Archaeoastronomy - Egypt

I had the pleasure of speaking at the 2004 annual conference of the American Research Center in Egypt in Tucson, April 17, 2004. I discussed the relative lack of attention that archaeoastronomy receives in Egyptian studies. There was an entire session this year dedicated to archaeoastronomy- a very positive sign.

You can read my paper here, or download a PDF version.

Pyramid of Menkaure
Pyramid of Menkaure. This is the smallest of the pyramids at the Giza complex, and was built c. 2540 BCE. Perhaps more than any other ancient structures, the Pyramids have captured popular imagination. They have certainly been responsible for more pseudoscientific nonsense than any other archaeological sites. From those who believe they could only have been created with the assistance of extraterrestrials, to those who believe them to be over 10,000 years old, to those who see faces in the sand in aerial photos, Egypt is a crackpot magnet. And the reality? Many lines of evidence exist to accurately date the Pyramids and to suggest the very human engineering techniques that produced them. There are no special numerical relationships within their structures. Other than the cultural details we can infer from them, we can say only that these ancient people possessed good surveying skills, and were able to align the Pyramids with reasonable accuracy along the cardinal directions. One likely method they may have used for doing this involves using reference stars known to indicate true north. It is well known that the Egyptians possessed a fairly sophisticated calendar, and were aware of the relationship between certain stars and the solstices and equinoxes, so the ability to use the stars to ascertain directions is very believable.
Astronomical Ceiling
The ceiling of the tomb of Ramesses VI (1143-1136 BCE). The ceiling depicts Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky. The path of the sun through the day and night skies is depicted, seen as the red disk born from Nut's loins and traveling along the length of her body (to the left of the picture) to be swallowed in the evening . The empty solar barque returns beneath her body (to the right of the picture) at night to begin the cycle again the next morning.

The ancient Egyptians had a well developed understanding of the movement to the stars, which they used to create several accurate calendar systems. Astronomy was a means to an end: the prediction of the annual flooding of the Nile, and numerous astrological indicators depended upon accurate knowledge of the skies. No real science of astronomy existed then as we would now recognize it.

© Copyright 2004, Chris L Peterson. All rights reserved.