, claiming as well that the Köfels impact event inspired several myths from the Past, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah...

Image: a possibile secondary impact crater on the top of the Felderkogel mount on the opposite side of the valley from mount Gamskogel near Köfels (copyright and source: “A Sumerian Observation of the Kofels' Impact Event” - Alan Bond, Mark Hempsell).

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

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